Container Gardening

If yard space is your only limitation, you can still grow a vegetable and herb garden successfully on your patio, porch, or even your door stoop. With the proper container, amount of light and water, soil type, and fertilizer, you can grow a wide array of crops without even breaking ground.

Choosing Your Container

There are many types of containers that make growing certain veggies and herbs possible without having an in ground garden.  Hanging baskets, planter boxes, and flowerpots are just a few examples of container types that can be utilized.  When choosing your container, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. How much root space does each specific crop require?
Choosing the right size container is very important.  Pots that are too small will restrict the root area and cause the soil to dry out too quickly and stunt the growth of the plant.  Pots that are too large will hold excess moisture and can lead to other problems such as root and stem rot.  So in choosing your container, keep in mind that each type of vegetable or herb will require a specific amount of root space to develop properly.  Baby salad greens and micro greens require very little root development and can be planted in a shallow container.  Full sized leafy vegetables and fruiting crops have much larger root systems and need a deeper, wider pot.  And while root crops, such as radishes, beets and carrots are typically not the best choice for containers, you can still enjoy growing these by selecting certain smaller rooted varieties that are better suited to container gardens and by choosing a deep enough container to satisfy the needs of the plant.

2. Does your container have good drainage?
While container plants are more susceptible to drying out due to the limited soil space, it is still very important that they have adequate drainage.  Most plants require plenty of water to promote healthy growth, but cannot tolerate soil that remains wet for prolonged periods of time.  If this happens, you will see poor root development and eventually root and stem rot.  Your container should have several unobstructed drainage holes in the bottom at least a ½” from the edge of the pot.  Putting an inch or two of rocks in the bottom of your container before filling with soil, while at the same time keeping your container raised off the ground a few inches will improve drainage.

3.  Is my wooden container made with treated wood or a type of wood that will easily rot?
While using wooden containers and barrels can be very appealing choices, please take note whether the wood has been treated with toxic compounds such as creosote.  The treatment could easily leach into the soil in your container, damaging your plant and contaminating your food.  Also keep in mind that it is best to choose wooden containers made with wood such as cedar, white oak, or redwood that are fairly resistant to rot and will better withstand the outdoor elements for prolonged periods of time.

Light

Most vegetables require full sunlight.  Full sunlight is defined as at least 6 full hours or more of direct sunlight.  Fruit bearing crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants require full sun and benefit most from 8 to 10 hours of direct light per day.  Leafy crops such as lettuce, spinach, specialty greens, and herbs prefer full sun to partial shade.  While partial shade is defined as 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight, these crops benefit most with at least 5 to 6 hours of sun.   Keep in mind, if your only spot to garden is in partial shade, try to orient your containers from east to west, so that larger plants will not shade smaller plants as the sunlight changes throughout the day.

Water

The amount of water your plants need will vary greatly depending on your climate.  Containers are prone to drying out faster than an in ground garden.  During hot, dry and windy weather, daily watering may be required, while during cool and rainy weather, you may not need to water much at all.  Although, it is important to monitor your plants daily to keep an eye on their needs.

Soil Type

Choosing the proper soil makes a big difference in container gardening.  There are many different types of soil mixtures on the market and each of these are suited to different aspects of the gardening process.  Some mixes are best suited for in ground use, while others are better suited as potting soil.  And further, some potting mixes are specifically for germinating seeds, for use in seed starting trays, soil blocks, or small containers.  While there are many brands on the market, VT Compost Company Fort V potting soil is a great example of such a mix.  This is the type of mix you will use if you are starting your own seeds, but once you are ready to transplant your starts into their final container, you will want to select a potting mix more suited to larger containers.  This type of potting soil has a coarser texture and provides proper drainage and a better structure for good root development.  VT Compost Perennial / Large Container Mix is a great example of a container garden potting soil.

Fertilization

Ensuring proper nutrients during your plants life cycle is another important consideration.  While many potting mixes often have compost or other fertilizer in them, you may still need to supplement your plants with more fertilizer.  This is especially true in climates that receive a lot of rain, as nutrients in the soil quickly drain out of your container before the plant has a chance to utilize their full benefits.  Also, the longer it takes for a plant to reach full maturity, the more fertilizing it may need.  While it is true that compost can make a good top dressing for your plant, it is more difficult for use in container gardening because of the limited space for soil in your container.  Be careful to leave about an inch of space at the top of your pot for rain and water to collect so that it does not just run off the top.  For this reason, many gardeners choose to use liquid fertilizers.  For organic gardening, you can use liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed such as Neptune’s Harvest.  Another great option is to make compost tea by soaking compost in water for a few days.  The nutrients and minerals from the compost leach in to the water.  The compost can then be drained out and you can use this to water your plants.  These are just a couple of examples, but any organic liquid fertilizer will do.  For best results, use a dilute solution with every other watering.  Remember, though, too much fertilizer can often be more damaging to a plant than not enough fertilizer.  Therefore, it is important to research the specific nutritional needs of each crop type you choose to grow.

Choosing your Varieties

Vegetables best suited for container gardening are those with a compact growth habit, such as bush beans, chard, chives, dwarf varieties of peas, peppers, determinate tomatoes, salad greens, spinach, most herbs, and root crops such as radishes, turnips, and some varieties of beets and carrots.  In general, crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, summer squash and zucchini, potatoes, corn, and most vining plants such as cucumbers and winter squash do not do as well in container production, although there are a few varieties listed below that might do better than others.

High Mowing Organic Seeds carries a wide variety of organic vegetables, herbs and flowers that are well suited for container gardening – check out our Container Gardening Varieties Page!

This entry was posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips. Bookmark the permalink.

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  63. Thanks for sharing this super-helpful article.
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  64. Pingback: Patio Gardening | Early Wonder

  65. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Linda G., I have found elevated planter boxes, 4×8 and one foot deep to be a wonderful way to grow a productive kitchen garden. Made of rot-resistant untreated wood and filled with organic compost. Seeded lettuce every week, just a dozen or so; that way, always had a new crop coming. Also seeded basil every two weeks, same as the lettuces. I have three planters, so I can grow an abundance of kale, chard, greens, herbs,and flowers, too. But even one such planter, the size of a single bed(the kind you sleep in), can produce a lot of food. Some advantages: it’s right outside my kitchen door, rabbits and woodchucks don’t get to share, and it’s accessible for anyone with mobility or range of motion issues, anyone having any difficulty bending down to touch the ground. This way, you have what I call “a garden within reach”!

  66. When I moved to the Northwoods of WI, it became evident that many folks lived in deep forest with little or no sunlight available to grow their food. I have always grown veggies in containers since the days in Chicago where my back porch fed the entire floor I lived on.
    I began my mission to help folks realize that containers were the best way to grow food for themselves up here in our very short growing season.
    I’ve done workshops using a Power Point of photos with examples of all the veggie varieties I’ve successfully grown…proving it’s not just theory and can practically be accomplished.
    Thank you so much for this article…confirming that this is a viable means for feeding ourselves…love and peace

    • Linda G says:

      LynnAnn,

      I would love to know more about container gardening. I live in Northern MI, just one state (and Lake MI) away! I’ve found it difficult to garden because of the conditions you mention and wondered about trying containers instead. Would you be willing to share your PowerPoint presentation on this?

      • Hi there, This article actually hits on most of the main topics of my presentation. My Path to Nature FB page listed here also has a lot of photos showing my mound gardening techniques as well as many of my containers.

        I’m presently helping folks by giving them free shrub and tree containers for their gardens…(my husband grows native perennials for his lake shore restoration projects so we have loads)

        If you ever get around to this side of the big water…come see me..in Sugar Camp, WI. You can see my place in street view on Google maps…love and peace and good luck!!!

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