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Root depth wiggle room

 
Octavia Greason
Posts: 28
Location: Ohio
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Hallo! I'm starting my first garden but since I don't actually own my place I'm doing container gardening. I am quite broke (just starting a couple new jobs) so I can't afford to buy many containers. I do, on the other hand, have all sort of 'trash' to use that I am hoping to use to compensate for this (large coffee cans, ect).

I was wondering how set in stone recommended container sizes were or how strict root depth is when considering container size. Is it possible to grow plants in 'under-sized' containers? Would the limited space just result in higher root density? And if this is the case does that mean the plant will pull water or nutrients out of the soil faster? Would a smaller container result in a smaller plant, or possibly in the case of fruiting plants, let robust fruits? Or would an undersized container just kill the plant? I mean, I've seen herbs grown in anything from a decent sized clay pot to a soup can and I keep seeing things like plants grown in plastic bottles.

I understand for something like carrots the root depth is probably non-negotiable but what about other root veggies such as potatoes, turmeric, ginger, or horseradish?

Thanks for any help or advice!
 
John Weiland
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Just a link that can help you get started: http://extension.illinois.edu/gardenerscorner/issue_03/spring_03_03.cfm

You will have to decide if you feel comfortable with growing your veggies in plastic or metal cans, ...... some may not wish to do this, but I know many who do.

From the link:

"Most vegetables grown in the backyard can be grown in containers, although container diameter and depth need to be considered. The plant density (number of vegetable plants per pot) depends on the individual plant space requirement and rooting depth.

Ogutu suggested minimum container sizes and the varieties of vegetables:

half-gallon containers: --parsley (one plant, varieties Dark Moss Curled, Paramount);

one-gallon containers: -- cabbages (one plant, varieties, any); cucumbers (two plants, varieties, Salad Bush, Bush Champion, and Spacemaster); green beans, (two to three plants, Topcrop, Tendercrop, Derby); leaf lettuce (four to six plants, varieties, Green Ice, Salad Bowl, Red Sails, Black-Seeded Simpson, Buttercrunch, Oakleaf); spinach (direct seed, thin to one to two inches apart, varieties, American Viking, Long-Standing, Bloomsdale, Melody); Swiss chard (one plant, varieties, Fordhook Giant, Lucullus); cherry and patio tomatoes (one plant, cherry varieties, Pixie, patio varieties, Patio);

two-gallon containers: -- beets (thin to two or three inches apart, variety Ruby Queen); carrots (thin to two to three inches apart, varieties, Little Finger, Danver ’s Half Long, Nantes Half Long); egg plant (one plant, variety, Dusky); pepper (two plants, varieties, Lady Bell, Gypsy, Crispy, New Ace, Red Chili); radishes (thin to one to two inches apart, varieties, Champion, Comet, Sparkler, White Icicle, Early Scarlet Globe);

three-gallon containers: -- standard tomatoes (one plant, varieties, Jetstar, Celebrity, Super Bush)."
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Always liked this photo of sugarbeet roots......don't worry, I know you won't be wanting to grow any of these anytime soon! :
BeetRoots.JPG
[Thumbnail for BeetRoots.JPG]
 
Jim Tuttle
Posts: 42
Location: Southern Oregon
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Almost any plant can be grown in a container, but quality and vitality may suffer, i.e. carrot's won't develop a proper edible root in a pot.

The other HUGE issue is nutrition. In a bed, plants roots seek out water and nutrients, but you are going to be restricting them. Tomato and pepper do just fine in small containers IF they have adequate nutrients, like in a hydroponic set-up, or possibly aquaponics.

You can't put a tomato in a two-gallon pot, give it nothing but water and expect good results. If you are open to synthetics, Cornell has very good info on formulating. You could also try compost teas, but it will take you a while to nail down a recipe that doesn't result in deficiencies or salt stress.

For what it's worth, I did a side-by-side trial one year with Robeson tomato. Hydroponic vs. organic field soil vs. aged horse manure. The horse manure tomatoes won in both the looks and flavor categories (blind taste test), while the hydroponics won for yield. There's still so much we don't know about plant nutrition.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 1992
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Octavia, John's post is quite good.

The issue is amount of food possible when it comes to vegetables. Trees can be grown in very small containers (Bonsai) but it is to grow these giants in miniature.

For vegetables, the size of container will determine the size of the plant which is directly related to amount of produce you will be able to collect.

When using items such as coffee cans as veggie plant containers, do not forget that you can stack them to make larger root space. When doing this you just remove the bottom of the top container and use lots of duct tape (the new gorilla tape is awesome for this purpose).

Other cheep containers can be found in places like a dollar store, sometimes people discard containers (they don't have to be plant containers, old garbage cans, discarded 5 gal paint buckets etc can be used, just try to clean them really well).
I have used old 5 gal paint buckets by cleaning them with sand paper then drilling some drain holes and filling with potting soil I made myself from dirt and compost or in one case I used old blanket material cut into thin strips.

Be creative in your thinking when it comes to containers. If you see some old boards at the side of the road, a busted piece of furniture, think if you can turn it into a container. So what if it only last one years worth of growing, it will be nearly free.

Check with grocery stores, sometimes they throw away things that can be used for containers. Dumpster diving can result in some great containers too. check with paint stores, you might get a surprise or two there too.

for growing great plants you will want things like fish emulsion (know any fishermen?, fish parts work great for fertilizer), rock dust is good for minerals. If the grocer tosses bad veggies, you can make fertilizer out of them by drying them down and grinding them up. I've currently got a small compost going that has 12 packages of avocado dip as one of the ingredients, another is recycling about 10 jars of salad dressing all recovered from the local grocery, they were tossed because they were out of date. These contain some decent nutrients and since I dry them in the air before putting them into the compost heap, they don't have any down side. Collect your own urine and dilute it and you can water with the nitrogen you discarded. This grows wonderful veggies (my people have done it for centuries).
 
Octavia Greason
Posts: 28
Location: Ohio
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Thanks for the great link John! I take it sugar beets are a taproot plant though, yes?
I will learn more about plant nutrition shortly (doing some 'regrowth' project research currently, regrowing lettuce and the like). Alas, as Bryant knows, I'm still figuring out my compost but hopefully I'll be able to add that to my plants sooner rather than later.
Dumpster diving is a good idea that I hadn't honestly considered. I get really antsy about it though because bed bugs are soooo prevalent in Ohio (I tried picking up a dresser just a few weeks ago and had to ditch it when I saw unidentified egg sac. It's so scary)

Out of curiosity, would it be possible to do something like taking chicken wire, forming it into a sturdy cylinder, maybe lining with some sort of loose knit cloth, and filling it with soil as a sort of make-shift container? I know it would probably dry out awful fast and require more watering but it might be a possible solution to my container woes, if only temporarily. If I have to I can wait until I can afford to buy containers with my discount at my new job (can you believe I work in a gardening department? Luckily, they'll train me) but I'm worried I'll be wasting time while waiting for those first few checks.

Edit: One last question regarding container size: If I have a deep but narrow container will the plant just grow in the available direction or would that still have an adverse effect? So, if I have a plant that usually has roots that don't grow very deep but take up a lot of room would a taller, thinner container just encourage them to grow as many roots but in a downward direction?

And, thanks everyone for the great info! Hopefully my first growing project will be successful with all this wonderful advice =D
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 1992
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
152
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Beets, carrots, radish and other root plants are all tap root plants. deep containers work really well for these.

chicken wire makes a great form and you could even use a plastic garbage bag for a liner ( just don't forget a few drainage holes in bottom).

Sometimes gardening departments have discard commercial nursery pots laying around (never hurts to ask).

Since you have bed bugs up there, bleach water will run them off and it is also a sterilizing agent (three caps full for a 1/2 gallon of water) for just about everything.

In general if the plants are shallow rooting you are better off with a larger diameter than with a tall narrow container.

since you are working in a garden department, check to see if they allow collection of spillage, this can be a great way to gather up stuff from broken stores. (I once collected almost a bale of peat from sweeping up over a month period. I also swept up fertilizer from a broken container. don't forget that these mishaps can end up to your benefit if it is allowed.)

 
Octavia Greason
Posts: 28
Location: Ohio
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Ah, that's a really great idea. I'll ask what we do with spillage. I know a lot of corporations won't let employees take broken items but I don't know if that'll apply to stuff like soil.

I'll probably try the chicken wire idea just to see if it could work. That wire is quite cheap. For the time being I'll keep doing research on root depth and see what I can manage with that I have currently. Thanks again
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 1992
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
152
chicken dog forest garden hugelkultur hunting toxin-ectomy
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get some seed catalogs, especially the specialty type companies catalogs, these usually have a wealth of information about growing conditions listed with each seed type.

In general root veggies want depth and fairly loose soil that drains quickly.

Brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts etc.) want loose soil that drains and they like to go wide and deep (ish) root wise.

Peas, beans, leaf greens all like to spread wide and shallow (under 16 inches deep)

all the herbs like fast draining, loose, shallow containers. I we have used baby pools for lettuce, kales, mustard greens, etc. these are about 8" deep soil wise.

Hope that helps you out.
 
Octavia Greason
Posts: 28
Location: Ohio
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It does. From what I can tell herbs are quite tolerant of small growing spaces but probably produce smaller plants as a result. Leafy greens tend to be shallow rooted. Obviously root veggies need lots of depth. I assume most everything else falls into the fairly wide/deep category. Which pretty much lines up with exactly what you said XD
 
Casie Becker
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For five gallon buckets, I don't see people mentioning bakeries. They often get ingredients in five gallon containers that are at least not intentionally contaminated. A lot of cat litters now come in large square plastic buckets also. I don't miss the days of trying to fit vegetables onto a small apartment balcony.
 
R Ranson
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If you get a chance, check out permaculture in pots. There are a lot of plants that can be grown in containers. Many vegetables have been breed for just such an environment.

Another option would be to use bonsai techniques with the more woody plants. I've been trying to grow olive and orange in olive oil tins. Give it a good clean, puncture a few holes in the bottom, make certain the drainage is good. Every year or so, I take the tree out, shake off most of the soil 'accidently' breaking about half the roots. Repot it, give the top a trim, and bobs your uncle. I'm using trees grown from seed or cutting from full size trees.

Before that I use to use wine bottles, but needed to break them to get the tree out.

Of course, this doesn't work if you live with someone who believes plants must be watered five times a day and kills everything.

Is it possible to grow plants in 'under-sized' containers?


Yes, but they may not thrive.

Would the limited space just result in higher root density? And if this is the case does that mean the plant will pull water or nutrients out of the soil faster?


A higher root density would result in less soil to hold the moisture and nutrients. So yep, faster.

Would a smaller container result in a smaller plant, or possibly in the case of fruiting plants, let robust fruits?


yes and yes

Or would an undersized container just kill the plant?


possibly

But don't give up. It's not impossible. The bonsai trick works. Air pruning roots tomato is another option. The book I mentioned has lots of ideas.
 
R Ranson
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I'm a big fan of using what you have. Last night I had dreams about this. What vegetables can grow in salvaged food containers?

The first thought I had would be to go to the local restaurant/deli and ask for any extra buckets they might spare. They usually have 1 to 5 gallon buckets out back in the recycling... which they have to pay to dispose of. They are always happy to send some home with me, but they are usually dirty (food dirt) and need a good scrub. Not bad for free. I imagine these would be handy for full size tomato plants and growing rice.

The benefit of rice, I'm guessing, is we don't have to deal with the constant watering that happens with small containers in hot sun. The rice straw can be used as brown matter for the worm compost bucket - I'm all for getting free dirt too... only thing needed is worms (which can be dug from a manure pile or bought for fairly low price), your food scraps, and brown matter like newspaper or dried plant trimmings.

I don't imagine one would get much rice from a few buckets - then again, fukuoka said somewhere that one grain of rice can produce 10,000.

Sometimes the variety of seed makes all the difference:



image from west coast seed

dwarf sunflower designed to grow in containers.



these cucumbers have a vine that's only three feet long, and a small enough root system they should grow well in containers.

There are 6 inch tall tomatoes, and 10 inch tall peas. Both grew great in small containers for me last year. There is a lettuce variety the size of a billiard ball.

Peppers and bush beans also do well in smallish containers.

The thing is to experiment. What one book or site says absolutely won't work... might actually work in your conditions. Try everything!

If you can avoid learning the one and only right way to do things... then you have what it takes to be a success at growing things. There are thousands of right ways to grow things, you just have to find what works for you.

Out of curiosity, would it be possible to do something like taking chicken wire, forming it into a sturdy cylinder, maybe lining with some sort of loose knit cloth, and filling it with soil as a sort of make-shift container?


Brilliant idea! I'm thinking potatoes.

One last question regarding container size: If I have a deep but narrow container will the plant just grow in the available direction or would that still have an adverse effect?


Good question with a complicated answer. As you'll discover while you train for your new job, the answer is 'it depends'.

Some plants like to stretch their roots sideways, some like to go down and deep. Most like a balance but can adapt to what's available.


You talk about the price of the containers - how about the price of seeds? Check out the harvesting seeds from your groceries thread. I almost bought some star anise seed from a seed company the other day, then I saw the price. $4 for a packet?!? $36 for a 100g of seed? No way! I can buy bulk star anise for $2 a 100g at my local small grocer. Germination rate seems on par with the expensive seed company. Grow the seed, use the pods for cooking. Perfect. I was buying this anyway.
 
R Ranson
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Jim Tuttle
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Just wanted to second everything RedHawk said, obviously has experience. I'd start looking into hydroponic formulations (again, if you're not averse to such things). Let me know if you want my "secret formula", hehe. Couple years ago I grew a 6' cucumber vine out of a 4" pot, to see if it was possible. The little pot had wicks into a bucket of hydroponic solution. The point being, root mass matters less if nutrition is perfect (or close).

On plastic bags: those grocery bags break down REALLY fast in UV light, could be perfect, could be a mess...
 
John Weiland
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In terms of space-saving, don't forget about the ability for hanging baskets to free-up floor space.....
tombasket.JPG
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Jim Tuttle
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That's impressive, what variety is that? We tried planting "upside down" tomatoes one year, ended up with "compost tea" all over the fruit, not cool!
 
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