The Dirt

Veggies in Containers

Photo/Illustration: Debbie Baxter

If you have limited space and time but still want to try your hand at growing edible, think about growing your vegetables in containers. No yard is necessary; a patio, deck, windowbox, or even a fire escape will do. All you’ll need is a couple of containers, some soil, seeds or seedlings, and a little fertilizer. Your cash outlay will be minimal, and you’ll have the satisfaction of growing something tasty to eat.

According to a National Gardening Association Survey, you will not be alone. About half of all food gardening households (48 percent) grow food in containers. I’ve always been blessed with enough space for an in-ground garden, so I never had to “resort” to growing vegetables in containers, but this year I decided to learn something about it.

This morning I attended a seminar on the topic at Hollandia Nursery in Bethel, Connecticut, an established family-owned business with gorgeous display gardens and acres of greenhouses with flats of annuals, perennials, and vegetables as far as the eye can see.  Here’s what I learned:

Location, location

Vegetables need 6 to 8 hours of sun per day. For heat-loving plants, a south or southwest exposure is best. To keep lettuces productive in the summer, a southeastern exposure gives them light early in the day and keeps them out of the strong afternoon sun. Of course if your container is small enough to carry, you can move from place to place, as necessary.

Caged tomatoes in pot
Cage tomatoes for their own good. Concrete reinforcing wire provides sturdy support for tomato vines and a perfect frame to attach anti-bug netting.

Choosing a container

You can buy a container that’s diminutive or you can get one that requires a forklift to move. You can even get a railing planter with a bottom that’s configured to sit snugly on a 2×4 or 2×6 deck railing. Or you can simply reuse something you already have, such as a whiskey planter, garbage can, joint-compound bucket, baskets, or windowbox. Just make sure that it has drainage holes at or near the bottom and that it’s deep enough for what you want to grow. Lettuces and herbs require the least depth; tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, and cukes the most.


peppers and a unflower planted by the chipmunks and carrots
This photo was taken July 9, 2013 of the 4 x 12 bed. The 2 containers: peppers & a sunflower planted by the chipmunks and the other- carrots. Behind them are kossack and kongo kohlrabi, then broccoli & cabbage, next 3 tomatoes grown on twine, and lastly green beans and pea pods (on fencing.) Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Carol Jean Kadonsky

Soil selection is critical

A high-quality potting soil is your best bet, and Reelick recommends Hamptons Estate Professional Potting Soil. Another good choice is a commercial soil-less mix. Topsoil alone is too heavy and should be avoided. And it never hurts to add some compost. To retain moisture, Reelick suggests adding some Soil Moist to the bottom of the container to help retain moisture..

Nutrients mixed with soil in wheel barrell
Nutrients should be well mixed with the soil before containers are filled.

Plant from seed or seedlings

Either will work. Nearly any vegetable can be grown in containers (Reelick wouldn’t suggest trying corn, pumpkins or watermelon), but it’s best avoid “mammoth” varieties. Stick with “patio” tomatoes, Asian-style eggplants (long and skinny), and bush squash. Anything tall will need a trellis or stake and a deep container. For seeds, make a shallow depression in the soil, sprinkle in some seeds, cover lightly with sand, and water. For seedlings, plant and water. Be prepared to thin when the seeds sprout.

Gently removing seedlings from their pots
Gently remove seedlings from their pots to avoid disturbing the root system.

Water and fertilize

If your containers dry out completely, your plants are toast. Soak the containers before they reach that condition. Self-watering containers are sold by Gardener’s Supply and many other garden sites. For fertilizing containers, Reelick swears by Osmocote and Jack’s Classic Plant Food.

gardener using a Narrow-nosed can to water her seeds
Narrow-nosed cans are best for watering seedlings. Here, Nancy Goodwin gets young transplants off to a good start.

Don’t forget to harvest

When the food is ready, don’t let it go to waste. Pick leafy lettuce by the leaf, and the plant will grow more. When the radishes are pulled, you can plant something else.

gardener using sharp cutters to snip through woody stem
Sharp cutters help snip through the woody stem to harvest this ‘Kurume Long’, an Asian eggplant variety that is excellent in a stir-fry.

In the fall, put your garden to bed

Each year you’ll want to put a fresh soil mix into your containers, so you need to empty them before spring rolls around. With ceramic containers, it’s important to do this in the fall if you live in a cold climate, or the containers may crack.

Late season herb containers
Late season herb containers.

Learn more about growing veggies in containers

To learn more about growing fruits, veggies, and herbs, visit our sister site,

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