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Container gardens perfect for planting peppers, tomatoes and more

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Not everyone has the space, time or energy to wrangle a full-scale, in-ground food garden with raised beds full of leafy greens, melon and squash vines running rampant, peas dangling on trellises, a strawberry patch, onion and garlic spears pointing skyward and tomato plants pumping out scads of fruits, to say nothing of beans, peppers, okra, eggplant, carrots, beets and turnips. Whew, you can break a sweat just thinking about it.

But almost everyone can grow miniature vegetables in containers set on a sunny balcony, porch or among the foundation plantings of the house. All you need is full sun, water, some rich compost from the garden store, containers and the right seeds. The plants will dress up your front stoop or deck. And when you cook, food will be right at hand.

Fortunately, California vegetable breeders have been developing seeds for small-scale container gardens that are just coming on the market, and February is the time to buy them. The National Garden Bureau has compiled a list of these exciting new varieties.

Pretty N Sweet is a 12-inch-tall ornamental pepper that tastes as good as it looks. The plant stays low and bushy and covers itself with 1½-inch-long, thick-walled, crunchy and extremely sweet peppers that range in color depending on ripeness in shades of green, yellow, orange, red or purple. Perfect for salads or crudites. You can buy seeds at Seeds ’n Such (seedsnsuch.com), Park Seed Co. (parkseed.com) or Vermont Wildflower Farm (vermontwildflowerfarm.com).

Alter Ego is an ultra-compact spicy-hot pepper that stays just a foot tall and does well in 8- to 12-inch pots. The peppers are prolific and range from lime green through purple to scarlet. Find seeds at Totally Tomato (totallytomato.com), Vegetalis (vegetalis.com) and HPS Seeds (hpsseed.com).

Sweet N Neat is a cute compact tomato that grows only 10 inches tall but is covered with cherry-sized fruits. Try it in an 8-inch or 10-inch pot. Red fruits are available at Totally Tomato and at Amazon. Amazon also carries seed for the yellow cultivar.

Cherry Fountain tomato grows only 6 inches tall, but overflows a container at 40 inches wide with cherry-tomato fruits, making it ideal for a hanging 14-inch basket on a sunny porch. Find it at Park Seed or Amazon.

Better Bush is a compact tomato that will thrive in a 12-inch pot and produce full-size Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Seeds are sold by Seeds ’n Such, Park Seed and Reimer Seeds (reimerseeds.com).

Pink-a-licious also produces full-size Beefsteak-type tomatoes, but in a pink color. It’s a flavor champion and grows best in a 14-inch pot. Park Seed carries it.

Pantheon is a compact zucchini with classic heirloom-style ribs on its fruits. The plant stays neat and productive if the squashes are harvested regularly when they reach 6 inches in length. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com) carries the seed.

Spineless Perfection is another fine zucchini that produces all summer in 12-inch or 14-inch containers. You can purchase seed at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Park Seed and Harris Seeds (harrisseeds.com).

Aristotle is an ornamental and culinarily useful Genovese-type basil with tiny leaves. Plant one in a 12-inch container and it will make a pretty, round ball of leaves that you can pinch off repeatedly over the growing season for kitchen use. It’s carried by Park Seed, Amazon and Bonanza Seeds (bonanza.com). Remember, too, many culinary herbs do just fine in containers, especially Greek oregano, marjoram, thyme, savories and small mints.

Clancy is the first potato available to be grown from seed. It’s a prize-winner with spuds in a mix of reds and rose-golds and flavors from buttery to russet-like. Plant the seed in a 5-gallon bag with positive drainage filled with compost. Add more as they grow, in order to hill them up. Park Seed and West Coast Seed Co. (westcoastseeds.com) sell the seed pelletized for easier handling, while Seeds ’n Such sells the un-pelletized seed. West Coast Seeds, by the way, sells only non-GMO, never-treated seeds. Their catalog is worth perusing.

For many more vegetables appropriate for containers, there’s a trove of information at the Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org). Search the site for “seeds for a container garden.” You can buy organic, untreated, non-GMO seeds from Seed Savers.

Why containers?

A great perk is little or no weeding. That’ll save you a summer’s worth of work right there.

But remember, all your containers, whether plastic pots, terra cotta pots or ornamental containers, need drainage holes. No exceptions.

For soil, use a 50-50 potting soil and composted manure mixture with some perlite or vermiculite to hold moisture. The soil should be rich but drain quickly and easily.

Containers will dry out more quickly than soil in the garden, so check more frequently. If the soil in the container is dry through the top inch, water. Every two weeks, water with a fish emulsion fertilizer mixed into the water at 2 tablespoons per gallon.

Finally, the smaller the container, the more often it will need watering. Also, the darker the container, the more heat it will absorb and the more water it will require. If you can use an old rug or tarp to shade only the containers, that will help cut down on the frequency of watering.

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