Anne McDougal, head of the annuals section of Sprague's Nursery and Garden Center in Bangor, creates a window box of culinary herbs on May 16, 2018, in one of the nursery's potting rooms. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Hanging baskets and window boxes aren’t just for flowers and vines. Herbs, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and other edibles can be grown this way, swinging above the ground, their stems and leaves trailing downward. So if you’re short on garden space or simply want to try something new, this may be a good option for you. You just need to be willing to give your container crops a little extra care.

“Watering is probably going to be your biggest challenge with hanging crops,” said Kate Garland, horticulturist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Any type of container garden, regardless of whether it’s in the air or on the ground, needs to have good drainage so the plants’ roots get sufficient air and aren’t sitting in stagnant water. But with water escaping out of the bottom of the container, it can be tricky to keep the soil from drying out. Therefore, it’s important to water hanging crops daily, or even twice a day, Garland said.

For the same reason, getting your crops enough nutrients can be tricky.

The soil in a container garden should be potting mix or a homemade blend of peat, perlite and compost, Garland said. The soil from in-ground gardens is usually too compact for container gardens and can carry fungi and bacteria that can destroy your plants.

Then, once your hanging crops are settled into their new home — whether its a hanging basket, window box or growing bag — adding fertilizer can help your plants thrive.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

“You’re constantly watering them and washing out the nutrients,” said Melissa Higgins, wholesale manager at Sprague’s Nursery and Garden Center in Bangor. “So we notice that with our hanging baskets, if people bring them home and if they stop fertilizing them, the basket runs out of nutrients, and that’s what keeps them healthy and in bloom.”

For fertilizer, there’s a wide variety of options. The kind you choose often depends on the type of plants you’re nourishing. For example, tomato growers might want to try fertilizer formulated specifically for tomatoes.

Tomato plants, with their trailing vines, are one of the most popular crops to plant in a hanging container. Certain types of strawberries are also commonly planted in baskets. But there are plenty of other crops that are well-suited for this type of growing.

To help people create their own hanging gardens, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension provides an online list of vegetables that grow well in containers, whether those containers are on the ground or suspended. The list includes red ace beets, oliver brussels sprouts, gold coin onions, littleleaf cucumbers, salad bowl lettuce, thumbelina carrots, ace sweet peppers, patio tomatoes and much more.

“These varieties are typically smaller in stature than their traditional counterparts,” Garland said.

Culinary herbs are ideal for ideal for growing in container gardens because they can be easily carried indoors in the winter for an extended life. Also, the size of herb plants are easy to keep under control, since you’re constantly snipping off pieces to use in cooking.

“You just have to make sure you don’t overload it because then the plants will quickly take out the nutrients and not produce as much fruit,” said Anne McDougal, in charge of the annual plants at Sprague’s Nursery.

Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

One of the most common mistakes people make in container gardening is trying to cram too many plants in one space, Garland said.

“Seedlings look so small at the beginning of the season,” Garland said. “It’s very tempting to pack more in than is reasonable for the space you have.”

So if you’re new to container gardening, start small. Try one crop in one container. And hang it in a place where you can keep an eye on it, ensuring it gets enough water, nutrients and sun.

Gardening hack

Rather than invest in a window box, container or basket, there’s another, easier option. Plant seeds or seedlings directly into a bag of potting mix.

“I poke some holes on one side of the bag with a fork (for drainage), then turn it over and make small holes for planting transplants or directly sowing seeds,” Garland said.

The closed confines of the bag slows evaporation so the plants only need to be watered every couple of days, she explained. And you can mix up the size of the bag, depending on how mobile you want this mini garden to be.

Garland has done this with large bags of potting mix, growing one tomato plant per 1-cubic foot of soil. And for smaller crops, she’s experimented with smaller bags, such as 1-quart freezer bags.

“The quart freezer bag garden worked pretty well for growing peas under grow lights indoors for a botany class I was teaching,” Garland said. “And I used the same sized bag to grow bush beans with a group of preschoolers — one bean per plant bag. But you’re not going to feed an army with that approach.”

A number of garden supply businesses sell “grow bags” for this type of gardening. Some are meant to be placed on the ground, while others are meant to be hung on the side of a fence or home. And, of course, there are plenty of DIY instructions and videos online on how to make your own grow bags.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.