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Tips for Growing Veggies in Containers

All you need is a couple of containers, some soil, and the right plants

growing veggies in containers
Photo: Debbie Baxter

If you have limited space and time but still want to try your hand at growing edibles, think about growing your vegetables in containers. No yard is necessary; a patio, deck, window box, 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. If you’re one of those people, here are a few tips to help you be successful.

tomato plant growing in a container

It’s all about 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 it from place to place as necessary.

How to choose the best 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 on July 9, 2013, of the 4×12 bed. The container on the left holds peppers and a sunflower planted by the chipmunks, and the one on the right has carrots. Behind them are kossack and kongo kohlrabi, then broccoli and cabbage, three tomatoes grown on twine, and green beans and pea pods (on fencing.) Photo: courtesy of Carol Jean Kadonsky

Soil selection is critical

soil in a wheelbarrow

A high-quality potting soil is your best bet. 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, you could add some Soil Moist to the bottom of the container.

Plant from seed or seedlings

Either will work. Nearly any vegetable can be grown in containers, but it’s best to 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 seedling from pot
Gently remove seedlings from their pots to avoid disturbing the root systems.

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, try Osmocote and Jack’s Classic Plant Food.

watering a tray of seedlings
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.

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.

herbs growing in various sized containers
Late-season herb containers.
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