Make a theme container of yummy edibles for your summer patio with these suggestions from Nancy Ondra.
Excerpted from Container Theme Gardens © Nancy J. Ondra.
Photographs © Rob Cardillo. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
A collection of colorful containers and ornamental edibles makes for a display that’s a treat for the eye as well as for the palate, supplying months of fresh salad fixings right outside your door. This grouping includes crisp and colorful lettuces and other greens, plus oniony common chives (Allium schoenoprasum), tasty tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), and edible flowers in a set of brightly colored, food-grade plastic tubs with handles that make them easy to move as needed.
SEASON BY SEASON
A week or two before your usual last frost date, sow the mesclun seeds in the smallest container. Start harvesting when the leaves are 3 to 4 inches tall, cutting with scissors about 1 inch above the base of the plants. Start the medium-sized container around the same time, setting the chives in the center and spacing the lettuce transplants evenly around the edge. Start harvesting the lettuce when the plants are 4 to 6 inches tall, and harvest the chives after three to four weeks. In the largest container, you can plant the nasturtium transplants or seeds around the edge as soon as all danger of frost has passed, but wait until nights stay above 50° F before setting the tomato plant in the center. Once your crops are growing, water regularly when rain is lacking, and add a liquid fertilizer every seven to 10 days. If the weather gets chilly at night (below freezing for the small and middle container; below 50° F for the largest one), bring the containers into a sheltered spot at night until it warms up again.
Early to Mid Summer
‘Galactic’ lettuce, common chives and mesclun are all producing lots of leaves now, so keep harvesting as needed. When the ‘Alaska’ nasturtiums begin to bloom, snip off some of the buds and open blooms (and some of the peppery-flavored leaves, if you wish) for fresh use. ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ tomato is beautiful and bushy now, with some yellow flowers and developing fruits appearing by midsummer. Keep watering and fertilizing regularly. When the lettuce and mesclun plants start tasting bitter or growing upright stems, pull them out and add them to your compost pile. Add a bit more potting soil where they were growing. If it’s still early summer, replant with seeds or transplants for a midsummer harvest. In early summer, add a cage or stakes to the largest container to keep the tomato plant from sprawling later on.
Tidbits, Tips and Tricks
Fill the smallest container to within an inch of the rim with moistened potting soil, and scatter mesclun seeds evenly over the surface (try to get them ½ to 1 inch apart). Cover them with about ¼ inch of potting soil, firm the surface lightly by pressing it with your fingers, and sprinkle regularly with water to keep the soil evenly moist. It can take anywhere from 3 to 14 days for the seeds to sprout.
Coaxing Chives to Flower
When you start with a pot of common chive (Allium schoenoprasum) seedlings, you probably won’t get flowers the first year. But if you move the plant to your garden for the winter and then transplant part or all of the clump back to a container in spring, you’ll get a bounty of beautiful (and edible) pink flowers from late spring into summer.
Mid to Late Summer
If you replanted in early summer, ‘Galactic’ lettuce and mesclun are leafy now and available for harvest as needed, along with the chive foliage. The rounded green fruits of ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ ripen to orangey red over a period of about 3 weeks in mid to late summer, making a beautiful display against the plant’s silvery green leaves and the variegated leaves and red, golden or orangey flowers of the ‘Alaska’ nasturtiums. Pick the tomato fruits when they’re fully colored for slicing into salads, and clip some nasturtium buds, flowers and/or leaves as desired.
Musings on Mesclun
Mesclun isn’t one specific crop; rather, it’s a term that applies to a mix of leafy greens meant to be picked when young and tender for salads. It usually
includes a few varieties of leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa); beyond that, there are different mixes to suit different tastes. If you like spicy flavors, look for mixes that include zippy greens like arugula (Eruca sativa), mizuna (Brassica rapa var. Nipposinica), and mustard (Brassica juncea). Greens that are slightly bitter, such as endive (Cichorium endivia) and chicory (Cichorium intybus), make an interesting mix with sweet, tender lettuces. For lots of color, choose a mix with both green and red lettuces, plus red orach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra), red-leaved beets (Beta vulgaris var. Conditiva), and multicolored Swiss chard (B. vulgaris var. Cicla).
Continue watering and fertilizing all three containers through late summer. Replant the mesclun and lettuce at the end of the summer. Remove the tomato plant when you harvest the last fruit. Fill its space with lettuce or other leafy greens, or just let the nasturtiums fill in.
You’ll enjoy the good looks and good flavors of the ‘Galactic’ lettuce, common chives, ‘Alaska’ nasturtiums, and mesclun through early fall until frost. Once freezing weather nips the plants, toss them into your compost pile.
Nancy J. Ondra is an award-winning garden writer, editor and former owner of a rare plant nursery. She is the author or coauthor of a dozen gardening books, including the bestseller The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer. She gardens in Bucks County, Penn., and blogs at www.hayfield.com. Find more ideas for container theme gardens in her book Container Theme Gardens (Storey Publishing, 2016).