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A Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening: Helping People Help the Land
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A Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening: Helping People Help the Land



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  • 1. A Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening Compiled & written by Lee Coray-Ludden, Kenai Peninsula RC&D &Pam Voeller, Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • 2. Helping People Help the LandNatural Resources Conservation Service 2/16
  • 3. The Kenai Peninsula Bucket Brigade A Beginner’s Guide to Container GardeningIntroduction……………………………………………………………………...…...………... 4Buckets…………………………………………………………………………...……….…… 5Soil & Fertilizer…………………………………………………………………………...…... 6Seeds/Starts/Planting/Thinning/Weeding………………………………………..………….… 8Light/Wind/Water………………………………………………………………..………….… 10Pests and Other Challenges……………………………………………………..……………... 11Harvesting……………………………………………………………………..………………. 11To Do Calendar……………………………………...………………………..………………. 12‘Bucket’ Record……………………………………………….....…………..……………...… 13(to be completed by you!)References & Resources……………………………………………………….…………….... 14Acknowledgements…………………………………………………….……………………… 14Make the most of what you have! 3/16
  • 4. The Kenai Peninsula Bucket Brigade IntroductionThe goal of this booklet is to introduce container gardening to people of all ages and in all areasof the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The information in this booklet can also be adapted for otherlocations.Gardening was introduced early to Alaska by immigrants and adopted by many of Alaska’s firstpeople. As Alaska developed, more residents began living in towns and now Alaskans arealmost completely dependent on food grown outside of Alaska.Our hope is you can use the information and resources in this booklet to produce food for yourfamily, eat healthier, and enjoy an activity you can share with others. Fresh produce sitting just outside your door is a real treat!We will provide reasonable and realistic choices to help make gardening a successful andrewarding experience for you. We tried to identify natural and low cost choices, with the endresult being healthier, affordable food.Many foods can be grown in Alaska; you do not need to be an experienced gardener to growyour own produce. All you need is a ‘bucket,’ soil, fertilizer, seeds, a bit of rain and sunshine,and then watch your garden grow!What a wonderful gift to enjoy and share with family and friends!We hope you find this booklet useful and enjoyable. We encourage you to share your ideas. Thisbooklet is an ongoing effort and we value your input. Lee & Pam 4/16
  • 5. ‘Buckets’You can grow vegetables and salad greens in many different kinds of ‘buckets,’ from a threepound coffee can to a large fish tote. You can buy new containers but why not reuse and recyclesomething you already have? Possible ‘Buckets’ Type: Use: 3 pound coffee cans radishes, chives, spinach 1 gallon milk containers carrots, leaf lettuce, chard 5 gallon plastic buckets onions, beets, beans, peas Small fish totes all the above plus potatoes Large fish totes all the above only more of it! Homemade wooden boxes depends on size, see above Homemade alder twig baskets why not? You want to grow healthy food, so make sure your ‘buckets’ were not used to store toxic substances and don’t use pressure treated lumber (green lumber) to build boxes. ‘Buckets’ with cracks or holes already in them could be great for your garden! If your ‘bucket’ does not have holes in it, punch at least four ¼ inch holes on the side of the ‘bucket’ near the base for drainage. Small ‘buckets’ will need watering more often than large ‘buckets’. Put rocks or similar filler in the bottom of the container. This will encourage drainage of excess water. If you might need to move your large or heavy containers, consider putting them on a low platform with wheels or dollies. If you are using a wooden box with no bottom, put down hardware cloth (wire mesh) to keep out rodents (voles & shrews) and six or more layers of newspaper to help keep persistent weeds from pushing up into your container. 5/16
  • 6. Soil & FertilizerSoil is the source of food for your plants. The dirt (soil) around your home may not be the bestfor growing vegetables. It is probably low in organic matter and too acidic for most gardenvegetables. If you dig some up and put it in a pot, the soil structure will likely collapse and waterwill not drain through the way it needs to. But, you can mix your soil with other materials toimprove its condition. Giving your plants fertile, nutritious soil helps them produce healthy foodfor you.To make your own soil, mix: 1 part sand 1 part peat moss 1 part loam ½ cup garden lime for every 5 gallon bucket of soil made fertilizerOr, if you can’t find enough loam, mix: 2 parts sand 2 parts peat moss 1 part compost ½ cup garden lime for every 5 gallon bucket of soil madeSand allows excess water to drain from your soil so it does not become soggy. Most plant rootsneed oxygen and if the soil is too wet, they drown. If you use sand from the beach, rinse off thesalt before mixing it with your soil.Peat moss is the decomposing sphagnum moss found under living moss, usually in wet placeslike muskegs. Peat moss adds organic matter to the soil. Organic matter helps soil hold nutrientsand stay moist but not soggy.Loam is a naturally occurring mix of sand, silt, and clay and can provide minerals andmicronutrients to your plants. Usually the brown soil found in the first 12 inches of undisturbedground (like under native plants) will work for the loam portion. The soil under alder stands,especially near the trunk, can be extra rich.Compost provides nutrients and more organic matter. Compost is organic matter that hasdecomposed to make a dark, crumbly, soil-like material. You can make your own compost usingmaterials you have on hand: wood chips, leaves, fireweed stalks, fish waste, manure, grassclippings, coffee and tea grounds, crushed eggshells, etc. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks(UAF) Cooperative Extension Service has publications on making compost and fertilizerespecially for Alaska. However, composting may require more of your time and attention thanyou want to give it, especially if you are just beginning to garden. (See page76 under Nitrogen –Manure.)Lime raises the pH of soil, that is, makes soil less acidic.If you have old soil from houseplants or potted flowers, recycle it by adding it to your soil mix! 6/16
  • 7. Fertilizer The major plant nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).The sources listed below provide minor nutrients and micronutrients as well as the majornutrients. Such sources feed both plants and the soil.Nitrogen Fish waste – from fish you catch or from fish processors. Either compost the fish waste or make a fish emulsion (see the UAF Cooperative Extension Service publication “Make Your Own Complete Fertilizer”); or Manure – from your own animals or else where. Manure from sheep, goats, and rabbits, especially when mixed with straw or hay bedding, is safe to use right away. Horse, cattle, pig, and poultry manure should be well composted before using in your ‘bucket’. Never use cat or dog waste due to the possibility of passing on diseases. Fishbone meal – from a local manufacturer. Mix about 2/3 cup into each 5 gallon bucket of soil made (this product also supplies phosphorus); or Blood meal – from garden supply stores. Mix 5 tablespoons into each 5 gallons of soil.Phosphorus Fishbone meal – see “fishbone meal” under Nitrogen; or Rock phosphate or bone meal – from garden supply stores; or Ashes from burned animal or fish bones. Mix about 1.5 ounces into each 5 gallon bucket of soil.Potassium Greensand – from a garden supply store, or Wood ashes – from your woodstove or campfire. Do not use ashes from treated or painted wood or from cardboard, coal, or charcoal. Mix about 2 tablespoons into each 5 gallon bucket of soil made.Commercial chemical fertilizers feed plants but do not build the soil. They usually contain amix of the major plant nutrients but not the minor nutrients and micronutrients that are part of atruly balanced diet for your plants and soil. A common fertilizer mix is 8-32-16, which is 8percent N, 32 percent P, and 16 percent K. If you use chemical fertilizer, spread one teaspoon of8-32-16 over each square foot of soil after planting your starts or two weeks after your seedssprout. Mix the fertilizer into the top ½ inch of soil and water well. Repeat about every threeweeks or use liquid fertilizer (see below). Be careful not to over-fertilize – more is not better inthis case.Fill your ‘bucket’ with prepared soil Twelve inches of soil is the most you shouldneed so if you have a deep ‘bucket’ you might want to place filler in the bottom. Put gravel inthe bottom as the first layer for any of your ‘buckets’ so the drain holes don’t plug with soil. Ifyou still need filler (because you have a deep ‘bucket’), you could use chunks of wood, cappedwater/pop bottles, any used plastic bottles, scraps of foam insulation, empty jars, or more rocks,then top it off with the twelve inches of soil.Liquid fertilizer By mid-season your plants will have used much of the fertilizer youmixed into the soil. Give them a boost by watering with a liquid fertilizer. (If you are applyingchemical fertilizer every three weeks as described above, you should not do this.) You canpurchase liquid fertilizer or make your own. When using a liquid fertilizer, fertilize in themorning - it makes for better absorption and the plants will be dry during the cooler eveninghours. 7/16
  • 8. Kelp tea – add a handful of seaweed to a 5 gallon bucket of water. Stir every day. After a fewdays, strain the liquid and use it to fertilize all your plants. Drench the soil and the leaves.Manure tea or simple compost tea – add 5 quarts of manure (can be fresh) or compost to3 gallons of warm water in a 5 gallon bucket. Let it steep for a week, strain, and use. Wateraround your plants and avoid getting any on the leaves.Blood meal - mix 1 tablespoon with 1 gallon of water and let it steep for a week. Wateraround your plants and avoid getting any on the leaves. Seeds/Starts/Planting/Thinning/WeedingSeeds & Starts You can start your plants from seeds or buy plants started early bysomeone else (called “starts”). You can buy seeds at many outlets in Homer, Seward, Kenai,Soldotna, Anchorage, the internet, or through the mail from seed catalogs. All thesecommunities have greenhouses as well as larger stores with garden sections where you can buyvegetable seeds and plant starts.Whether you buy seeds or starts, it’s important to get a type of plant that will grow well in SouthCentral Alaska, or your area. A retail store may not have this information but the nursery orgreenhouse should. If in doubt, contact your UAF Cooperative Extension Service to find outwhich variety is best for your community. (See page 14 for contact info under References andResources.)Starts allow you to get a head start on the growing season but seeds are usually less expensivethan buying plants so you might want to try planting your own seeds indoors before the groundthaws. Don’t start your seeds too early: they might outgrow their pots before you can put themoutside. You will need light soil, small containers (egg cartons are great) and a sunny window orspecial light. Try starting broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, or chives from seeds. Theback of the seed packet will tell you when to start plants indoors. For example, it might say toplant seeds indoors four weeks before planting outdoors. A rule of thumb for South CentralAlaska is you can plant outdoors on June 1 so you would plant seeds around May 1.You can use your homemade soil mix for seed starting but sterilize it first by filling a flatroasting pan with soil, covering with aluminum foil or a lid, and baking in your oven at 180degrees for an hour. This will help prevent tender, young seedlings from getting “damping off”disease.Some seeds do not need to be started in the house and can go directly in the soil when it has beenprepared for them. Some of the seeds that can be put directly in the soil are radishes, carrots,Napa cabbage, bok choi, onions, chard, beets, peas, nasturtiums (good in salad), and leaf lettuce.Caution: If you buy starts, make sure the plants are healthy and you are not bringing non-nativeinsects, diseases, or other pests into your community. If a plant is limp, has drooping ordiscolored leaves, has holes in the leaves, or is generally not healthy looking, pick a differentplant or do not buy one at all. Go to a different store or, if possible, get seeds. 8/16
  • 9. Planting Seeds - Follow instructions on the seed packet. Some seeds need to be in thedark to germinate (parsley), some need light (lettuce), and most are not very particular. Justmake sure all seeds have good contact with the soil and don’t let the soil dry out. If you startplants indoors, try sprinkling a thin layer of clean sand over the soil after planting seeds todiscourage fungus gnats (a common pest of plants started indoors). Pouring water on very smallseeds planted close to the surface can disturb them. The soil should be moist when you plant theseeds. Once they are covered, you can keep the seeds moist by lightly misting the plants eachday from a clean spray bottle until the seeds germinate.Starts - When you are ready to move plants from indoors to outdoors, get them used to beingoutside in the sun, wind, and cooler air by “hardening” them. Set the plants outdoors in dappledsun or partial shade for an hour the first day, longer the next, and so on until they are out most ofthe day without damage. This takes less than a week. Gently remove the plant from its startingcontainer, plant it in your ‘bucket’ and water it so the plant settles into the new soil and roots donot dry out.Thinning What is thinning? Thinning is what you do when you get too many plantscrowded into a space. You must thin when extra seeds are planted in case some do not sprout.Some plants are easy to thin, like beans and peas, and others are more difficult because they areso small, like carrots. Also, some seeds are very small and it is difficult to place them exactly asfar apart as needed. Once the plants come up (and some can still be pretty small) they willbecome crowded and will not grow to the right size (just like too many young trees in the forest).You must remove the extra plants, usually the smallest, to allow the others to grow to a goodsize. You may have to thin more than once.You can thin by pulling plants or by snipping plants off at ground level to avoid harming theroots of the plants you want to keep. You can eat a lot of what you thin, such as the leaves ofpeas, lettuce, beets, chard, cabbage, and kale. As carrots mature and you continue to thin, youcan eat the little ones you pull up.Weeding One of the advantages of ‘bucket’ gardening is easier weed control. There is not alot of extra space where weeds can get established and they cannot creep in from the edge of thegarden. Just pull weeds out as you discover them. 9/16
  • 10. Light/Wind/WaterWater Just like fertilizer, water is important to the plants you are growing. Most gardenvegetables like the soil moist but not soggy. If your bucket drains well and there is enoughorganic material in your soil, then it should be easy to keep the soil moist. When the soil is dryone inch down, give your plants a soaking. Try to water in the morning so the plants dry beforethe cooler evening. Morning watering helps prevent fungus growth and allows your plants to goto bed with soil warmed through the day.To slow down water loss by evaporation from the soil surface you could mulch, especiallyaround larger plants, with pebbles, compost, a scattering of dry grass, or scraps of geotextile(“Typar”).You might also need to plan how and where you will get water for your plants. If it is a hot,sunny period, you may need to water every day. Do you have to carry the water? How far andhow much? Is there a hose to help with watering? If you can not carry the water yourself, isthere someone who can help you? What do you need to do to insure water is available to keepyour plants healthy and growing?Wind Wind can be a blessing and a curse. A light breeze can keep mosquitoes away, but windblowing over the surface of the soil can dry it out or keep it from warming as much as it might ifthere were no wind. Some plants like a warm soil or are delicate and do not thrive in a windyspot.When placing your ‘buckets’ it is important to consider the wind directions around your home.It may be necessary to set your ‘buckets’ where there is some wind protection, or create a windblock for them. A wind block could be another plant or shrub. It could also be something youmake, like a screen of wood or plastic.Light We all enjoy a warm sunny day in summer and so do most plants, but some require moresun than others. Look at the seed packet or the tag that came with the start. It will tell you if theplant likes full sun, partial shade, or shade. This is important to know and will help youdetermine where to put your “bucket.”Water, wind, and light are important elements to your success. Begin by building healthy soils,choosing plants that do well in your area, and then include these other elements in your planning.Your opportunity for success increases! 10/16
  • 11. Pests & Other ChallengesInsects & disease Start by giving your plants good nutritious soil and the right amountof water, light, and fertilizer. Healthy, strong plants can resist disease and infestation better thanplants stressed by poor soil or nutrition.If you purchase plants, do not bring home any with drooping or discolored leaves, with holes inthe leaves, or that do not look healthy.If you think you may have an insect problem, the first job is to identify it. What is the color andsize of the bug(s)? Does it have wings? Does it look like a beetle or is it soft and wormy? Isthere a web or noticeable egg sacks? Does it have legs? Is it just on one of your plants? Contactyour nearest expert or call the UAF Cooperative Extension Service at (907) 262-5824 forinformation on what you might have and what to do to get rid of it. Remember, not all bugs arebad; some are helpful in the garden, so be a good observer and ask questions.Animals Moose and bears can be problems for gardeners. Bears (and dogs) can be attractedby some fertilizers, especially if the fertilizer is made from fish. Moose, well…There are somevegetables, like broccoli and cabbage moose seem to love. But they will take a bite of almostany plant just to see if they might learn to love it.Trees Trees add much to our environment, but they can be a challenge when gardening.Avoid placing your ‘bucket’ directly under birch, cottonwood, or alder. All three of these tend to‘drip’ onto plants below and can cause disease or death of garden vegetables. Also, if you placepermanent, bottomless ‘buckets’ too near trees, the tree root systems can sprout into your‘buckets’. HarvestingFood now! Many people think of harvesting as a fall activity, but happily, with saladvegetables, you can harvest throughout the season. Radishes and chives are ready early and thelittle carrots and radishes you pull when thinning are tasty treats. As lettuce, kale, Napa cabbage,bok choi, chard, and beets grow, pluck a leaf here-and-there for your salad. After cutting themain head of broccoli, side shoots will keep you supplied the rest of the summer. Plants likepeas will continue to produce if you pick the pods regularly. 11/16
  • 12. To Do Calendar Early in the month Late in the month Put some soil mix in a container and store it where you can get to it in early October spring when snow is still on the ground. This is the soil you will sterilize for seed starting.November– February Browse seed catalogs and web sites. If you order seeds, get together with March friends and share packages. Start seeds indoors: lettuce, Sterilize the soil you set aside in April October for seed starting. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, chives. Begin planting seeds outdoors: Prepare soil mix. Collect buckets May and fill them with soil mix. radishes, carrots, chard, beets, peas, lettuce, and nasturtiums. Transplant starts into your June ‘buckets’. Continue planting seeds Build a compost pile. outdoors. Water with liquid fertilizer. July Begin harvesting greens. Harvest August HarvestSeptember Harvest 12/16
  • 13. ‘Bucket’ RecordUse this chart to keep a record of what worked, or did not work, in your ‘bucket’ so you canremember for next year. This record belongs to: Name & variety Date plant Date planted Type of Water Date of plant started in bucket fertilizer used requirement harvested12345678910 Comments: 13/16
  • 14. References and Resources People and GroupsUniversity of Alaska, Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service - Tom Jahns ( orJanice Chumley ( 262-5824Central Peninsula Garden Club - Marion Nelson, mmkn@ptialaska.netHomer Garden Club - Brenda Adams, 235-3763, brenda@muddytruck.comNatural Resources Conservation Service - Pam Voeller - 283-8732 ext 106Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District - Lee Coray-Ludden, 283-8732 ext 114 BooksKachemak Cultivating from Seaside to Summit – Homer Garden ClubThe Alaska Gardeners Handbook – Lenore Hedla PublicationsThe University of Alaska, Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has many free brochures andpamphlets on-line and by request to help you garden. Go to the website search for the titles: Make Your Own Complete Fertilizer; The Compost Heap in Alaska;Recommended Variety List for Southcentral Alaska; 16 Easy Steps to Gardening in Alaska Community Resources  Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers - Dan Elliot, 376-5196  Farmers Markets: Homer – Paul Castellani, 235-0703 Kenai – Harold Piland, Soldotna – Saturday market: Clayton Hillhouse, 262-5463, Soldotna – Wednesday market: Annette Villa, 262-5252,  Lower Peninsula Fruit Growers – Judith James, 235-2574 or Peggy Craig, 235-0631  Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association - Steve Victors, 892-6175, Acknowledgements This project is a collaborative effort of:Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development; Natural Resources ConservationDistrict staff at the Kenai Peninsula USDA Service Center; Janice Chumley of the University ofAlaska, Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service; Rosemary Kimbal of the Central PeninsulaGardening Club; Christine Greig at Alaska Sea-Ag; and Will Hightower, Container Gardener. First Edition, April 2009 14/16
  • 15. Notes15/16
  • 16. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audiotape,Helping People Help the Land etc.) should contact USDAs TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer 16/16