The secret to Jane Madison's homemade salsa isn't just a pinch of this or a dash of that. Rather, it's the whole lot of vegetables she carefully and tenderly grows every summer at her Soldotna home.
"It just tastes so wonderful to be fresh," she said with a smile.
But Madison's garden doesn't take root in the ground -- she grows her vegetables in containers, each plant in its own in the greenhouse her husband Will built for her.
Dominating the greenhouse is row after row of tomatoes strung high, shelves of flowers, and buckets on the ground overflowing with potato plants.
"We've discovered that putting them in containers works so much better for us, but of course that's in the greenhouse," she said of her six varieties of tomatoes. "Most of the other things we are putting in containers are actually going to go out on the front porch. We then can protect them from the moose and rabbits."
Although every Peninsula resident might not have the time, resources or budget to construct a greenhouse like the one on the Madison property, Jane encourages residents to experiment with container gardening as an easy and fun way to grow fresh veggies for the summer. But, she has a warning for those starting out.
"It's much cheaper to buy them," she said with a laugh.
"But, we love them because they are tasty and they are the varieties we like to eat and share," she said. "And, it's fun -- keeps me out of trouble."
The benefits of container gardening are many -- gardeners can grow them out of the way of harmful winds and if one plant gets a disease or bugs it can be separated from the rest and treated individually. Gardeners can also move the plant to the best sun or shade locations. Another advantage comes at harvest time -- simply turn over the pots and pick out the goods.
Madison starts growing some of her plants in January in her home. When it's warm enough she brings them into her greenhouse and then transitions them to a full outside life. But Madison warned gardeners to harden their plants off, meaning they should be slowly introduced to the outside weather for increasing periods each day.
"If you take a plant out from your house or your greenhouse it's going to sunburn or it is going to get too cold at night," she said. "It is too much of a shock."
Planting vegetables in containers early in the spring or winter allows for maximum growth during the summer season. When they are taken out of the home, Madison advised to elevate them off the ground to keep them from getting too cold. Madison uses an inch-thick Styrofoam board for insulation.
In addition to tomatoes and potatoes, Madison also grows parsley, cilantro, sage, mint, sweet basil, carrots, dill, peas, green beans and potatoes in her greenhouse, all of which are in containers. She also grows flowers they give away to local charities that would otherwise not be able to afford them. The Madisons said they are careful not to compete with the business of local greenhouses.
Madison said with the right water, light and temperature combinations, most anything planted in the ground will grow in a container -- radishes, kohlrabi, beats, kale, spinach, herbs, turnips, lettuce, cabbage, swiss chard, and others.
Successful container gardening takes time, but Madison said gardeners don't need to invest all their summer to enjoy a few fresh veggies.
"You have to pay attention to the plants," she said. "Now you wouldn't have to have thousands of plants like I do. You could have two sets of potato plants and it takes almost no time. You just have to make sure they are watered."
Madison had these suggestions for gardeners wanting to start a container garden:
* Only plant what you have time and space for.
* Sunlight and watering are unique to each plant so read the seed directions or ask an advanced gardener.
* Start by planting potatoes the first year and then advance to lettuce.
* Insulate the bottom of your containers from the cold ground, it will help them grow faster.
* Elevate the plants off the ground to help keep rabbits away.
* Plant marigolds nearby as moose don't like the smell of the flower and generally will stay away unless they are really hungry.
* Containers should always have holes drilled in the bottom and a few along the side to ensure proper drainage.
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.