Sunday, January 31, 2010

An Unexpected Benefit of Container Gardening

A little over a year ago, we switched from a stable existence in a house with a large back yard to one in transition, with no appreciable back yard. It'll still be a year or so before I can move back to a real house and start gardening in earnest again. The problem is, I just can't go that long without gardening. Last summer I set myself up with a container garden on the back of the apartment I am renting. Despite getting a really late start, it was a wonderfully productive garden that provided much produce. As is usually my habit, I grew a fall garden. I typically plant a little lettuce and a bunch of spinach. Combined with the swiss chard I usually grow all summer, I get fresh greens until things get really cold and shut everything down for the season.

One benefit of growing spinach as a late season crop is that it survives the winter. Even in my Zone 5 garden up in Colorado, it survived all winter one year, perhaps because it had a nice bed of snow almost the whole time. But here in my Zone 7 garden in Arizona, it consistently survives the winter. (FYI, I have also had cilantro and snapdragons survive all winter, perking up in the spring). The spinach just turns a little pathetic looking after Thanksgiving or so and shuts down for the season. After that, you don't really get any more produce. However, once things warm up in the spring, it is ready to explode into life. It already has a root system in place and will grow rapidly and produce huge amounts at the first hint of spring. In my garden in Colorado, I found myself trying to find a way to eat spinach at every single meal.

Since my garden is in a container this year, I found a new benefit. The soil is up out of the ground and sitting in full sun with a lovely southern exposure. It is next to the house so the heat from the house helps as well. This year my spinach never shut down. It isn't as if it hasn't been a cold winter. Morning temps have been mostly in the 20s for a month and a half or so. We have gotten a total of about 2 feet of snow. Of course, this being the high desert, daytime temps do get over freezing nearly every day. I am sure that helps. I have just been surprised that not only is it still big and healthy looking, but it is still growing. I still harvest a little spinach when I have tacos or a burger. What I take grows back in a week or so.

And it isn't just the spinach. Swiss chard is a biennial. It shuts down even more than the spinach. When it comes back the next year, it is putting energy towards the production of seeds, so the greens are of low quality, usually small and tough. So, typically, swiss chard isn't worth having after winter really sets in. Today (January 31) I decided to clean up my containers and get them ready for spring planting. That involved pulling out the rest of the swiss chard. Once I sorted it and washed what was still worth eating, I filled a gallon bag with beautiful, healthy swiss chard.

I think next year I'll have to plan my winter garden a little better.


  1. What variety of spinach? I grow spinach in a Zone 6b (Virginia) and it has never bounced back -- grow a new crop every year.

    Much thanks!

  2. Currently I am growing Early Prolific Hybrid from Burpee, but, honestly, I am really not that picky about what kind of spinach I grow. I just usually avoid Bloomsdale because it is too hard to clean. I have long since forgotten what I grew in Colorado so many years ago.

  3. Thanks for sharing this information about gardening.