Not everyone has acres of land for growing crops. But there’s good news for even the most close-quartered city dwellers: many specially bred fruits and vegetables can be grown in containers.
Do you like the idea of pumpkins for Halloween and watermelon for the dog days of summer? Consider a “Jack-Be-Little” pumpkin that measures a petite 3 inches across, or a “Sugar Lumps” watermelon measuring a diminutive 8 inches.
Lydia Pollard will discuss these varieties and more on Saturday, Jan. 23, when the Master Gardeners of Greater New Orleans team up with the LSU AgCenter to present the 2016 Winter Gardening Symposium at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. Pollard serves on the board of directors of the MGGNO and oversees the cultivation of the transplants the group uses for its 25 projects and for its plant sales.
Joining her on the symposium program are Greg Cooper of MicroLife Fertilizers, who will present a talk on “Organics Made Easy”; and Dr. Kathryn Fontenot of the LSU AgCenter, who will explain “How to Build and Maintain a Spring Edible Garden” using the AgCenter’s new “Home Garden Series” publications.
Pollard first developed an interest in working with midget and dwarf varieties of vegetables and fruits when working as the project manager for the MGGNO’s project at Arc of New Orleans.
“The people we work with there have some disabilities that make it necessary to garden at stand-up beds and I was looking for some varieties of vegetables that don’t need to be planted in something real deep,” Pollard explained. “I found that the dwarf vegetables work well.”
Pollard draws a sharp distinction between “baby” carrots, say, and “dwarf” carrots.
“A baby vegetable is one that would grow to a regular size if allowed to but is harvested early, when it’s still small. A dwarf or midget is one that has been bred to remain small and it will never attain the size of a regular vegetable,” Pollard said. “Some varieties of vegetables are more compact than others but aren’t true midgets or dwarfs, and I also plan to talk about those because they do well in containers.”
If the thought of miniature vegetables and fruits seems appealing, be aware that it is unlikely that garden centers will carry starts or transplants ready to go in your container.
“You’ll need to grow them from seed,” she said.
But take heart: Unlike decades ago when nary a seed for a “Tom Thumb” lettuce or “Thumbelina” carrot was to be found, seed catalogs today offer dozens of choices for miniatures, most of them with fanciful names: “Minnesota Midget” cantaloupes grow to a mature size of just 4 inches; “Bunny Bite” carrots are less than 2 inches long.
Although the names can be endearing, Pollard says it’s important to select seeds that will yield the best results.
“Since I have started growing miniatures, I have experimented with varieties and found that some work better than others,” Pollard said. “The midgets and dwarfs are susceptible to the same diseases as the full sized plants so you want to look in the seed catalog for ones that are disease resistant. Also check with the AgCenter for information.”
Among the varieties that Pollard recommends for planting in winter are “Monte Carlo”, a mini Romaine lettuce, and “Dwarf Blue Curled” kale. She also favors a dwarf Shanghai pak choi called “Mei Qing Choi,” which has been bred for resistance to heat, cold and bolting. For the summer, she likes “Tiny Tim,” a dwarf tomato, and several bell peppers, including “Mohawk,” a compact but high yield pepper that can be harvested green or allowed to ripen to a deep orange.
Available space will determine whether gardeners cultivate miniatures in a few pots or in a larger tub. A larger tub makes it possible to mix crops by planting combinations of “Spacemiser” zucchini with “Dwarf Head” cabbage and “Little Gem” lettuce, for example.
“Vegetables like to be mixed together and to be mixed with herbs, because the herbs attract beneficial insects and pollinators,” she said. “For summer, a ‘Globe’ basil like ‘Pluto’ works well — it has a tiny leaf and grows just 6 to 8 inches tall.”
In addition to admission to the talk series, a ticket to the symposium offers a continental breakfast at the NOMA Café, free admission to the museum, the opportunity to purchase transplants for the garden, and a chance at winning one of three designer containers.