If you don't have the space for a full garden, you can grow just about any vegetable in a container. The secret to successful container gardening is knowing what type of vessel to choose for each vegetable, selecting a nourishing soil, and providing the correct amount of light, water, and fertilization.
Follow our tips for growing vegetables in containers to help you and your plants get off to a good start.
First time growing vegetables in a container garden? Start by growing peas and lettuce—they're both easy to grow and will produce satisfying results for your table quickly.
Select the Perfect Container
You can use almost anything as a planting container as long as it's the appropriate size for your plant, has good drainage, and is made of food-safe material. The larger your container is, the easier it will be to maintain: the more soil a container holds, the more moisture it will retain.
Tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, cucumbers, cabbage, and beans should be planted in at least a five-gallon container. Beets, carrots, lettuce, and green onions can be planted in three-gallon containers. Most herbs and radishes grow well in containers of one gallon or less.
Vegetables that require support like a tomato or squash plant will need a deeper container to avoid tipping over from imbalance or by offering too much wind resistance.Root vegetables like carrots and potatoes need a deeper container than shallow-rooted leafy greens.
Wooden containers are attractive and you can usually find optimal-size containers that aren’t too expensive. Or you can make a wooden planter box. Just remember that after a few seasons, wooden containers may begin to rot.
Plastic Self-Watering Containers
Growing vegetables in self-watering containers works well. They are large, easy to use, and incredibly durable plastic. They make watering plants a cinch because all you have to do is keep the water reservoir full.
You can use glazed ceramic or terracotta pots, but it's harder to keep your plants moist in terra cotta because the clay allows the water to evaporate out of the soil more easily.
To help solve this problem, you can line a terra cotta pot with plastic, use a plastic pot as a liner, or seal the pot with a stone sealing product.
Because ceramic and terracotta pots draw moisture into their materials, they can shatter if left outside in freezing weather. Make sure to store them inside during the winter.
For an inexpensive container, use a 5-gallon plastic bucket from the hardware store and drill holes in the bottom. Another alternative is to make an unusual container from something you have around the house, such as an old laundry basket or toy bin. As long as it’s big enough and has good drainage, you can use anything.
Create Optimal Drainage
Drainage is key to keeping plants from drowning in a container. There should be one large hole or several smaller holes located at the base of your container to let excess water out of the bottom, so your plants won't sit in overly soggy soil and succumb to root rot.
You can usually drill holes in the pot if the drainage is insufficient, and you can cover a large hole before adding soil with a coffee filter or plastic screening to keep the dirt from coming out the bottom.
If your container sits on a hard surface, the hole might plug up. Elevate your container with pot feet or a pot cart to help your plants drain with ease.
Use the Best Potting Soil
High-quality potting soil is important for vegetables. Don't use soil from your garden, because it will compact in the containers and won't drain water properly.
One of the reasons to garden in containers is to avoid the hassle of weeds and soil-borne diseases. If you use garden soil, you may import problems into your containers.
Provide the Right Light and Temperature
Most fruiting vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers, need full sun, meaning at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. But some gardeners might overestimate how much sun an area gets.
For your veggies to thrive, you'll need an accurate assessment. Check the location every 30 minutes to confirm how long the sun hits where you want to put your vegetable container garden. You can also use a sun calculator to get an accurate assessment.
If you live in a hot climate, you might need to shade your plants during the heat of the afternoon, so they don't overheat. Also, it's best not to use metal or dark-colored containers because they can become very hot and cook your plant's roots.
Many vegetables don’t like cold soil. If you live in a cool climate, avoid putting your containers outside full-time until you know the temperature will be reliably warm. For many plants, the soil needs to be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can use a thermometer to find out the temperature of your soil. In addition, always make sure to harden off your seedlings (gradually acclimate them to the outdoor conditions) before you put them outside permanently.
Most vegetable plants need lots of water to produce fruit However, you don't want to drown your plants. The goal is to keep the soil evenly moist but not soaking wet.
To figure out whether your plants need water, stick your finger down into the soil about an inch. If the soil feels dry, add water; if you're not sure, wait and check later in the day. At the height of summer, you'll probably need to water at least once or sometimes twice a day. This is often the most high-maintenance and critical aspect of vegetable container gardening.
Feed the Plants
Plants need nutrition to thrive, and their food is fertilizer. If your potting mix doesn’t have fertilizer already mixed in, add some several times throughout the growing season, according to the directions on the label.
Many gardeners mix organic, granular fertilizer into the containers before planting. Then, every couple of weeks, add diluted liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed to give the plants the nutrition they need. Another way to add nutrients is to make or buy compost to add to the soil, which helps feed the plants.
Choose Seeds or Seedlings
You can start your veggies from seed or buy seedlings. There are some significant advantages and disadvantages to each. Planting seeds is much less expensive than buying seedlings and you can organically grow hard-to-find varieties. In addition, always make sure to harden off your seedlings (gradually acclimate them to the outdoor conditions) before you put them outside permanently.
However, starting seeds isn't for everyone. They need 12 to 16 hours of light per day and good air circulation to grow strong. Plus, you absolutely cannot let the seeds dry out, or they're toast. Conversely, if you give them too much water, they’ll fail to thrive.
Whether you start plants from seed or purchase seedlings from a greenhouse you must harden off seedlings (gradually acclimate them to the outdoor conditions) before you put them outside permanently.
Best Vegetables for Container Gardens
When choosing vegetables to plant in containers, look for bush or small varieties (often referred to as dwarf or compact), and be sure that your climate has enough growing days for the vegetables to mature.
Vegetables that typically grow well in containers include:
- Peas: Put tall supports in the container when planting seedlings. Water frequently, and keep them fertilized.
- Potatoes: Some potatoes need a 120-day growing season, so look for varieties that mature early.
- Tomatoes: Like peas, tomatoes need a support system. Use a rod or tomato cage to keep your plants upright.
- Carrots: Use a container that's double the depth your variety will grow.
- Radishes: The container doesn't have to be that large for this spring and fall vegetable and you can grow them indoors.
- Eggplant: When choosing a variety to plant, know that many eggplants are fairly sensitive to cool temperatures (lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Summer or zucchini squash and cucumbers: Choose bush varieties rather than sprawling vine varieties. One plant can fill a 24-inch pot quickly, so don't crowd your seeds or seedlings. A trellis in the pot will supply support for the fruit and allow air to flow around the plant.
- Leafy greens: Spinach and leaf lettuce are among the many greens that you can snip to eat one day and then snip again a few days later. Grow the cool-season crops in spring or fall. They also tolerate partial shade.
- Peppers: Try traditional bell peppers, or spice it up with hot peppers that are perfect for homemade salsa.
These vegetables don't usually work well in containers:
- Large melons
- Large pumpkins or squash
What are the disadvantages of container gardening?
Container gardening limits the variety of vegetables you can grow. The largest disadvantages aretheir need for frequent watering and fertilization and the weight of the containers.
What are the best vegetables for container gardening?
Vegetables suitable for containers include beets, beans, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, eggplant, green onions, lettuce, collards, bok choy, spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers, and radishes.Look for varieties that are labeled as “bush,” “patio,” “dwarf,” or “compact.” Herbs like thyme, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, chives, cilantro, and lavender are excellent additions to a container garden.
What material should you put at the bottom of a container garden?
Proper drainage of a container is essential for a healthy plant. To encourage drainage without losing potting soil, line the bottom of the container with broken bits of terra cotta pots, coffee filters, or permeable landscape cloth.
Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts
Container gardening is a great way to grow vegetables even if you don't have a large garden space. It involves growing vegetables in containers instead of planting them directly in the ground. To be successful in container gardening, you need to choose the right type of container, use nourishing soil, and provide adequate light, water, and fertilization for your plants.
Choosing the Right Container
- The size of the container is important. The larger the container, the easier it will be to maintain because it will retain more moisture. For example, tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, cucumbers, cabbage, and beans should be planted in at least a five-gallon container, while beets, carrots, lettuce, and green onions can be planted in three-gallon containers. Most herbs and radishes grow well in containers of one gallon or less.
- Wooden containers are attractive and can be cost-effective, but they may start to rot after a few seasons.
- Plastic self-watering containers are large, easy to use, and durable. They make watering plants easier because you just need to keep the water reservoir full.
- Glazed ceramic or terracotta pots can be used, but they may require extra attention to keep the plants moist because the clay allows water to evaporate more easily. You can line a terra cotta pot with plastic or use a plastic pot as a liner to help retain moisture.
- You can also get creative and use DIY containers such as 5-gallon plastic buckets or repurpose items like old laundry baskets or toy bins, as long as they have good drainage.
Ensuring Proper Drainage
- Proper drainage is crucial to prevent plants from drowning. Containers should have one large hole or several smaller holes at the base to let excess water out. If the drainage is insufficient, you can drill holes in the pot or use a coffee filter or plastic screening to cover the hole before adding soil. Elevating the container with pot feet or a pot cart can also help with drainage.
Using the Right Potting Soil
- High-quality potting soil is important for container gardening. Avoid using soil from your garden, as it may not drain properly and can introduce weeds and soil-borne diseases. Look for potting soil specifically formulated for containers.
Providing the Right Light and Temperature
- Most fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers require at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Ensure that the location where you place your containers receives enough sunlight. You can use a sun calculator or check the location every 30 minutes to assess the amount of sunlight.
- Avoid using metal or dark-colored containers in hot climates, as they can become very hot and harm the plant's roots.
- Some vegetables don't tolerate cold soil, so if you live in a cool climate, avoid placing your containers outside full-time until the soil temperature is reliably warm. Use a thermometer to check the soil temperature.
- Harden off your seedlings by gradually acclimating them to outdoor conditions before permanently placing them outside.
- Most vegetable plants need lots of water to produce fruit, but you don't want to drown them. The goal is to keep the soil evenly moist but not soaking wet. Check the soil moisture by sticking your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry, water the plants. In the height of summer, you may need to water once or twice a day.
- Watering is a critical aspect of container gardening and requires regular attention.
Fertilizing the Plants
- Plants need nutrition to thrive, and fertilizer provides them with the necessary nutrients. If your potting mix doesn't already contain fertilizer, add it several times throughout the growing season according to the directions on the label. Organic, granular fertilizer can be mixed into the containers before planting. Additionally, you can use diluted liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed every couple of weeks to provide additional nutrition. Compost can also be added to the soil to feed the plants.
Choosing Seeds or Seedlings
- You can start your vegetables from seeds or buy seedlings. Starting from seeds is less expensive and allows you to grow hard-to-find varieties organically. However, it requires proper lighting, air circulation, and careful watering. Seedlings from a greenhouse are a convenient option, but they also need to be hardened off before permanently placing them outside.
Best Vegetables for Container Gardening
- When choosing vegetables for container gardening, look for bush or small varieties that are suitable for containers. Some examples include peas, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, leafy greens, and peppers. Avoid growing large melons, corn, and large pumpkins or squash in containers.
In summary, container gardening allows you to grow vegetables in containers instead of traditional garden beds. By choosing the right container, using proper soil, providing adequate light, water, and fertilization, you can successfully grow a variety of vegetables in containers.