Sunset test garden coordinator Johanna Silver unveils her secret superpower: answering your burning botanical questions

Ask Garden Girl

Q: A city patio is my only outdoor space. Can I grow veggies in pots? – Amy Cannon, Santa Cruz, CA

A: Without a doubt! Larger plants, like tomatoes, squash, and peppers, need containers at least a foot deep. Oak half-barrels are perfect (find them at the garden store or on Craigslist)—just be sure to drill drain holes in the bottoms.

Use fresh potting soil; I also throw in a few handfuls of compost or organic granular fertilizer (Dr. Earth and E.B. Stone are my favorites). Just follow the instructions on the back of the box.

Don’t crowd your plants! Those baby brussels sprouts look itty-bitty now, but have you seen a full-grown stalk? Those puppies are going to need room. Follow the spacing listed on the plant’s nursery tag. We’re talking one tomato or one zucchini per barrel. You’ll thank me later.

Most veggies like regular moisture, meaning you should water the pot gently until some trickles out of the drain holes, and then stop! Repeat whenever the top inch of soil dries out—your finger is the best gauge.

Q: I’m growing a lot of edibles in my garden—how do I get rid of weeds? I really don’t want to use chemicals. – Pia Immordino, Sacramento

A: Two words: by hand. Get out there and pull ’em before they flower. A single weed has hundreds, even thousands, of new seeds in each bloom, all waiting to scatter across your yard. Try to get the roots too.

Sure, you can use tools like hoes or Japanese hori horis. But honestly, I like to use my bare hands, though my boyfriend wishes I wouldn’t, since they get dry and chapped. If I remember to put on some gloves, they’re usually Atlas Nitrile Touch ($6 at Ace Hardware and True Value)—sturdy, yet so thin I can still feel what I’m doing. And when you’re done? Mulch around your plants to keep the weeds from returning. I like to use 2 to 3 inches of straw or shredded bark.

Q: I want to grow a tomato plant this year, but I don’t know where to start. Help! – Lisa Dean, Denver

A: First, buy a baby tomato plant at the nursery. It should look healthy, with deep green leaves and no flowers. I like ‘Early Girl’, a no-fail and totally delicious variety, and ‘Sun Gold’, an orange cherry tomato that’s as sweet as candy.

Next, choose the sunniest spot, and mix a couple of bucketfuls of compost into your soil. Dig a hole, knock the plant out of the pot, then sink the rootball deep into the hole. I always pinch off the bottom leaves first, then bury the stem up to the next set of leaves.

To keep them from flopping over, sink a 6-foot stake (rebar from the hardware store works great) next to the rootball when you plant. As the plant grows, use soft ties to hold the branches to the stake.

Water the little guy until the soil is wet a few inches down. Keep watering daily for a  few weeks, then only when the soil is dry.


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