By Trudy Fuller
Master Gardener Reba Cook has been creatively refining the approach of using containers for vegetables and flowers to combat compacted soil since 1975.
About three years ago, Cook suffered a fractured kneecap making it impossible to get close to the ground. The idea to stand over a raised bed without bending the knees drew her to repurpose two inoperable refrigerators. By taking out the motor in each and drilling holes on the back, she then had sure-fire insulated raised beds for her year-round desert garden. These insulated beds are host to tomatoes and watermelons.
She also created beds from wooden pallets and corrugated metal that have a late summer crop of green beans. Large, salvaged tires have housed crops of potatoes, carrots, spinach, broccoli, garlic and cauliflower. A large wooden spool originally used for electrical wire, hold various containers at waist height. In fact, Cook refers to her yard as the “salvaged garden.”
Maricopa desert gardeners often gravitate to the use of containers for vegetables and flowers due to our compacted soil. Preparing the native soil can be labor-intensive, back-breaking work. Therefore, the idea of the outdoor container garden becomes more desirable.
Containers of various sizes and shapes are found on her acreage east of Maricopa. These include a re-purposed household fixture overflowing with flowering vinca to the large, corrugated steel livestock water troughs that serve as raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, okra and onions.
As nourishment washes away much faster in garden containers than it does in the inground garden, soil amendments for the containers and raised beds are a must. Just remember that every planter or container needs good drainage, so the lowest part of the soil is not too damp.
Cook shared a list of her usual choices to add to container garden soil. Organic amendments include compost, bone meal, earthworm castings, blood meal and various fertilizers such as purchased, aged, chicken manure and spent coffee grounds. As one might suspect, whether to add some or all of these amendments to a container comes from Cook’s accumulated knowledge of what a particular plant will need for optimal growth.
She cautions against just using the container soil alone, as the results are often disappointing. However, for those organic gardeners considering using animal fertilizers, the product needs to be properly aged. For most of us impatient gardeners, it would be wise to rely only on a purchased, trusted brand name.
Maricopa Master Gardeners in Pinal County
This column appears in the November issue of InMaricopa.