Growing vegetables in containers is easier than you might think. All you need is a sunny patio or deck, good rich potting soil, a few plastic planters, water, and a minute or two each day to check in on your plants. With only a little effort, before you know it you’ll have fresh, home grown vegetables to pick and enjoy.
Successful container gardening starts with top-quality soil, and growing vegetables in containers is no exception. Resist the temptation to fill your pots with dirt from your backyard and instead opt for the rich premixed potting soil that you purchase at your local garden center or home improvement store.
Potting soil especially formulated for containers and container vegetables is widely available, but simple potting mix can be purchase for under $2 or a 40 pound bag. Choose the best soil you can afford for the best results, preferably one with fertilizer already included.
The containers you choose for your vegetables depend on which varieties you intend to grow. Shallow, broad containers and window boxes are fine for leaf lettuce and herbs, but if you want tomatoes or peppers you will need a pot large enough to accommodate a substantial root system. The pot you select should also have at least one small hole in the bottom for good drainage, and should include a saucer to keep the container off the ground and to catch water run off.
Start by filling your pot with gravel or small stones about an inch or two deep, then mound potting soil mixed with a little compost or composted manure (you can buy this in bags at your local garden center) about halfway up the pot. If you are planting a tomato or pepper plant of considerable size, spread the roots over this mound, then fill in with potting mix until the container is about three-quarters full. Do not bury the stem of the plant.
If you want to grow vegetables from seed, wait until all danger of frost is past and daytime temperatures are consistently above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can start seeds indoors, but this is a bit trickier than just waiting to plant them in your container outdoors.
If you start your vegetable seedlings indoors, you must provide plenty of direct artificial light so they don’t become ‘leggy’ (i.e., long stems, few leaves), and you will have to ‘harden them off’ bit by bit when you first put them outside. Start with an hour or so per day and gradually increase the amount of time your seedlings spend outdoors until they are fine all day.
If you place tender indoor seedlings outside and leave them there on the first nice day, you risk losing them immediately to shock and you will have to start all over. A better idea is to just start the seedlings outdoors from the start by choosing vegetables that are easy to grow from seed. These include lettuce, chard, beans, spinach, herbs, and peas.
When you select peas or beans to grow in containers, look for compact bush varieties. If you do buy pole beans or peas that grow in vines, make sure you have plenty of trellis or fence nearby that they can grow on. Radishes, carrots, and onions can be grown in containers and are also easy to grow from seed, but you have to make sure your container is deep enough and large enough to accommodate them.
Tomatoes and peppers are more difficult to successfully start from seed. You will have much better success growing these popular vegetables in pots if you select bedding plants specially bred for patios, and if you buy the largest specimens you can find. Some other vegetables such as zucchini, winter squash, summer squash, and pumpkins take up so much space that they aren’t very practical to grow in containers.
However, if you have lots of space, don’t be afraid to try pumpkins! Choose a large container (like a barrel planter) and expect your pumpkin or squash vine to ramble out all over the place (as much as 12 to 20 feet). Squash and pumpkins are easy and fun to grow especially if you have children, but neither will fit comfortably on an apartment balcony.
Growing vegetables in containers requires vigilance when it comes to feeding and watering. Check your vegetables daily for water by poking a finger about an inch into the soil. It should be evenly moist but not waterlogged or bone dry. Feed your container vegetables regularly with a fertilizer designed especially for that purpose. Miracle Grow and Fertilome both make good plant foods designed especially for container vegetable gardens.
Bugs are not usually a problem when growing vegetables in containers, but should you see a few, don’t overreact. Aphids can be sprayed off with a hose. Caterpillars can be picked off by hand and squashed. If you have a problem that seems to warrant a stronger response, mix a little soapy dishwater into a watering can or spray bottle and apply to the affected areas. Warm soapy water will kill most bugs and is harmless to humans.
Finally, make sure your container vegetables get plenty of sun and ventilation. Most vegetables need at least four to six hours of direct afternoon sunlight to thrive. Keep your pots well spaced to provide good air flow and prevent disease and pest problems.
You can find lots of great information about growing vegetables in containers online as well as plant and seed suppliers that will deliver everything you need right to your front door.
If you like the idea of growing your own vegetables but never thought you had the room to try it, consider giving container gardening a try.
You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish is a small space.