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Feeling left behind by the grow-your-own-food revolution because you live in a gardenless apartment or have a postage-stamp yard? Take heart: Anyone with a sunny windowsill, patio, or balcony can cultivate edibles. In fact, choosing plants that are nourishing, delicious, and beautiful is the ultimate way to maximize limited space, whether you're working with one little window box or several large containers.
When space is limited but enthusiasm isn't, think containers. These window boxes, just two feet long each, are big enough to grow all sorts of herbs, including oregano, basil, chives, and rosemary.
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Just as in conventional vegetable gardens, sunshine is vital for small-space success. Six to eight hours of bright light daily is best. Buy bags of soilless mix for container growing from a garden center or nursery. The lightweight mixture provides a fast-draining medium that's ideal for growing vegetables. Food crops also need consistent and frequent watering, so be sure to think about the location of your hose or faucet when planning where to plant -- the closer your plants can be to water, the better. And remember: A mini garden is not likely to overflow with produce. But when you serve a just-picked salad from your window box to a friend or make fresh salsa from sun-warmed tomatoes and peppers harvested right outside your door, you'll get the same bragging rights as any proud farmer.
Gardeners who have room for pots can grow a surprising amount of produce by carefully choosing plant varieties and staking where appropriate. Newport Premier window boxes, hooksandlattice.com. Rolled-Rim Lite stackable planters, large; medium; and small; campaniainternational.com
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Gardening editor Stephen Orr likes to give friends this portable garden, which contains the ingredients for tisane, or herbal tea. To make one, plant mint, rose geranium, pineapple sage, and lavender in a wooden wine crate or other container with ample drainage. To get the gift to keep on giving, be sure to tell the recipient to place it in full sun outdoors and to pluck a few sprigs for morning tea or for adding to black tea.
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Garden Pot Basics
As long as it gets adequate sun, a small patio can provide enough room to grow a range of crops without demanding much time or labor. Devote the most planting space to the veggies your family loves best. Keep in mind that large plants such as beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes require large pots (two feet in diameter or more). Smaller pots are perfect for peppers, greens, kale, and herbs, and they look great tucked between larger containers. For season-long interest, combine plants with varied flowering times so that some things will be ripening while others will be ready to harvest. In hot weather, water evaporates quickly from the elevated soil in a container. You may need to irrigate your pots every day if temperatures go above 90 degrees.
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Minimal growing space often corresponds to a dearth of off-season storage. Sturdy containers that can be left out year-round, above, are a good solution. These three sizes of these stackable planters in a lightweight, all weather resin accommodate all kinds of veggies. Large plants such as tomatoes will need staking: Bamboo is an attractive, inexpensive option; sturdy metal tomato cages work well, too. By keeping the plants upright and well aerated, you help minimize the possibility of disease while maximizing yield. You also increase available space, allowing an under planting of small plants such as carrots, radishes, or herbs.
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Choose Superproductive Plants
Don't wait all season for a few huge slicing tomatoes. Instead, opt for prolific, early-bearing, and delicious cherry tomatoes, such as 'Sun Gold.'
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Combine Similar Species
An 18-inch pot will hold a wide selection of plants. These fiery habanero and hot lemon chiles and purple-leaved peppers make a colorful mix.
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Look for Dwarf Varieties
Plant breeders are constantly introducing vegetables that take up less space, such as this tiny but tasty dark-green 'Diamant' cucumber.
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Window Box Basics
A two-foot-wide box will easily host four to six large herb plants or a small crop of salad greens. Try to choose plants with a variety of shapes and colors, such as purple basil, tall lemon verbena, and chives, to make the display attractive. Herbs are particularly good choices for urban window boxes, since they can be maintained with just a watering can and a pair of shears. Most herbs require minimal fertilizing. In fact, overfed herbs lose essential oils in their leaves, making them less flavorful.
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Go With a Theme
Window boxes offer numerous design possibilities. Combine your most frequently used herbs, or put together some thematic plantings, such as Asian herbs (including garlic chives, Thai basil, lemongrass, and shiso) and tea herbs (mint, chamomile, lemon balm, and lemon verbena); or Italian herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano, and chives), left. Other good mixes include edible flowers (nasturtiums, borage, calendula, fennel, and violets) and salad greens (lettuce, arugula, and dill).
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Pick Pretty Plants
Variegated herbs, such as this two-tone mint, make a strong visual impression (without sacrificing flavor or productivity) when mixed with solid-color plants.
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Add Edible Flowers
Sowing a few extra seeds of easy-to-grow nasturtium and borage into any herb or vegetable planting adds a welcome touch of color to pots and to salads.
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Keep Your Greens Fresh
Harvest salad greens lightly once a week to encourage growth; when the plants become exhausted, remove them and plant seeds for a new crop.