Easy organic gardening: 5 tips to boost your EarthBox crop yield

I hadn’t heard of the EarthBox brand before a friend moved into a condo and decided she didn’t have enough space on her balcony to use her three EarthBoxes and so she gave them to me. I admit that, at first, I thought these were glorified, over-hyped, giant tupperware-wanna-be planters. But the folks at EarthBox have really figured something out with this system. Follow their  simple instructions and you — and more importantly, your veggie plants — can’t lose.

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Why grow veggies in containers?

Or, asked another way, why grow veggies in soil steeped in lead and/or cat pee?

When I started growing veggies in an urban setting friends warned, “don’t plant directly into the soil! Your kale will be full of lead!” It doesn’t take much Googling to learn that you do, indeed, risk eating contaminants when you tuck into vegetables grown in dirty dirt. And dirty dirt is more than likely abundant in your urban garden. Residual lead from the good old days of lead gasoline at the pumps and other pollutants and contaminants are common in urban soil and so can end up in your dinner salad. No thanks!

Also, we have a feral cat colony that lives about four doors down from us.

One of our intrepid neighborhood feral cat colony members, Batman.

We love this colony! The rat population in our alley is pretty much non-existent because of it. They kill and eat a lot of rodents — and deposit the evidence of all that good eatin’ all over my property. I know: gross! But apparently even that activity helps keep the rodent population down; the critters get a whiff of these calling cards and stay clear. Note that it doesn’t take a village of feral cats to fertilize your garden in ways you don’t want. Indoor/outdoor Fluffy and Boo-Boo-Kitty from next door are also contending for Pooper of the Year in your vegetable garden.

Planting in a container removes the risk of unwanted and harmful grossness inside of your food. You dictate what’s in your growing environment, from dirt to fertilizer to plant.

EarthBoxes come with what looks a lot like a gigantic rectangular shower cap – the mulch cover — that is meant to keep moisture in the box. I also like to think that this acts as a barrier, protecting the soil from bad things falling onto it and working their way to the roots of my veggies. Maybe not, maybe so. Whatever the case may be, I sleep better with that idea in mind.

EarthBox vs a regular old planter – is it all just hype?

This graphic was pulled from the EarthBox instruction manual.

The secret to the super growth you can achieve with an EarthBox is in the under-dirt reservoir of water created by the aeration screen’s placement within the box. The screen hovers above the bottom of the box, leaving a space where water, which you pour into the box through the fill tube, collects. That reserve of H2O means your plants drink all day long. Nice.

This graphic was also pulled from the EarthBox instruction manual.

Tomatoes in particular seem very happy with this set-up although I’ve found that if I don’t add water daily our tomato plants droop big time. An EarthBox and regular daily watering relegated droopy tomato plants to a thing of the past. Niiice.

And now, 5 tips!

Five tried and true success strategies for your EarthBox veggie garden.

Tip #1: Time(r) is of the essence

I talk about irrigation thoroughly in this post about hydrating patio plants — even ones that are three stories up! Once I set up a water timer and drip irrigation for my EarthBoxes I truly stumbled upon a set-it/forget-it situation that led to consistently thriving vegetable plants. Every morning at 6:30 my RainBird water timer goes into gear and my Earthboxes get a couple of gallons of water delivered via RainBird irrigation. My veggies are hydrated on even brutally hot Chicago summer days. And the consistent hydration is a game changer. It’s a simple set up that makes a plant’s best life possible. Try it and see the difference in yield for yourself.

Tip #2: Stop the mulch cover madness with this replant kit

Right now I have about ten EarthBox mulch covers – the shower caps mentioned above – in my garage. When you buy EarthBox Replant Kits you get two covers in the kit, even though the kit only provides one bag of fertilizer and one bag of dolomite — enough for one EarthBox. Weird. Wasteful. Not like. If, like me, you have a stockpile of mulch covers and want to avoid the waste, try PowerGrow System’s Replanting Kit for EarthBox & Container Gardens – Dolomite Lime + Fertilizer. This is just the dolomite lime and fertilizer you need, enough for one EarthBox. Costs about $12 delivered.

Tip #3: Go organic soil or go…do…something else

Dr. Earth Pot of Gold Organic All Purpose Potting SoilI admit that I can sorta get a little funky about the cost of organic fruits and vegetables. I’m looking at a gorgeous red beefstake tomato that costs $1/lb., and then I’m looking at another beefstake tomato that looks identical but has an “ORGANIC!” sticker on it which apparently means it’s worth $3 more a pound. Really? When you grow your own food you can actually pull one over on the (produce) man. Simply use organic soil. It does cost a little more than non-organic soil, but I imagine an economist could work out the numbers and they would come out to quite the savings when you compare the cost of growing your own homegrown in organic soil beefstake tomatoes versus buying ones with a sticker on ’em claiming same at the store. My go to is Dr. Earth Pot of Gold Premium Potting Soil. This stuff looks great, feels great, and grows great. It even smells great. And note that it’s manure free (see above re: cat poop). Seriously – you will notice the difference.

Tip #4: Don’t over do it.

Tomatoes in various stages of “eat me!” goodness

Tomatoes: We grow grape or cherry tomatoes every year. When we started out we did four tomato plants in one EarthBox. While we got a ton of tomatoes from this, the plants were really cramped and just didn’t look so happy or healthy. Since they are in my flower garden, ugly plants didn’t work for me. We moved down to three, and finally to two plants in one box and this seems to be the sweet spot. We get oodles of tomatoes — as many as we did with four plants.

Kale in EarthBox – all summer long

Kale and other leafy greens: We grow all types of kale. We’ve also grown red lettuce, green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, spinach, arugula, swiss chard, and collards. We typically plant 6 plants per EarthBox and that gives us plenty of greens for months. It doesn’t matter what kind of leafy veggie we try, we get a successful and prolific harvest all season long.

Cucumbers: Like tomatoes, cucumber plants need a LOT of space. We have done two in one box and wow – that’s a lot of cucumber plant, and a nice amount of cucumbers, too! Cucumbers are vines and they will spread out and take over. I would say if you want to enjoy a homegrown cucumber in a salad every week, go with two plants and create a box trellis or use tomato cages to support your cuke vines. If you go for  more than two cucumber plants in your EarthBox garden give them a lot of space and a lot of support. Or get ready for lillies and irises and bee balm and phlox and your prized peonie to be callously used – not pretty – as supports by your cuke vines.

Tip #5: To fertilize or not to fertilize, that is not the question.

I’ve gardened for years and I’ve never really figured out fertilizing. What to use, how much to use, when to use it…. This is one thing that I love about the EarthBox system: you don’t need to think about or figure out fertilizers. You kick off your growing season with perfectly measured amounts of the stuff your plants need to grow, thrive, produce. And you don’t have to even do the measuring! Just open your bag of pre-measured fertilizer and dump it in your EarthBox. You won’t think about fertilizing again for the entire season. Between this strategy and your automatic watering set-up all that’s left for you to do when it comes to your EarthBox-bound organic garden is pick your produce and eat it. Yum! Yes please!

Your Turn!

I’ve been using an EarthBox to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, and more for many years. The results have been pretty phenomenal. Especially once I hooked up my irrigation system and set up automatic watering with a water timer in order to deliver water for an hour every morning to these super-grow environments.

But enough about me! Have you had experience growing veggies in an Earthbox? Were your results better/same/worse than you thought they’d be? Would love to hear from you – please leave a comment!

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