While there are a lot of advantages to container gardening - especially for renters or others lacking yard space - there are limitations. Different crops require different amounts of space, and choices will need to be made about which crops you really want if you only have one GrowBarrel. One way to optimize the space is to carefully choose the varieties of vegetables you use. For example, while the tomato plants we may be used to growing can be as much as six feet tall, there are also tomato varieties that stay small and grow in a more bush-like formation. Additionally, trellis's can be used so some plants - like peas and beans - grow vertically, leaving more room in the barrel for other crops. Finally, a planting strategy called 'successional planting' can be utilized. This is described further in the Planting and Harvesting page. Here, we shall focus on what plants were chosen for the current GrowBarrel design and other resources for choosing your own plants in the future!
Green Village GrowBarrel Vegetable Varieties
The information provided below was assembled from A LOT of different sources. We cannot recommend enough Ed Smith's book, Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers. It not only has in depth information about how to create your GrowBarrel design, soil choice, plant choice, and care, but it also has specific incites about vegetable, herb, and flower varieties. Furthermore, though, there is a lot of information available on the Internet. Of course, there are Wikipedia sites devoted to each plant and online catalogs which contain a lot of information, but there are also a lot of guides to urban gardening that take the use of containers into account when suggesting varieties. Two of these guides are attached at the bottom of this page (Productive Vegetable Varieties and Superabundant Small Gardens - Doing More with Less). Finally, asking an employee at your local garden center - such as Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply - will provide you with a wealth of information particular to our weather and seasonal patterns, as well as your available space and lighting conditions.
Beans are perfect for self-watering container gardens - and there are so many varieties! We chose Scarlet Runner Beans because they are incredibly gorgeous AND delicious, and they will easily grow vertically up a trellis. Some beans - such as bush bean varieties - won't need trellis's because they are so compact. Choosing a variety of beans will, therefore, depend on the space you have available, whether you have a trellis, and what you like! Most often, people are most familiar with snap beans (such as Jade, Provider, Rocdor, and Royal Burgundy varieties), but filet, snap, and pole (one variety of which is scarlet runner beans) are also very tasty and growing them will expand your cooking horizons!
We were able to do beets in these GrowBarrels because we have soil about 10 inches deep. If you make your own GrowBarrel, you'll need at least 10 inches of soil to grow beets, otherwise they will not grow well. As long as the soil depth is okay, beets quite like container gardens because they like having plenty of water to grow fast in the spring. In addition to Bull's Blood, Big Top, Blakoma, Chioggia, Early Wonder Tall Top, Red Ace, and Golden Beet varieties all grow well in container garden
Broccoli can be grown from a transplant in the spring or seeded about a month after the last frost (when, of course, it can still be transplanted as well). We provided seeds for the summer. Full-size broccoli heads can get quite large, so they may not work well when planted with other demanding plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc) in the summer, which is why they will sometimes be transplanted earlier in the spring. If you're looking for a small-headed broccoli, though, check out Munchkin and Small Miracle to share the space in the container well.
Again, carrots could be grown in these GrowBarrels because of the deep soil (at least 10 inches). There are some varieties, such as kinko and parmex (super tiny - at an inch long, not worth the effort in the gardener's opinion), which are shorter and can grow in soils that aren't as deep. The main consideration when choosing your own varieties, then, will be the final length of the carrot as limited by your container depth.
Peas are another vertical plant, and one that can be planted in the spring. By the time the peas are done producing, the tomatoes and runner beans will be ready to grow on the trellis (this is where successional planting largely came in for these containers). Most people enjoy snap (Sugar Ann and Sugar Spring varieties) and snow (Snow Green) peas most, but shelling peas (those which you don't want to eat the shell) are also tasty and well-adapted to containers.
Finally, Spinach is a great fall crop because it enjoys the cooler weather (plant in late July for fall harvest). They can also be planted earlier in the spring, though, before the full heat of the summer starts. They can be picked leaf by leaf, or you can wait for the plant to mature (central stem becomes a flower stalk) and harvest the whole plant
Cucumbers can be planted from seed, but they like it to consistently be above 70 degrees. As of writing, it is mid-June and we still don't have consistently 70 degree temperatures in which the cucumbers could germinate happily, so transplants (either from shoots you've grown indoors or from a greenhouse, plant sale, etc.) are usually a safer bet. Cucumbers in GrowBarrels are MUCH easier to maintain when they can climb a trellis. Some other suggested varieties are Boothbay Blonde, Diva, Straight Eight, and Little Leaf.
Scallions are also known as green onions. They're sweeter than red or yellow onions, and their head is much smaller and more well-suited to the GrowBarrel's size.
Now, pick a vegetable, and there are going to be innumerable varieties to choose, if you can find places or friends that can source heirloom or quirky varieties. Still, there are SO MANY different kinds of peppers that my mind was still boggled by the choices. Whether you think ketchup is spicy or if you go to Indian restaurants and order 'Indian hot' food, whether you prefer red, yellow, purple, or brown food, and whether you have a large or small space, there is a pepper plant that will be perfect for you. Watch for a compact plant, and you'll be fine because they love self-watering containers so much.
Tomatoes. The quintessential garden vegetable (or fruit, to be specific). Of course, like peppers, there are so many varieties that you could grow a new one every year and never run out of new varieties to try. If you want to have several different crops in your GrowBarrel, you'll want to look for a determinant tomato because they grow as bushes rather than vines and stay nice and compact. They also will produce once, and then decline. If you can grow a tomato plant alone in a barrel (or with things such as lettuce, scallions, or other plants that will be done producing before the tomato really gets started), then you can consider indeterminate tomatoes - which can get up to six feet tall, definitely need a trellis or tomato cage, and set fruit as long as the weather allows.
Obviously, there are so many vegetables you could grow in a GrowBarrel that I'm not going to be able to list all the other options that we did not choose for the Green Village GrowBarrels this year. Go forth and experiment! But, below are some of the other possibilities, if they play nice with other plants in the same barrel, and some varieties to choose from.
Artichokes - Good in self-watering containers, but a bit of a space hog and require more attention (fertilizer about six weeks after going in the container). It is wise to use transplants as artichokes won't fully mature in our relatively short growing season if started from seed in the barrel. Imperial Star is one example of a good variety in this particular climate.
Arugula, Claytonia, Collards, Cress, Dandelions, Endive, Escarole, Mache, Mustard, Orach, Bok Choi, Radicchio, Swiss Chard, - Another type of salad green, you can grow this in the same manner you would lettuce.
Brussel Sprouts - It's hard to believe when you buy them in the grocery store, but brussel sprouts grow on HUGE stalks. Okay, huge may be an exaggeration as they grow to about three feet, but what they produce is so relatively small that I was surprised. It can share a container with other plants, but it is pretty demanding water-wise, so things such as lettuce (rather than tomatoes) might be better container mates. Transplanting into the barrel is usually the best option, but the bonus is that they are quite cold resistant. The Jade cross and Oliver varieties have a short season which will work well in this climate.
Cabbage - Dwarf varieties are suggested for containers if you'd like to grow other plants in the same container. Otherwise, they are quite happy in container gardens. Some varieties include Alcosa, Arrowhead, Gonzales, and Red Express.
Cauliflower - a single plant is quite happy in a GrowBarrel our size and shares the space well. If you're feeling adventurous, try the Cheddar (orange head), Graffiti (purple head), Panther (lime green head), or Violet Queen (purple head). If you're looking for the more common white head, check out Snow Crown. The one consideration of extra care for the cauliflower is that once the head starts to show through the leaves, gather the leaves to hide the head by typing them with string (particularly for white colored varieties) as this will make the cauliflower taste better.
Celery - A finicky plant that tends to die if ever dried out, celery loves container gardens. The root system is close to the surface, so it can easily be grown around plants with deeper roots (tomatoes, peppers, etc.). Fairly easy to seed due to a shorter growing season than bigger plants, but make sure it's warm enough (around 75 degrees). Some varieties include Conquistador, Redventure, and Ventura.
Chinese Cabbage - Lettuce doesn't really enjoy the hot summer heat, so it is usually harvested in the early summer and fall. Chinese Cabbage though is very similar to lettuce in taste AND enjoys the heat, so it is a good replacement for the space your lettuce once occupied. Minuet is a small head variety, while Rubicon has 12 inch heads.
Eggplant - The only advice is if you want to grow it with other plants, stick to dwarf varieties such as Bambino, Fairy Tale, Neon, and Orient Express.
Kale - This plant is a boon to Minnesota gardeners, mostly because it is one of the most persistent crops I have ever seen. We had three frosts last year and, after everything in sharing its barrel had succumb to the elements, the kale was still going strong. Check out Red Russian, Toscano, Wild Red, and Winterbor.
Kohlrabi - A funny looking plant that looks to me a bit like an alien. Check out Kolibi and Winner varieties.
Leeks - happy to grow in the same manner as scallions.
Radishes - Soil should be at least six inches deep, but otherwise happy in GrowBarrels. Varieties include Cherry Belle, Easter Egg, D'Avignon, and Plum Purple.
Strawberries - Soil should be at least eight inches. Usually need to be kept for two years to ensure fruit production, but there are single season strawberries as well.
Herbs are an interesting case. Many, in fact, prefer traditional containers because they taste stronger/better when they have a little adversity in their growing season - when conditions aren't perfect, they produce more of the chemicals which make them so tasty. Some, however, are good for self-watering containers.
Basil - Ed Smith suggests this to be a traditional container crop, but we've found that it is quite happy and still tastes just as good from self-watering containers. We chose to grow from a transplant, but they're also easy from seeds. There is a basil for every taste, so enjoy exploring the varieties!
Cilantro - Also discovered by experiment to grow quite well in self-watering containers. Seeds will be perfect due to their fast growth.
Chamomile, Chives, Hyssop, Lemongrass, Margoram, Mint, Parsley, Sage, and Shiso all should also do well in self-watering containers.
Both Intern Jennifer Nicklay and Stephanie Hankerson very much enjoy edible flowers, so it was an easy decision to include a couple in the GrowBarrels. Now, if eating flowers isn't quite your cup of tea, they also serve the wonderful purpose of being very pretty and adding a dash of color to your garden. The varieties chosen were based on their taste, happiness in a self-watering container, size, and appearance.
Violets (or Violas) are especially good at sharing space nicely, but they are also quite beautiful and varied in their appearance (the left picture depicts only one variety). They were given in the spring workshops because they tend not to do well in the summer heat. After they wilt, they can either be cut back to flower again in the fall or can be pulled and the next two flower varieties can be put in their place. The blossoms can be picked at any time.
Bachelor's Button are fairly compact, and all the varieties grow well in self-watering container gardens (and they are Jennifer's favorite edible flower). The flowers should be picked (for eating, at least) right after they open.
Lemon Gem Marigolds were chosen mainly because it is one of the few marigold varieties that are edible (others aren't poisonous, but aren't tasty either). Ed Smith suggest that they are not well-suited to self-watering containers, but we have found that they do fine in the large containers we use (the other plants appear to make sure the marigolds aren't able to get too much water). As a caution, though, I would not grow them in much smaller containers. The flowers can be picked at any time, but, if you plan on eating the blossoms, take off the white part at the base of the petals beforehand as this part is quite bitter.
There are, of course, many other edible flowers (and inedible) which can be grown in GrowBarrels. Some other varieties include:
Calendula's produce flowers for a long season. If eating, they should be cut with some stem remaining. Varieties include Bon Bon, Lemon Beauty, Pacific Beauty mix, Red Heart, and Sunshine flashback.
Dianthus shares space well and is small, so they can be tucked under larger plants in the GrowBarrel. As with marigolds, remove the bitter white part at the base of the petals before eating. All varieties are edible and, as far as I can tell, all will have the characteristic small stature.
Some flowers that I would caution against growing in a GrowBarrel with other plants are Nasturtiums and Sunflowers. Nasturtiums are ridiculously difficult to keep it in check - it will take over the GrowBarrel. If you want to grow these (and who could blame you? the flower AND leaves are edible, and so delicious!), I would suggest a smaller GrowBarrel to themselves. Sunflowers, conversely, are often so large that they can only share a GrowBarrel with a very few items, such as lettuce and herbs.