Can we grow food while traveling around the country in an RV?
That was one of our first questions when we decided to try homesteading on the road, or as Brian likes to call it, roadsteading.
Our first idea was to build a sort of mobile greenhouse in the back of a truck and tow a travel trailer behind. Sadly, that idea was vetoed very soon in the process, mostly because of the added weight of having a truck bed full of soil.
So, we started thinking about gardening indoors with microgreens and sprouts. You can certainly get a lot of nutrition from them, but hardly a meal.
What we really want is to be able to supplement our grocery bill with some easy to grow vegetable varieties that we use regularly. We need a way to grow a larger amount of food in a small amount of space and make it easily portable.
Could container gardening be our solution to growing vegetables in a small space?
Containers are easy to set up, move, and break down when/if we need to. Sounds like just what we’re looking for, but there are a lot of questions that need answers.
How much can we grow? What kind of soil should we use? What are the biggest challenges to growing vegetables in containers? What are the best vegetables to grow?
Now, as much as we love heirloom tomatoes and bell peppers, we’re smart enough to know what a huge pain in the ass it would be to move around 5’-7’ plants for months at a time. We’d rather have something that we can harvest a couple of times a month and won’t grow to obscene size.
So, we sought out Travis Lesser and Woody Wilson of Cityscape Farm Supply, a company whose mission it is to make patio and small space farming accessible to everyone. Cityscape builds raised garden beds that are made specifically for growing vegetables in small spaces and urban environments.
If you’re going to be growing food for yourself and your family, you should be growing it with care and love which you get by growing it organically.Woody Wilson
With their past experience in farming, organic practices and nutrient management, this duo knows what they’re talking about when it comes to container gardening. We knew they’d offer the best advice on how and what to grow as we travel around in our 5th wheel.
How much space does someone need to start growing food in containers?
Woody: Depends, the more variety of vegetables you want the more space you’ll need. What do you want to grow? If you choose plants that have quick maturity times, you’re planting every month or so. But if you want tomatoes or potatoes, you’re dedicating one whole box for an entire season.
Sounds like greens and herbs are the way to go in a small space garden.
Woody: Yeah, that’s going to give you the most bang for your buck.
Travis: What‘s great about greens is, if you have the space, you can succession plant row after row and have a continual harvest each week.
What if you don’t have a lot of space and just want to see if you can grow something, how big of a container do I need to grow vegetables?
W: The most common thing I’ve seen is 5 gallon buckets. Just make sure to drill holes in the bottom to allow for drainage or you’ll drown your plants.
The biggest drawback to containers this small is that they dry out quickly and need more regular nutrient feedings. But the larger the growing vessel the easier it is to manage crops. So the largest size you can fit would be best for your plants.
T: You actually can grow in old clawfoot tubs & sinks or anything that will hold soil and provide drainage. People get really creative with their container garden beds. We love sharing those ideas on our social media to inspire our customers.
What kind of soil should you use when growing in a container garden?
W: If you have access to good compost then that is going to be the most affordable solution. Problem is, most people in urban areas don’t have access to this or only have access to poor compost that is full of plastic and other trash.
How do you know when compost is good?
W: You should be looking for a black compost, that when you pick it up it kinda reminds you of crumb cake. It’s got nice porosity, crumbles when dry and forms a ball when wet. Obviously, no plastic, no sticks, shoes, pieces of rubber, etc. and stay away from compost that comes from the sewage authority.
If you don’t have access to good compost, then you’ll have to buy the pre-bagged kind. However, the bagged stuff can be a little heavy and hold too much moisture. So if you buy bagged compost, you should mix it with potting soil or coconut coir.
What is a good soil mixture when growing in containers?
W: 50% compost makes a good base, then add in your potting soil/coir, and fertilizer. Make sure to mix everything fully to distribute the nutrients and allow for proper drainage.
What’s a good fertilizer for container gardening?
W: I love to add a little composted manure and worm castings into my soil mix when planting at the beginning of the season. But to manage your garden throughout the year you should find a good organic all purpose fertilizer like a 2-4-2. Compost tea and worm castings also work very well as amendments through the growing season.
T: I find that a liquid fish fertilizer is a great one to use because it’s well balanced and relatively low on the NPK scale so you’re not going to over fertilize and burn your plants. Also, if you dilute it well, you can spray it on your plants and notice a change almost overnight. There will just be a giant flush of green growth.
W: If you really want to know what’s best and take your gardening to the next level, get a soil test done and find out exactly what’s in your soil and what it needs. Penn State has a soil test program as well as most agricultural colleges, but there are also a variety of organic testing labs available online.
Should you grow organic and avoid chemical fertilizers when growing vegetables?
W: If you’re going to be growing food for yourself and your family, you should be growing it with care and love which you get by growing it organically. When you use synthetic fertilizers the plants end up absorbing those chemicals and then you eat it.
When I was just starting out, I was chatting with people at farmers markets and the question came up about organic gardening. This one lady said “I don’t like to poison food before I eat it” and that kinda stuck with me.
Where would be the best place to put your container garden?
T: Sun. As much as possible.
You can’t always choose where you can grow when living in the city, you may not always have that south facing balcony. You get what you get, but you still want to maximize on sunlight exposure to be able to grow the most variety.
Minimum light requirements for most vegetables is 6 hours of direct sun a day.Woody Wilson
W: And that is the minimum. Most growing seasons you have 14 hours of sun a day, so you want as many of those as possible.
T: Also, good air circulation is great, but not under a dryer or exhaust vent. Good air flow helps prevent many diseases. Not something you always have control over, but something to think about when trying to find a place to grow your garden.
So if we don’t have a lot of sunlight, what vegetables require the least amount of light to grow?
W: Salad greens are great, they don’t require as much as say a tomato, which would just grow tall and leggy and not put out that much fruit. So if you’re unfortunate as to not have a spot with full sun, you have to think about what you’re going to plant a little bit more to make sure you still get produce.
Some great green options for a low light garden are spinach, arugula, kale, lettuces, maché, claytonia, chard, endives, escarole, and mustard greens.
Root vegetables are also well suited for low light gardens. Beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, and turnips will all grow, but the days for them to mature may be longer than if they had full sun.
Perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, catnip, chives, lemon balm, and mint are designed to survive adverse conditions. Basil and parsley, annual herbs, also do moderately well.
One of the most common issues people have when growing in the shade is overwatering.Travis Lesser
T: The plants don’t need as much water because the soil’s not getting dried out by the sun and the plants aren’t photosynthesizing as much as they would be if they were sitting in the sun.
What are the biggest issues when container gardening?
W: Over and under watering. Overwatering is more common because everyone always thinks it needs more water. I recommend going on the lighter side of watering because you can always add more water, but it’s not that easy to remove.
Containers can be deceiving. The top will dry out but it still can be wet underneath. If it’s dry on top, dig down an inch or so and see if it’s damp. On the other hand, if it’s cracked on top then it’s probably too dry.
T: Nutrient management is also hard in small space gardening because there is not a lot of material to take up the nutrients. So you have to fertilize regularly if you have small containers.
Should you start with seeds or starter plants when container gardening?
W: Both. However if you start with seedlings, you’re using your garden space for a shorter amount of time, can harvest sooner and replant again.
When starting from seed, you’re adding 2 weeks to your harvest timeline. On the other hand, it’s much more cost effective to grow from seeds.
Can you reuse container garden soil from year to year?
T: You can reuse it year to year as long as you’re amending your soil at the beginning of each planting season. The exception would be if you saw signs of a disease in your plants like late blight in tomatoes. You don’t want to reuse that soil.
W: Soil does become compacted over time, so it’s good to fluff it up each year. In a garden, I use a broadfork, but in a container garden you could just use a little garden fork to lift and mix up your soil which adds more air. This is the perfect time to add your soil amendments.
Since we’re going to be living in an RV, do you have any recommendations for us to try and garden on the road?
W: Well, obviously our Cityscape Raised Beds would be great for you because they break down into a smaller box and are easy to transport.
But I think in an RV you have a lot of windows because you’re supposed to enjoy the scenery. They would be great for setting up some window boxes and growing herbs in them. Or some kind of small box that would hold your pots so you can move it to wherever your light is depending on the angle you park or even outside if you’re parked in the shade.
T: Repurposing rain gutters are also a simple, easy way to have small gardens along windows or on balconies. I’ve seen a lot of people have success with them.
However, you can’t be afraid to kill your plants if they get too big. Take basil for example, they can grow to be huge, you can’t have something like that start taking over your small garden. Don’t be afraid to harvest the whole thing and start a new one.
W: Another great idea would be a PVC greenhouse that can be broken down flat when traveling and set up at each new location with your garden in it.
That’s a fantastic idea.
Woody Wilson grew up loving the outdoors and landscaping. His passion lead him to study Turf and Ag Science at Penn State University. While in school, he interned at a local organic farm and landed a full time job as farm manager. At the same time, he was starting his own business, Wilson Home Farms, where he installs and maintains gardens for customers at their homes. He strives to be as natural and organic as possible whenever growing vegetables and other produce.
Travis Lesser worked as a professional in the golf industry for 11 years, touring both nationally and internationally. He eventually pivoted into business school at Penn State University and earned an MBA, and later began teaching at the university. He started brewing compost tea and running trials on grasses at golf courses promoting natural and organic fertilization.
The two met around this time and started chatting about business and organic practices and gardening. On a business trip to Philadelphia, Travis noticed that although a lot of houses had rooftop access, hardly anyone was using it to garden. Rooftops are a prime location for growing vegetables because of the full sun exposure. This information sparked an idea for a business and, upon returning to State College, he reached out to Woody and Cityscape Farm Supply was born.
Cityscape Farm Supply builds raised beds, called Patio Farms, for small scale vegetable farming, even when space is limited. Their raised beds are highly durable and will last for years, even in extreme weather conditions. They are designed specifically for vegetable gardening and by increasing the depth of the soil, allow for a larger variety of crops and more demanding crops like root vegetables.
Cityscape aims to make patio farming accessible to everyone. The addition of drip irrigation and a cold frame make the gardens even more self sustaining and hands off. Their beds range in heights (less bending over) and soil depths (grow potatoes!) to fit your preferred gardening style and space availability.
The Patio Farms are easy to assemble and ship throughout the US. You can learn more about Cityscape Farm Supply by visiting their website www.cityscapefarmsupply.com.