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Not everyone has the space, soil, or ability to grow an in-ground vegetable garden. Here are tips on how to grow food in a container garden instead. They include guidance on what you’ll need, the best plants to grow, and how to fill and care for your container vegetable garden.
If you’re short of space, have challenging soil, or live in rented accommodation, you might not have the option of growing an in-ground garden. Fortunately, you can grow vegetables in a container garden! Most vegetables can successfully be grown in pots and containers, but there’s some guidance that I’d like to share with you for container gardening success. That includes the best containers to use and which varieties of vegetables grow best in smaller spaces. Also, tips on the right kind of mix to fill containers and how to take care of the plants you grow in them. It can be quite a bit different from growing in the ground but just as fruitful.
Container gardens are great for window ledges, patios, balconies, and rooftops. I’ve even seen people with no front gardens line containers up against the front of their homes. Other people use a mixture of container plants and in-ground plantings. As a gardener with quite a large space for a vegetable garden, I still use containers to grow some crops that might be invasive in the ground. Whatever your situation, there’s a container garden solution for you!
Growing in pots and planters can give you a lot more freedom when growing a garden. For example, you can pick them all up and take them with you when you move house. You can also move pots around your outdoor space for better light or simply because you want to change things up. Another great aspect of container gardens is that you can design them so that you don’t have to bend down or make the containers wheelchair accessible. Once you start growing in planters, I’m sure that your creativity will kick in, and you’ll have bountiful harvests growing in whatever space you can give them.
Growing Vegetables in Containers
We’re going to go through some depth about how to grow fruit and vegetables in containers, and there’s a lot to cover. There are some highlights so that you have an overview of what to expect and prepare for:
- Most edible crops can grow in pots, planters, and containers.
- Smaller varieties, also called dwarf varieties, can be better for container gardening.
- Containers come in different sizes, shapes, and materials; choosing the right one for each crop is important.
- Fill containers with a growing medium that offers nutrition yet stays moist but not waterlogged.
- Water containers every day in hot weather. At other times, stick your fingers in and feel the potting mix each day. Water if it feels dry about an inch down.
- Container-grown crops need fertilizing once weekly during the growing season.
- Trellises and supports can help container-grown crops grow vertically.
Best Vegetables for Containers
I think that I’ve seen just about every type of fruit, berry, herb, and vegetable grown in containers. So, if you’re wondering if you could grow one that’s suitable for your climate, there’s probably a way! The first thing that you need to consider with each is how much room their roots need to grow so that you can choose the right size pot. You’ll also need to know if they need a specific type of potting mix and if they need any special support or care. Some plants need quite large containers to grow, and the weight of these might not be an option if you’re growing on a balcony.
There are even times when containers are the best option for growing certain types of edible crops. For example, if they’re spreaders and can be invasive, such as in the case of horseradish, Jerusalem artichoke, and the mint family. Blueberries also come to mind as an ideal container garden candidate. They grow best in slightly acidic soil; if your garden doesn’t have that, you can buy ericaceous compost from your local garden center. Use it to pot them up in containers with at least a 24″ diameter and depth, and they’ll be happy and productive. Here are some of the best vegetables to grow in containers, though:
- Green onions (spring onions)
- Swiss chard
- Welsh onions
- Herbs like basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, parsley, and thyme
Dwarf or Miniature Varieties
If you want to grow vegetables in containers successfully, choose dwarf varieties. These are more compact or shorter versions of the standard plant. Sometimes, even miniature versions, as is the case with Raspberry ‘Yummy’ that I grow in a fabric bag. It grows small canes about 18″ tall and produces almost normal-sized berries. The great thing about dwarf varieties is that they usually produce the same size crops, but the plant itself is much smaller. That means that it needs less space to grow and can be perfectly happy in containers. Here are some dwarf varieties that I recommend:
- Dwarf Fruit Trees (apple, cherry, lemon, avocado, and more)
- Broad Bean Robin Hood
- Carrot Paris Market
- Cucumber Spacemaster 80
- Cauliflower Igloo
- Green Bean Hestia
- Lettuce Little Gem
- Melon Minnesota Midget Cantaloupe
- Pea Meteor
- Peppers Mirasol (spicy) and Jingle Bells (sweet)
- Pumpkin Jack Be Little or Munchkin
- Summer Squash (zucchini) Goldrush or Peter Pan
- Tomato Tumbling Tom Red or Tiny Tim
Vertical Gardening in Containers
Many container gardens are simply pots placed on a hard surface with low-growing crops, such as Swiss chard or lettuce, in them. If you have a wall or fence to work with, you have the opportunity to grow taller crops, though! That includes climbers, like beans, peas, or achocha, or use vertical planters to grow crops right up the wall. One planter that I have that’s brilliant for that is the Gardena NatureUp planter. I have two of them and gifted another to a friend with a balcony garden. She absolutely loves it! In the photo above, I have it on a ledge built against the fence at my old home. It also doubled as a privacy screen since you could see through the slats in the fence.
You can build vertical planters as well, and I’ve seen some clever designs using drink bottles, wooden staging, pallets, plant pots, and fabric pouches. If you have basic DIY skills, you can save a lot of money and reduce waste by making your own vertical container garden. Alternatively, there are hanging baskets, custom-made plant pots that clip onto balcony rails, and plant pot holders that help you mount pots in front of the balcony.
Lastly, use stakes, wire, and trellises to your advantage. Climbers will happily scramble up sunny walls if you give them a place to grow. You could also push a tomato cage into a planter and use it for all sorts of crops. If you’re unable to drill or mount supports to the wall, you can also use these climbing plant fixture clips that stick onto the wall.
Setting Up a Container Vegetable Garden
A container vegetable garden is a collection of pots, planters, and containers that grow edible crops wherever you have the space to put them. The plants you grow inside them are as diverse as the containers themselves! You can grow root crops, leaf crops, and even vegetables that need vertical space to climb, such as green beans. Siting your container garden is something that needs consideration, though.
One of the most important aspects of setting up a vegetable container garden is light. Most fruit and vegetables need to have at least six hours of direct sunlight every day in order to produce a crop. So, choose the location of your garden thoughtfully, and try to give it as much light as possible. There are some leafy crops and herbs that can tolerate less light, but they, too, will be healthier and more productive if you can give them a brighter place to live.
Another thing to consider is exposure to wind. Container gardens can dry out very quickly in breezy places, and the plants inside them can be damaged. It’s possible to protect plants from the wind and cold with hurdles, fence panels, and other structures. As long as they don’t block too much light, you could also use to shield plants on balconies. If you’re able to provide containers with a little shelter, you can really reap the rewards. I grow quite a few crops in containers inside my glass greenhouse, but you could get a for your deck or balcony.
Potting Soil for Vegetables
Often overlooked or poorly understood, the growing medium that you put into pots and containers matters. The first rule is not to use soil. It sounds counterintuitive, but soil in pots and containers causes more problems than it’s worth. It’s heavy, dries out very quickly, and it’s depleted of nutrients in the snap of your fingers. Plants in containers suffer if you plant them in soil, so leave the soil in the ground and instead use a soil-less potting mix suitable for vegetables.
Confusingly, these mixes are often called potting soil in the USA or compost in the UK. You can buy bags of it ready-made or make your own mix. The one I tend to make is about 50% compost (aged manure or garden compost), 25% coco coir, and 25% drainage materials, which can be perlite, vermiculite, sand, and/or very fine-grade stone. I mix in a half-cup of FBB (Fish Bone Blood) per five gallons (19 L) of potting mix for slow-release organic fertilizer.
Also, you may come across something called peat moss. I do not use it and am a big advocate for peat-free gardening. Peat moss extraction is almost always environmentally destructive, so I use composted wood chips, bark, or coco coir instead.
When filling pots and containers, I don’t cover the hole with broken pieces of terracotta pot anymore. Although a long-standing garden tradition, placing crocks at the bottom of pots has now been myth busted and can even make pots more waterlogged. If I’m filling pots on a surface that I want to keep relatively clean, I’ll instead put a layer of newspaper at the bottom of the container. It will eventually degrade but keeps the potting mix in place for at least the first day.
If I’m not, I don’t bother putting anything inside before filling the container with potting mix. Since it’s generally quite light and fluffy, I will push it down into the container gently to try to reduce air gaps. Then, I’ll plant or sow seeds at the top surface, which is about an inch below the top lip of the container. For a finishing touch, I’ll sometimes, but not always, scatter a thin layer of pebbles or horticultural grit on top as mulch. I also use pot saucers under containers to help catch excess water.
How to Water Containers
One of the biggest questions people have about growing a container vegetable garden is how often you need to water. The answer to this question comes down to one answer – you water when the potting mix is starting to dry out. The aim is to keep it moist but not wet at all times, and if you do, your plants will thrive. The best way to gauge if the planter needs watering is to get your fingers in the potting mix and feel. Sometimes, the top surface is dry, but there’s plenty of moisture down below.
As far as water amount is concerned, plants growing in pots 24″ deep need, on average, about 2″ of water each week to grow. This will vary based on how hot or cold it is, though, and I’ve never bothered measuring it out. I tend to water the surface so that a noticeable puddle forms and then allow it to drain down. I also always water my potted plants with a Plant Surge attachment. I’ve been using one for years, and this year, I ran a trial on young plants. It definitely boosts growth and vigor! They’re available in the UK, too. Also, in summer, be aware that you may need to water your containers every day. Don’t rely on rain to keep planters watered, either. Rain is often not enough.
Fertilizing a Container Vegetable Garden
Even though potting soil can have decent quantities of nutrients, it can quickly be depleted by vigorously growing plants and water run-off from the planter. That’s why container-grown plants need feeding once every week with a water-soluble fertilizer. You can make homemade fertilizer or buy it in jugs or bags, but either way, you dilute it to about 1:100 in plain water. Typically, this is about 1.5 capfuls to two gallons of water if you have a liquid fertilizer. Follow the instructions on the container for other types of fertilizers. Without this liquid feed, plants can really struggle to satisfy their nutrient needs in containers.
Choosing Planters & Containers
If there’s one thing you need to start a container garden, it’s containers. They come in all shapes, sizes, materials, depths, designs, and price points, so it’s worth chatting about their differences. That’s because not every planter is right for your crops and situation, and some containers are better than others. You should also be aware of a plant’s growth needs and the climate that you’ll be growing in before choosing containers. You want them to be big enough for your crops, water retentive if it’s hot, breathable if it’s wet, and they should also last a long time.
I’ll go through my recommendations for types of containers below, but first, let’s discuss those that I don’t recommend. The first is unglazed terracotta pots. These are the standard clay pots you can see just above. Though very common, these are the least suitable of all pots to use for growing vegetables because the potting mix inside them dries out quickly. Terracotta is porous, meaning air and water can travel through the pot – terracotta also absorbs moisture and sucks it right out of the potting mix. This makes unglazed clay pots great for plants that like dry soil, such as cacti and succulents, and for DIY ollas, but not as ideal for container vegetable gardens.
Metal containers aren’t ideal for planting directly inside, either, since they will rust and degrade over time. I had the bottom of a metal planter fall off not long ago! It lasted a few years before rotting, but it was a bummer, nonetheless. The other type of container I’d advise against is anything of dubious material. If you think that there’s a potential for it to be toxic, please avoid it. That includes car tires and plastic that may have contained something hazardous. Also, wood that has been painted (and you don’t know what type of paint it is) or treated with creosote.
Ideal Container Sizes
When I’m asked about containers, I usually say that the bigger you can afford, the better. The average tomato plant needs a deep 5-gallon container to grow in, and potatoes benefit from the same or larger. If I were to recommend a standard-sized container for most fruit and vegetables, I’d say to go with those that are at least two feet in diameter and two feet deep. With containers that size, you can grow root crops like carrots but also single plants of tomato, eggplant, zucchini, and even berries like raspberries.
Small containers under two feet in diameter can be handy for starting off seedlings or growing smaller crops. A few lettuces, cilantro, mints, or radishes, for example, or single strawberry plants. They can also fit in well in front of larger pots or sit well on window ledges or balconies. Do keep in mind that if a container is too small, it will need more watering and nutrients and may stunt the plant(s) growing inside. Research a plant’s root length or root ball size before deciding on a container for it.
The Best Container I Grow In
In my garden, my largest containers are called Vegepods, and they basically create waist-height raised beds on my deck. They have a plastic base, which is ideal in hot climates and the height of summer since it minimizes water loss. They also have a hidden water reservoir that plant roots can tap into. I’m growing most of my carrot crop in them this year since they’re deep enough and also elevated to keep the carrot root fly off them. They’re available in the USA and UK, among other places, and the Vegepod discount code to get 10% off is lovelygreens
Other Recommended Containers
Vegepods are on the high-end of containers, and most of the others you’ll find are smaller, lower-tech, and cheaper. Planters and pots are common enough, and you can generally find a good assortment of them at garden centers and DIY shops. Other containers are upcycled or DIY’d, and as long as the material used to make them is food-safe and durable in the sun, they’ll work a treat. Here are some of the most popular types of containers and what they’re best suited for:
The cheapest and most accessible food-growing containers are grow bags. These are usually bags made of synthetic fabric or woven plastic fibers constructed to have heavy-duty seams and handles. They can also be made of recycled plastic bottles, like the ones I have from Root Pouch. The great thing about grow bags is that they’re really cheap in comparison to other containers, and because they’re breathable, they root-train the plants inside, helping stop them from becoming root-bound.
Another thing that I love about them is that they are fantastic for growing indeterminate potatoes – the ones that benefit from earthing up. You can roll the bag down at the sides when you first plant, then unroll it as you need to fill the bag. Genius! Though they are less moisture-retaining than other types of containers, they’re still great for growing crops in. For an upcycled version, you can use hessian coffee bags or feed bags or punch a few holes at the bottom of compost/soil bags.
Glazed Terracotta Pots
Although I don’t usually recommend unglazed clay pots for vegetables, the ones that are glazed are just fine. The glazing is often glossy and colorful, with lots of different designs to choose from. These pots are great for growing crops because the glazing stops moisture from evaporating from the pot. Smaller ones can be planted with smaller plants and herbs, like young mint plants, and larger ones that are deeper are much more versatile.
Hands down, the most common type of planters you’ll be able to find are the plastic type. Plastic plant pots come in lots of different shapes and sizes and can be inexpensive and useful! I found the two above at a recycling center and got some decent harvests from them before giving them away at our annual seed swap. Some people are averse to using plastic, but when it comes to plant pots, it’s a useful material since it keeps moisture locked inside. They can also last many years, which makes them durable and useful. Not at all on the same level as single-use plastic.
If you’re growing a lot of containers, worried about keeping pots watered, or planning trips away during the growing season, then self-watering pots will be up your alley. I have a four-pot Autopot kit that I grew tomatoes in last year and cucumbers and luffa this year. The pots are 6.6 gallons in volume and are bottom-watered with a dripline that comes from a larger water reservoir. You can even put liquid fertilizer in the water tank to keep your plants healthy. It’s almost effortless to grow crops in them!
If you’d like to save money on self-watering pots, you can also DIY them or use a low-tech solution called ollas. Remember how I told you that terracotta allows water and air to flow right through it? Ollas make use of that aspect of terracotta and work like water reservoirs that plant roots can tap directly into. I share how I use ollas in planters in the video above.