5 Cheap Ideas for Your Container Garden This Summer
Look, it’s Pride, and Pride is for and about gay people, and this month, I am here to suggest that we cultivate small moments of queer joy for ourselves, in our homes, that will last all summer, maybe into fall, maybe all year, well past the end of Pride month. Because we are here all year! These small moments of joy can look any way. They don’t have to be related to gardening at all, but because gardening is a way that I care for myself and my mental health, I’m sharing some recommendations for ways we can start container gardens this summer, and raise little plants that we can care for and watch grow. You might know that I am a huge proponent of vegetable gardening, and that I do in fact have a backyard vegetable garden in the city of Pittsburgh, just minutes from downtown where I routinely have to work around our urban deer population. What we don’t normally talk about though, are the plants that one can grow on their porch, patio, balcony, rooftop, windowbox or otherwise small outdoor space. So, I’m going to focus here on container gardening. Not everyone has access to a place where they can garden, but there are numerous studies that demonstrate that gardening of any kind can be beneficial to our mental health. So, listen, my queer friend, I am all for the folks in our community accessing this means to balancing our many emotions and cultivating small pockets of joy in our homes. If you’re looking for ideas for container gardening, no matter how small your space, this is for you!
You’re not going to find expensive or rare houseplants on this list, so if that’s what you’re looking for, that is not here. I went to buy more potting soil for the first time this year just yesterday, and you know what? The price had doubled over last year! Things are expensive enough without getting precious about our plants. I literally rescued one of the plants I’m going to talk about from the sidewalk in front of an abandoned house on my street and that was 100% free to do. You don’t even have to buy a planter! I’d check out whatever you’re thinking of re-using before doing so, but also, if you’re not planning on eating whatever you’re planting, the sky’s the limit. I love to re-use my girlfriend’s plastic pretzel containers as planters, for example. Doing a few searches to make sure there aren’t dangerous chemicals that can leech into the potted soil is a good practice, but then, as long as you don’t care about aesthetics or if you’re feeling crafty and like you can jazz up a re-used planter, the startup costs here can be minimal. If you don’t have access to any or already have it, you will need to spend money on potting soil, and on whatever plants or seeds you do want to buy to put in your DIY gardening containers.
What I am focusing on here are ideas for directions you can take your container gardening in small spaces that are versatile in their use or useful in some way, that are relatively easy to come by or care for, and that are going to have the potential to thrive in a container garden. You’ll have to do some independent research, depending on your climate, to further narrow down what may or may not grow for you.
Local Flowers in Your Window Box, Balcony, or Small Outdoor Space
First of all, if you don’t have a window box, you should be able to buy one at your typical big box hardware or gardening store, maybe at your local gardening store (I recommend you try that first), or, we can always turn to the great university of YouTube to figure out how to DIY a window box for local flowers or any of the following plants! Why do I recommend local flowers for a window box or small outdoor space, as opposed to a completely indoor option? For the pollinators! Your local blossoms are going to feed and nourish bees, butterflies, and an assortment of other winged creatures in addition to your own heart.
A note on [allegedly] “re-homing” plants from a wild area. Do not take anything that is the only one of its kind. Do you see more than ten of the same plant in one area? You should be okay to take one. Do not mess with any endangered species (use your phone to double check!), and do follow the rules of any park that you’re in and don’t grab things that other people are growing (should go without saying, but…). Many parks, including national parks, do not allow for removal of their plants. If I’m rehoming things, it is more often than not, from an abandoned lot or liminal space on the side of the road. Do not eat anything from the side of the road, though! This is because you can ingest lead and other toxins that way. Okay, forewarning done!
But, Nicole, you say, local, native flowers are kind of not that exciting or pretty. And I would say, not true! So, this is all going to depend on your region, so I’d do your research, but where I live, there are wild violets everywhere, for example. They’re pretty, purple, fragrant, and edible. You could also buy these violet seeds that claim they bloom all season long. The wild ones in my yard only bloom for a limited time, but would make a great, annual, addition to a window box that has several plants in it that bloom at different times throughout the spring and summer. You could also grow some bee balm. Not only is it edible, it also basically thrives on neglect. I just want you to be able to look at your tiny container garden, and even if you can’t manage to harvest the bee balm itself, to just have the pleasure of watching bees and other pollinators visit this plant.
There are some tools for finding native plants specific to your location. Look at this tool that’s in beta that ranks local plants by the number of species that rely on them! You can find native plant lists for your state here, find your local Native Plant Society, check in with local master gardeners, and more!
Grow Culinary Herbs In Your Small Container Garden
Growing culinary herbs is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to bring yourself more joy, liven up your living space, and also save some money — ALL AT THE SAME TIME. They are also a great choice if you won’t have much access to pollinators where you’re planting these because the majority don’t need to be pollinated in order to be used, by you, in your queer culinary adventures.
In terms of varieties, there is so much to explore. Much like Kayla, I am a huge proponent of growing basil! But beyond that, I cannot recommend growing oregano enough. That stuff is also incredibly versatile, and I feel like fresh just packs so much more flavor than dried. Oregano is used in a ton of different cuisines, and can help you take some of your more affordable go-to meals to the next level. As an example, we make a homemade spaghetti sauce from some canned tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, salt and honey — and adding fresh oregano makes it taste like it’s actually something. It’s also relatively hardy and is an perennial which means it comes back year after year. I would consider basil (an annual) to be a little bit more difficult to grow than oregano, if you’re just starting out in terms of caring for plants and are looking for something you are less likely to kill, maybe go with oregano. You should be able to get some oregano starts at your local gardening store, or because it tends to really take off, maybe you can ask a friend who has some oregano if you can have a small section of their plant. We were actually gifted our oregano in this way.
Culinary herbs are such an unbelievably broad category, that there are countless books on growing kitchen herbs, growing and preserving herbs, and growing and preserving culinary herbs from a homesteader’s perspective. I do recommend researching how to preserve some of your herbs, because your own personal dried herbs are definitely going to taste better than whatever’s been sitting on the grocery store shelves for who-knows-how-long. An extremely basic way that I do it is by taking a length of twine and two bundles of herbs that are about as much as I can grasp in my fist. In the case of basil, I’d have the whole plant, and in the case of oregano, I’d have as much of the stem as possible included for this method. Then, I take the twine and tie it around one of the herb bundles on the one end, and around the other herb bundle on the other. Now you have a length of twine with one bundle of herbs, hanging upside down on each end. Then, what I usually do is hang it from one of the nails above any of my doorways where the previous owners used to hang a cross. You could hang this anywhere that is decently far from windows and has good air circulation. In about 2 weeks or when the herbs are completely dry, take them down and crush, crumble or grind the usable parts up and put them in jars. Are you one of those queer people who keeps cleaning and saving glass jars? NOW IS THEIR TIME TO SHINE!
Finally, growing less common (items not typically available in US supermarkets, is how I am defining this here) herbs can be ultra rewarding. I grew some horehound from seed last year in my herb container garden and it has come back to join me again this year! Last year, I mostly made simple syrups with it for making my own sodas, but it’s an herb traditionally used in candy-making, so maybe this year I will actually make some other sweets with it? Who knows! It has a flavor that is kind of like rootbeer + menthol, if you’re considering it.
In terms of building up a single container garden or a few small containers, your herb choices are your own and all depend on your goals. Do you want to not have to buy herbs from the grocery store this summer? Do you want to experiment with less readily-available flavors? Do you want to construct a window box solely around the goal of making syrups for your coldbrew coffee? I made a mint and lemon balm simple the other day and it’s actually amazing? You could grow mint, lavender, horehound, and honestly I’d throw strawberries into this simple syrup container garden, but that’s getting ahead of things. There aren’t really any wrong choices here. You do you!
Here is a completely incomplete list of culinary herbs you can grow in containers (it’s most of them) that you should be able to find starts of at a gardening store:
- cilantro / coriander (I have difficulty with this one, but a warmer climate may have more success)
- lavender (I also have difficulty with lavender and so do my neighbors, but again a warmer, drier climate may see more success)
In terms of growing from seed, in addition to horehound, I’ve also grown my own fennel, and have saved the seeds to make tea. Again, your space and your desires for your container garden are your only limits here.
You Can Grow Medicinal Herbs (And Herbs For Purposes Other Than Eating, Such as Smelling) At Home, Too!
Now, I’m not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice. And, before using any herbs for medicinal use, you should consult with your doctor because they can have all kinds of complications with preexisting conditions and medications. Wikipedia points out that “Cancer Research UK caution that there is no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of herbal remedies for cancer,” so, again, there is a real hard limit here as to what plants can do outside of modern medicine. Also, you might be individually allergic to what is generally considered a relatively safe plant. Usually, when doing research, you can find a sort of “if you’re allergic to X, be careful about trying Y” kind of explanation for the plant. I like to test for allergies by thoroughly rubbing the plant into my inner wrist and waiting a day to see if there’s any reaction, but again, that’s no fool-proof at all. That’s just a personal level of comfort I have. Please do be careful! That said, once you’ve checked your boxes, talked to your doctor, done your research, and decided that you want to grow your own herbs for medicinal (or I’m also going to shoehorn spiritual purposes in here), I don’t see why not. I certainly do it, and when I do, it’s for your more common everyday ailments, stuff you would take over-the-counter meds for, not see a doctor for.
In terms of my own medicinal herbs that I grow in my container garden, I just harvested a valerian plant that is currently drying in a doorway. Valerian can be habit forming and also has been shown to have poor interactions with folks who have liver conditions, so again, caution. I use it only very occasionally to deal with muscle spasm or pain, usually in my back. You know that thing where you twist your back wrong and now it’s hell on earth? I use it when I’m dealing with that. Additionally, I plan to grow some feverfew this year because my partner bought some feverfew migraine bitters from a witch friend of hers and they actually work for her. So, again, it’s about learning from our individual bodies and determining from there. I also grow yarrow in one of my containers, which I use to make an iced tea for an upset stomach.
You can also grow medicinal herbs for topical use. An especially interesting application for this would be making your own toners and such! All the same cautions apply because, look, you don’t want to put something on your face if you’re allergic to it, so make sure you get dot your I’s and cross your T’s with this. Though I’ve never done this in any way beyond making a tea with something, letting it cool, and applying to my face, it does seem like it would be fun to pursue making more shelf-stable toners and skincare items. You can grow witch hazel in a container, for example. Does anyone do this or make their own herbal toners? I’d love to hear about it!
Finally, I don’t know where to put this, but it falls under: herbs for other reasons! One such reason to grow herbs in your container garden might be scent alone. My girlfriend plans to turn a large part of our lemonbalm harvest into candles this year because it contains citronella. She’s going to have to infuse the lemonbalm into avocado oil and then mix that with wax and pour into molds (old jars again!) with wicks to make candles and that sounds like an excellent use of that plant because one can really never have too many citronella candles in the summer. You can definitely grow lemon balm in a container! It’s very hardy. Another herb I grow is mugwort, which I burn (dried) in little herb wands for spiritual reasons. It’s a common herb that is native across Europe and Asia and northern North America, but it also spreads easily, and I found some growing along the sidewalk outside an abandoned house just up the street. Technically, it’s edible and commonly eaten across the world, but it’s also, at the same time, toxic. So, I am not going to advise that you eat it (although the reason I’ve re-homed a plant that is an invasive weed and put it in a container is explicitly so that I can grow it in guaranteed-lead-free soil for my own personal culinary/medicianl use), but I am going to advise that if you do, you look into how to do so safely. People eat and have eaten plently of toxic or partially toxic plants, but that doesn’t mean doing so can’t have health consequences! Especially and specifically, pregnant people should not ingest this plant as it can induce miscarriage. Warning’s over so here are two facts: Second-to-last fun fact about mugwort is that it is one of the ingredients believed to have been traditionally included in witches’ flying ointment, because it allegedly has some hallucinogenic properties, which, again, you can look into if that interests you. Final fun fact about mugwort is that it was used in brewing beer before people started putting hops in beer. Facts! I love to list them!
You could, honestly, cultivate an entire container garden of herbs that you use just for the purpose of scenting candles and oils, or that you plan to include in simmer pots or to burn for their scent. A lot of the culinary herbs discussed above, can also double as herbs you can grow for their scents. If you’re not much of a cook but want to have things that smell nice around you, this might be a good route to consider for your container garden.
If you’re wondering where to get started with medicinal herbs, this is an area where I really do recommend you check out some books on the subject. Luckily, your local library likely has more than a few reference books on growing herbs and herbal medicine, so I recommend starting with a couple from there and cross-referencing the info you find, narrowing it down to a few herbs you want to try. If anyone has any favorite books on the subject, I hope you’ll share them in the comments!
Cute Fruits You Can Grow In Containers
FRUITS! You might be thinking…like a lemon tree or a fig tree? And yes, you can grow a lemon tree in a container, or a fig tree, and a lot of people do, but I really know very little about fruit trees! Mostly, I’m going to talk to you about some easy, small fruits that are not trees and that you can grow in small-ish to medium-ish containers in your container garden.
First up, we have strawberries. These babies are actually perennials. You can grow them from seed or you can get them as starts from your local greenhouse / garden shop. They’re very common, so I imagine you won’t have too hard a time finding them. I was afraid that my grown-from-seed strawberry patch wouldn’t make it through the winter, but it is currently thriving, so I am going to say, if you’ve got the climate for it, don’t be afraid to try growing strawberries from seed. I did not get a ton of strawberries the first year, but as with many perennial fruits, year two is looking like it’s going to be a good one. It might be a little late this year to start from seed, so I do recommend going and getting some pre-grown strawberry starts. These cuties do need pollinators in order to grow their fruit, but if you have access to an outdoor space where you can set these, I know a number of people who successfully grow strawberries in containers, and you can, too! Plus, any strawberry connoisseur knows that home-grown strawberries have 10,000% the flavor of store-bought, so your joy-to-effort ratio is super high here. If you don’t grow enough strawberries to reasonably, eat, too, there are ways to extend their flavor. You can make a strawberry syrup that you can put on ice cream or in mocktails or cocktails, OR you can make homemade strawberry ice cream with them, that way, the few strawberries that dot your little batch of ice cream will have been just enough. Although technically a vegetable, I also want to note that after three years of this plant pouting, I am *fingers crossed* successfully growing rhubarb in a container, which means you can, too. Will I make vegan strawberry rhubarb ice cream this year with the ice cream maker I got from goodwill? Only time will tell. This are the first recommendation on this list because I am pretty sure you should be able to grow strawberries in most spaces, including a window box.
Next, you have huckleberries! These are native North American plants, and are related to tomatoes, actually. I’ve seen it recommended that you’ll eventually need to put these in the ground in subsequent years if they survive the winter, but you can grow them for 1-2 years in containers, and some people do think you can grow them indefinitely if you have a large enough container. I started mine from seed last year and I got enough fruit from them to use as a compote for pancakes a few times. (You could also just put them directly in the pancakes). They also started growing whole new plants from random dropped berries that then fruited well into the fall, so if you want to start some huckleberries from seed right now, I honestly don’t think it’s too late. Note: you have to cook huckleberries. Don’t eat them raw!! These plants are on the bigger side (ironic because the berries are so wee), but if you wanted a fun, annual berry that is tart and not too sweet and has a gorgeous purple color, and you have the space, why not?
You can also try ground cherries. Ground cherries grow pretty quickly from seed, but you also might be able to get transplants. Good Housekeeping apparently recommends just about four plants per household. These are nice because once they mature, you’re going to be picking fruit from them most days through the fall. When I grew the Aunt Molly’s variety last year in containers, I was picking a handful of ground cherries a day from two small plants for a while there. I should note that I’m not currently growing any because, honestly, my girlfriend didn’t like them, and when there is limited garden space, you gotta grow what you like! They have a less sweet-than-commercial-fruit flavor and an almost, tomato flesh texture and are also high in pectin so are great for preserving. They grow in husks much like tomatillos. I really like them!
It’s also possible to grow blueberries in pots. And these fuckers are so expensive, so if you’re trying to grow fruit at home, this might be good to consider! Like raspberries and blackberries, you need at least two separate bushes in order to fruit, so make sure you have enough space for both of them near each other. It’s kind of cute, right? I think of them as being in love. Two blueberry bushes should be plenty for one household and though you might have to hunt around, you should be able to find some blueberry plants at local nurseries. Usually, these cost a bit more than your average transplant (I’ve usually seen about $16 for a young plant, but it depends on what you have in your area). Honestly, because blueberries like so much drainage, if you have soil with a lot of clay in it like I do, growing them in a container might be a better bet than trying to grow them in the ground!
Dwarf and Otherwise Small Vegetable Varieties
Now, I note in both of my other two gardening articles, which veggies you might be able to grow in containers. Outside of huge vegetables like corn, or very large squash plants, I honestly think that a lot of vegetables are suited to container gardening. I have a vibrant memory of standing with my grandma on a warm day on her back porch. She grew a ton of vegetables out back and practiced all kinds of traditional canning, drying and preservation techniques to feed her family. She’d set up a trellis all along the back side of that porch and below it, containers in which she’d planted what I think were sugar snap peas. She had me hold my finger very still near one of the seeking, gripping tendrils of one of the plants until it wound around my little, child’s finger, and then she showed me how to take that curled tendril and wrap it around a part of the trellis to train the plant to grow there. So, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t grow full-sized veggies on your balcony or porch or what-have-you if you’ve got a good setup for that, but here, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to think small. We are growing smaller-than-normal sized veggies in small containers.
First, I think container gardens are ideal for your shade-loving greens. Your lettuces, kales, arugulas, bok choys are all going to do much better if you can give them some shade, and when I grow these, I tend to move them around and out of too-direct sunlight, depending on the weather. These are great to grow if you have nothing but shade! Seriously! They’ll do much better. Every year, I go to the nursery and get a small tray of lettuce starts because I have trouble getting them to sprout from seed reliably and then I keep them in containers in shade, often well into July. They’ll also do well if you start these up in the fall and you can even grow them under protection like a glass cold box or lil mini greenhouse well into late fall and the winter. For lettuce varieties, if you pick leaves from the outside in and only harvest a little from each plant at a time, you can keep these going and your salads incredibly fresh for weeks and weeks. Queers love salads, yes? Imagine the joy of a fresh salad you literally just picked! If you are looking for a simple way to grow a few veggies in a container in limited space, I sincerely feel that greens may be for you.
Second, did you know that there are dwarf varieties of some plants? Like this dwarf variety of peas! They grow very short and small and all you have to do is push these down into some potting soil in a container garden, keep it watered, and watch it grow. Peas are also self-pollinating so if you don’t think many pollinators will be visiting your space, these are for you. You can also grow teeny tomato plants. Look at those sweet baby angels! With a tomato plant this small, if you started it now, I bet you could bring it indoors once it got too cold (so long as you had a sunny enough spot).
I imagine above you were like “Nicole what is a cold frame?” if you didn’t already know. So, a cold frame is basically, a kind of green house, but not one you walk inside. It is just for the plant, and it is a way of extending the growing season of certain plants. Many greens, as well as things like the above dwarf peas, are ideal for growing in cold frames. You can buy mini greenhouses that you could put on a balcony, porch or patio. But it doesn’t have to get expensive like that. You can go as easy as using a clear plastic bin that you can lower your container garden into (you’ll need to drill holes) as a cold frame or you can go as hard as building it from wood and glass windows.
OKAY my beautiful, hopefully inspired and energized queers, what are you growing? What are you going to grow? What about your plants brings you joy? I’d love to know. And because the plant kingdom is unimaginably large, I am 100% certain I haven’t even brushed the surface in terms of what you might be able to grow in containers in your small outdoor or window box space. I would love to hear from you all in the comments about what you’re doing and your approaches!