Tips for growing veggies in containers in a desert

csross(9)February 13, 2014

I'm planning out my summer garden and trying some new things this year, so I'd love to get some advice from you all. I apologize that this will be long, but I'm trying to present everything here, rather than asking questions in multiple threads.

I've run out of in-ground gardening space, and would like to expand into containers. So far, I'm hoping to do poblano peppers in 5 gallon buckets and indeterminate tomatoes in 20 gallon storage tubs. I've read about the 511 mix, but because of the extra time and energy to find all the supplies, screen them correctly, and mix up a big batch, I'm considering that a last resort. If I can put in less effort, using bagged potting mixes with some amendments, and still get decent production, I'll be very happy. So far, I know not to get potting soil, or Miracle Grow Moisture Control.

I live in Riverside CA, where we don't get summer rain and temperatures exceed 90F for basically all of July, Aug & Sept. The extreme aridity and intense sun are making me nervous about container gardening.
If I need 50 gallons of growing media for two 5gal buckets and two 20gal tubs, that's ~7 ft3. Last year, I bought a bulk "Planting Mix" from a local nursery to build a raised bed, and it did very well. I've attached a picture of the dry mix, but based on what I've read here, it's probably not suitable for containers - too much 'dirt'.

Right now, my options seem to be:
Sunshine Mix #1 - $33. This comes in a 3.8 ft3 compressed bale, which I'm guessing should expand to almost enough volume. (I can also get Mixes #2-5, but don't know price.)
Sta-Green Potting Mix or Kelloggs Patio Plus Potting Mix - bagged at Lowes - probably around $30 for the total volume I need.
The Sunshine Mix is mostly peat based, with perlite and some fertilizers. The other two Potting Mixes are made of "composted forest products".
Generally speaking, I know that the advantage of the 511 is that it doesn't compact, doesn't retain excess water, and provides air to the roots, which makes the plant very happy. Given that I'm in a very hot, dry climate, though, I'm ok with sacrificing some of the plant's "potential" for the convenience of not having to water twice a day every day. I looked at Lowes and a local nursery, but haven't been able to find suitable bark fines yet, although I have seen perlite and I can continue searching for the bark if you think it's necessary.
Does anyone have any suggestions as to which media would work best in my conditions?

I'd also love some general container-growing advice. So far, I've heard about the following:
- Shade the pots with cardboard or wrap with white fabric to reduce the soil temperature
- Cover the foliage with shade cloth during summer heat
- Put string or strips of an old t-shirt through the bottom holes to allow excess moisture to wick out
- Don't put gravel in the bottom of the pot
- Water until some liquid comes out the bottom of the pot. But I've also read to water from the bottom with a tray. Aren't those exclusive?
- Mulch with straw
For fertilizers, I've read about using Osmocote for long term nutrition supplemented with weekly dilute waterings of MiracleGrow and "micronutrients" - what are micronutrients?
Any other advice for a newbie? Thanks very much.

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I live in Rosamond in the Antelope valley ..Aware of the hot dry conditions..Going to sound crazy..Last year i planted peppers inside a lrg brick i saw this on Pinterest and it grew amazing and i got quite a few peppers..

    Bookmark   February 13, 2014 at 9:02PM
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Oxboy555(Las Vegas)

You should be able to find decent bagged products that contain peat, bark, perlite and maybe some compost. It looks like you could just add some perlite in with the stuff in your pic and you'd have a poor-man's 5-1-1.

Are you planning on nursing your tomato plants through summer into fall? Few if any types produce above 90 degree heat and can look really ragged.

THEEE most important thing for any container in a hot dry climate (note I'm from Vegas) is complete afternoon shade during summer. Even though a lot of plants say "Full Sun" or "6+ hours of sun", it doesn't apply to us. Two to four hours of morning sun then they have to be in complete shade from Noon or 1pm on no matter what kind of plant and no matter what kind of container. Else the soil in the pot just gets too warm and roots get cooked. People think watering more (2-3x/day) helps but it actually hastens the plant's demise.

Water from the top until some drains out.

Bark or straw mulch is a good idea.

Google "micronutients" and find a liquid fert like Foliage Pro that contains them all.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2014 at 6:10PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I think in hot and dry summer( no rain, low RH, like So. CA, in July) You have to water your plants more often and I don't think there is a shortcut for it. What you can do is try to pick a medium with more moisture retention and a location that limits direct sun to about 6 hours daily. Obviously bigger container is advantageous in storing more moisture , longer. I would also choose WHITE or light color plastic container ( as opposed to black) to reflect and radiate some of the heat away. I have the oposit situation here. So I choose black containers and I can get by with smaller containers.

Also try to mulch the top of your container with bark nuggets to minimize evaporation and getting the soil hot. In a plastic container, water/moisture is evaporated from the top surface and the foliage only.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2014 at 1:03AM
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I read about a method of gardening suite to hot, dry areas called keyhole gardening. Here is a website.

    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 7:29AM
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Thanks very much. I used shade cloth to keep tomato plants alive through last summer in my raised bed, and one of the reasons I want to try containers is so I can move them to follow or avoid the sun as necessary. I also just discovered self-watering containers, so I'm looking into them now. Lots to think about!

    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 3:14PM
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zeuspaul(9b SoCal)

I am a little south of you in north county San Diego. Last year was my first year with container vegetables. I have full sun and lots of drying wind all day long.

I had excellent results with summer squash. No matter what I do in the garden, squash wilts mid day. In the container garden there was no wilting and high production. Very good success with basil and broccoli. Bell peppers were good but some of the garden peppers did better. Same for tomatoes.

Bigger pots do better as they hold more water. i water about once a day.

The squash was in 20 gal pots which seems adequate. Some squash in #15 (12 gal) did ok. #15 for tomatoes seemed too small. 25 gal for tomatoes was ok but I want bigger. For smaller plants it is ok but I am trying 40 gal for bigger plants this year.

Basil did fine in 5 gal pots. However You can't leave for a day or two unwatered so bigger is better.

This year I am going to get saucers for watering if I have to leave them for a couple of days. Saucers for the 20 gal and up is more difficult I may try to make my own with concrete.

I like the Earth Gro ground cover bark at Home Depot. Batches vary a lot. Sometimes it is good, sometimes not so good.

My biggest mistake last year was not enough nitrogen. The bark eats it up.

I mix about eight parts bark, one peat, one Kellogs Amend (composted poultry manure, rice hulls, gypsum and etc.) and one part calcined clay (kitty litter) I add Vigoro citrus and avocado fert (has some micros and slow release nitrogen), gypsum,epsom salt and dolomite lime and a little Am nitrate to the upper half of the containers.

I use black nursery pots because they are the cheapest pots I can find. Twelve bucks for 25 gal and 22 bucks for a forty.


    Bookmark   February 17, 2014 at 9:28PM
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albert_135(Sunset 2 or 3)

The best memories of gardening in Phoenix are of Armenian cucumbers. They seemed to thrive on the heat and sun. I should think they would thrive in containers.

    Bookmark   February 18, 2014 at 3:36PM
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I have alot of container plants and always use redwood bark mulch to keep them alive. I live near Sacramento and it is HOT in summers. With the bark, I can water just once a day.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2014 at 8:31PM
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