Start a Kitchen Garden on Your Patio

If I were really organized and creative I would make a potager garden with all manner of edibles and ornamental plantings. It would look so romantic like something out of a 19th century painting.

Alas, I'm not yet at a level where I can throw seeds willy-nilly and have them cover every spare inch. The weeds usually beat them to the punch.

I'm a practical gardener though. While the main gardens do the heavy lifting with a wide variety of fruits and veggies, I also maintain a quieter garden. My kitchen garden.

Most kitchen gardens are small patches of dirt with a sampling of herbs and vegetables. I have one of those too, but the garden I rely on most for everyday cooking is the kitchen container garden on my patio. 

Various herbs, a small box of green onions and bok choy, a couple of cherry tomato plants and a couple of pepper plants that I overwintered from the year before all sit in a wide assortment of containers. 

All these containers sit within a few feet of my door. Whenever I'm cooking, I often send Greg out with a pair of scissors and a basket and ask him to bring back a little of this or that.

Container gardening has three big benefits.

  • They are easy to keep weed free. 
  • It's the right size for a small family.
  • It's easy to change, expand, or start over.

I love growing herbs in containers. I have a dedicated rosemary bush at my doorway. Every few years, I take a few sprigs and layer them in the dirt and wait for them to sprout roots. Then I cut them off the mother plant and start new rosemary bush babies. I plant them around the property or give them as gifts.

I do the same with lavender. Cuttings from woody plants take nearly a year before it can be repotted, but it's a way to make more plants for free.

Plants like basil and lemongrass root fast and are super-easy! You could have a dozen new basil plants within weeks. 

While most of my kitchen container garden centers around herbs, I like to keep a few tomato, pepper, and onion plants nearby for days when I'm too lazy to trek out to the back-forty for veggies.

It's a treat to pop a sweet cherry tomato in your mouth while you're working outside.

Containers are moveable. And if your plant outgrows its pot it's easy to rehome it into a larger pot. The important thing about container gardening is the soil.

Soil: I make my own potting soil, but I also mix it with commercial potting mix just in case mine is missing any key ingredients.

Unless you make your own compost I always recommend buying a good quality potting mix. They have all the necessary elements in just the right ratio. My personal recommendation is Miracle Grow. They've never disappointed me.

Pots: Next on the list of importance is the container. While I like them to look pretty since they sit out in my front yard, I'm not a snob. If all I have is a black plastic nursery bucket, then I'll use that.

But...if given a choice, I prefer terracotta pots or beautiful ceramic pots over plastic any day. 

Pots are notorious for losing moisture so you have to make sure that your plants are given a drink daily, especially during hot weather.

If you're new to gardening and have killed your plants from over watering or under watering you can use a soil moisture meter. I just stick a finger in the soil and test it that way.

Plants: Buy plants if you must, but with prices so high, I suggest seeds for most plants. The exceptions would be rosemary, lavender and sage. Buy these plants or beg a cutting from a neighbor. They are notorious for being hard to germinate.

Tools: Buy yourself good tools. Below are the tools I not only recommend but use myself. You don't need much, but you want the best.

Trowel: There are several good trowels on the market. Look for one labeled ergonomic. It'll be so much more comfortable. It's my go-to tool so the extra comfort goes a long way.

Narrow Blade Trowel: This one looks similar to the garden trowel, but it's narrower. It's good for planting bulbs and getting into tight spaces.

Hori Hori Knife: It's as if a knife and a trowel had a baby. Useful for cutting past weeds or digging through root bound soil.  

Pruners: There are several kinds of pruners for every sort of job. I absolutely recommend ARS shears and pruners. I've bought a countless number trying to find a good trimmer for goat hooves. ARS delivered. If they can cut goat hooves like butter, plants are a piece of cake.

I keep two in my work bag. One is a pair of shears for tough stems or leaves. The other is more robust for heavier stems or small branches.

Water hose: It's romantic to think of using a beautiful old watering can, but let's get real here. Nothing beats a hose. Although I have plenty of regular hoses around the property, I'm rather fond of those expandable hoses. Don't believe the hype that they'll retract back to its original size. It does retract, but not that much. Still, it deflates enough to stay out of the way.

Gloves: Always have a pair of gloves handy. While I use leather gloves for tougher jobs, for most gardening jobs I prefer the 10-pack of gardening gloves. This way I always have a pair wherever I am.

Other tools that aren't critical but nice to have:

Mini spades: Sometimes called bonsai, succulent, fairy garden spades, they are tiny tools that are extremely useful when working with seedlings. 

Foam kneeling mat and/or garden kneeling bench: I would put these under essential if you're over 50. These tools make it so much easier to get up and down.

A good carry bag: Look for them under gardening or tools. You want an extra sturdy bag with a handle. It should be puncture proof. You don't want your pruners stabbing you through the bag.

Ties or clips: I use both. For thick stems like tomatoes, I'll use the clips. Other viney or sprawling plants are fine with soft garden ties.

Labels and markers: Do yourself a favor and label everything. Sometimes I add the date or a note reminding me that a seed is slow to germinate--so I don't throw in the towel too soon.

You can buy labels, but if you have an old vinyl blind lying around, the slats make very nice plant labels. Where the frustration comes in is the marking pen. No matter how much a vendor claims his marker is fade-resistant, it isn't.

You can do one of three things. Use a China marker (otherwise known as a grease pencil). Use a paint pen, which will last longer on the label, but might dry out inside the pen. Or if you use a Sharpie marker, bury the marked side, or face it against the pot so it doesn't get the sun. It won't last forever but it will give you a few extra months.

That's it. That's my container garden. It's with me all year round. I'll move the more cold-sensitive plants indoors in the winter, but the rest like lavender, rosemary, and green onions stay out all year.

If you're new to gardening, don't have much space, or don't have the time to garden full time, go for a small kitchen garden on your patio. It'll give you such a sense of accomplishment and will look pretty to boot.

Happy gardening!


Brandy C. Jones said…
I haven’t done well with container gardening- at least we didn’t last year. And our raised bed was invaded by squash bugs before we even knew it or what they were I grow roses and lavender well, but other plants not-so-much.
Maria Zannini said…
Brandy: I wasn't too successful in the beginning. My problem was not watering enough.

I hear you on the squash bugs. It's a constant battle. :-(
B.E. Sanderson said…
I can't remember if you already knew this from my blog, but this is my test year for having a container garden on the deck - tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, and carrots. Everything seems to be growing well. The lettuce was a fail, but only because the variety I bought is nearly flavorless and wilts quickly after it's harvested. (Next year, I'm going with spinach, which seems heartier.) Time will tell if the zucchinis and tomatoes bear fruit. And I'm iffy about the carrots. :shrug: I'm learning a lot and that's the most important part for this year.
Maria Zannini said…
I do remember! My lettuce generally fails. The only time I had beautiful full lettuce it was too bitter. (too hot)

This year I'm growing it inside under grow lights to see if it makes a difference.

Try romaine lettuce instead of the leaf lettuces. They're much heartier and won't wilt.

re: carrots
Carrots take a long time, so don't give up on them. As long as they're in deep, soft soil they'll grow.
Mike Keyton said…
Detailed instructions for taking lavender cuttings please :)
And in exchange a tip from one with a knacketty knee. It's all very well having a foam kneeler, but what about getting up again :) ?
I keep my spade close by as a manly disguise - it's a godsend in hoisting yourself up into a standing position again. Done quickly and with some discretion no one realises you're a crock, or so I like to kid myself
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: Those garden benches/kneelers can be turned upside down so you're kneeling on the pad, while lifting yourself up by the tubular legs. Helps Greg out a lot.

re: lavender
I use softwood, not the hardwood. Strip off the bottom 3-4 inches of needles and scrape off the bark on one side. Dust the exposed side in hormone powder before planting. Keep the cutting humid, tenting if necessary. Generally it takes upwards of 2 months before I see roots.

I'm told it's even easier to root them in water, but I've never tried it. Planting it in soil worked fine for me.

Right now I've got over a dozen little plants in soil. I think I might transplant them next spring. That way they have a few more months to strengthen their roots.