Container Gardening

Reader Contribution by Karen Newcomb
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If you find yourself short on garden space but want to grow your own fresh vegetables, container gardening may be your answer.  You can grow your garden almost anywhere by squeezing in a container or two around the patio, balcony, in a flower bed, hanging baskets from the rafters or even in pots on a windowsill or in a window box.

You can plant in standard containers that you buy from a garden center, or you can turn almost anything into a vegetable container.  As a general rule, the larger and deeper the container, the better the yields.  While you can grow small-type tomatoes in smaller containers. The larger varieties require up to 20 gallons (3 cubic feet) of soil to produce a good crop.  

In an outside window box, you can grow almost anything.  In window boxes it’s easiest to plant in pots and simply set the pots in the box.   

Planting Your Patio

If you have six hours of direct sunlight a day on your balcony or patio, you can grow any type of vegetables.  Patio gardening follows outdoor gardening rules, however, have some light problems that the average garden doesn’t have.  The reflection of direct sunlight on wood, brick, or concrete can produce tremendous heat.  Tomatoes, eggplants, and other warm season plants can survive this, but more sensitive plants, like lettuce may burn.

A lot depends on individual exposure.

Eastern exposure gets about four hours of gentle morning sun.  You can grow leafy and root plants here successfully.

Southern exposure allows you to grow all crops successfully.  You can cut down on the heat by surrounding your crops with heat-absorbing materials such as peat moss or shade cloth.

Western exposure means you can grow all crops.  Generally you receive at least six hours of sunlight a day.  You will need to protect your leafy and root crops from the direct sun.

Northern exposure is extremely limited, although you can grow radishes and lettuce. 

Whiskey barrel halves make great patio planters.  They are 22 inches across, so they hold enough soil to support good vegetable growth.  You could plant two or three summer squash, a determinate tomato or two, and even a new variety of corn bred especially for containers.  On the Deck corn is a hybrid from Burpee burpee.comit is a bicolor Supersweet (Sh2) variety that grows 4-5′ tall and produces 2-3 delicious 7-8″ ears per stalk.  Simply plant 9 seeds per 24″ containers and corn will be ready in 61-63 days.

On The Deck corn  –  Photo courtesy Burpee

A unique planting box from agardenpatch.comThe Grow Box ™ comes complete with fertilizer and planting guide.  Just add plants and potting mix.  This 28″ long x 14″ wide x 12″ high planter is self-fertilizing, self-watering, no weeding and no bending.

The Grow Box  – Photo courtesy

gardeners.comfeature some ingenious grow bags.  Garlic Grow Bag, Salad Grow Bag, Carrot Grow Bag, Terrace Grow Bag,Potato Grow Bag, Onion Grow Bag.  The bright and colorful grow bags will enhance your garden landscape, and the color you choose will immediately let you know what you planted in them, such as carrots, etc. 

Grow Bags –  Photo courtesy

Follow these eight easy steps for planting your container vegetables:

  1. Select an attractive container with drainage holes.
  2. Add commercial organic potting soil to within an inch of the top of the container.
  3. Moisten the soil before planting.
  4. You can plant both herbs and vegetables together in the same container.  When you plant them together, you can crowd them a little bit.  An 18-inch pot, for instance, will easily hold as many as ten herbs.
  5. If you are planting several vegetables and herbs together in the same container, set the taller varieties in the center.
  6. Water to settle the soil around the roots.
  7. Add more soil if it’s needed after watering.
  8. Keep the container moist and fertilized.

Container Soil Mixes

Container soil is a combination of organic materials (bark, compost, peat moss) and minerals.  Any container mix must also provide the right nutrients for vegetable growth and enough air space (despite compacting) to allow good air and water movement. Make up your own mix or use one of the commercial soilless mixes (such as Supersoil, Miracle Grow, etc.) which contain all the ingredients necessary for good plant growth. 

Planting Seeds and Seedlings in Containers

When planting seeds in a container, you don’t have to space them in any particular distance apart.  Simply scatter the seeds across the entire container.  Later, however, you will have to thin the seedlings.  Carrots are thinned first to ¾ of an inch apart, then to 1 or 2 inches apart.  You can still eat the thinned carrots so you don’t feel like you’re wasting anything.  An 8-inch container of carrots planted on a 1-inch spacing will produce the equivalent of a 5-foot row grown in an outdoor garden.


Watering containers shouldn’t be any problem.  Pots less than 8 inches in diameter should be watered from above.  Large containers should be watered from above with a plastic pail or a gentle stream from a hose, until the soil is completely saturated.

Don’t water again until the soil is dry to a depth of 1 inch.  To find out how dry the soil is, poke a finger into the soil, or take some soil from this depth and rub it between your thumb and index finger.  If it’s dry, water.  If the soil feels wet it won’t need watering for at least twenty-four hours.

You shouldn’t let your containers dry out since vegetables must grow rapidly to maturity.  If the plant is overwatered, the soil becomes waterlogged, forcing air from the soil and suffocating the plant.  If at all possible, connect your containers with a drip system and put the whole thing on a timer.

Container Vegetables

It isn’t always necessary to find container varieties to plant.  Regular size varieties sometimes work very well.  Just stick to the bush varieties of any variety.  There are, however, new developments every year of container varieties.  Consider to, vegetables are classified in cool and warm weather crops. In some parts of the country you can grow both during the summer.  Other parts, such as the Southwest, cool crops don’t do well in the summer.

Beans  any bush bean will do.  Plant 3 inches apart.

Beets  Scatter the beet seeds on a 2-inch spacing over the entire container surface, cover with ¼ inch of mix and keep moist.  Thin later to about 3 inches apart.  You can grow a large quantity in a small space and grow more than one color of beet in containers. 

Golden beets  –  Photo courtesy Burpee

Broccoli  Look for varieties that say ‘compact’.  Small Miracle from Park Seed parkseed.comfits the bill.  If you use regular size broccoli, plant only one to a container.

Cabbage  Using ‘compact’ varieties, and plant one or two seedlings per pot.  Make sure not to repot cabbage in containers which have already grown cabbage plants.  Get rid of the soil and start over.

Carrots  These are near perfect for containers.  Plant by scattering the seeds across the container surface, roughly 1 inch apart.  Cover with about ½ inch of soil.  After a few weeks, thin to 2 inches apart.  In large containers, plant half the crop ten days before you plant the other half.  Have fun using small, round, nantes, and other varieties.  Don’t forget to plant the colored carrots too. 

Cauliflower  Be sure to check for ‘compact’ varieties.  Depending on the size of the container, you can plant one cauliflower in a 5-gallon container.  Don’t forget to plant some colored varieties to spice up your container gardens.

Celery  isn’t as hard to grow as you might think.  Plant several to a container.

Corn  You can actually grow corn in containers with a soil depth of 8 inches or more.  Space plants 4 inches apart, then cover with 1 inch of soil.  Better yet, Burpee burpee.comnow offers On The Deck sweet corn.  In 2 months you can harvest  2 to 3, 7-8″ long ears per stalk.  A bicolored corn.  Plant 9 seeds per 24″ container and watch the corn rise to 4-5 feet tall.

Cucumber  There is more than one container variety of cucumber.  Burpee offers Salad Bush, a hybrid that produces 8 inch long dark green slicing cucumbers in 57 days.  I’d stick to the container variety, but you can also grow regular size cucumber plants.  For regular size choose two to three plants per container. 

Salad Bush cucumber  –  Photo courtesy Burpee

Eggplant  Eggplant needs at least 5 to 10 gallons of soil per plant.  They are also heavy feeders.  You’ll have a variety of colors to choose from.  Burpee offers a new one called Shooting Stars.  This 3-4″ long purple fruit is excellent for containers. 

Garlic Plant 4 to 5 inches apart.  Depending on the size of the bulb it produces.  In a round container I like planting in the round.  If it’s a square container, plant in a square.  Have fun.

Kale is a beautiful plant used for greens much like spinach.  Choose ‘compact’ varieties.  Some varieties grow 2 to 3 feet high and just as wide.  Plant in 5-gallon or larger containers.  Sow seed 3 or 4 per container, and thin to 16 inches apart. 

Leeks  Sow  15 to 18 inches apart, 1/8 inch deep. 

Lettuce  Go wild with lettuce in your containers.  You can blend loose leaf with butterhead, romaine, head lettuce and even mesclun blends.  There are so many colors, textures, sizes and blends available.  You can start lettuce from seeds or transplant seedlings.  Plant head lettuce 10 inches apart, butterhead 4 to 5 inches apart.  With romaine or loose leaf lettuce plant about 10 inches apart.  Cover with ¼ to ½ inch of soil.

Melons  Yes, there are compact melons.  I’d recommend those varieties.  Melons take up a lot of growing space.  Grow melons in 5-gallon or larger containers, two plants per container.  Melons are heavy feeders.  You might want to put some kind of wire (even a tomato cage would do) around your container for the vines to climb on.

Mustard Greens  Sow seeds about 2 inches apart and cover with ½ inch of soil.  Later thin to 4 inches apart. 

Okra Baby Bubba is a hybrid okra from Burpee.  Dwarf plants are ideal for containers. 

Onions .  You can grow them into mature onions in large containers.  If you are the impatient type, don’t bother, they take a long time to develop.  However, scallions and bunching onions do very well and grow fast.  If you plant from seed, space about 1 inch apart and cover with ¼ inch soil.  Seedlings should be planted 1 inch apart. 

Peas  Try planting the bush variety.  Plant 2 inches apart, add 2 inches of soil, and keep moist.  Burpee offers a container variety called Peas-in-a-Pot.  Bred for containers, this 10 inch plant produces full size yields.  They grow in an 8″ diameter.

Peas-in-a-Pot  – Photo courtesy Burpee

Peppers  Whether you choose hot or sweet peppers, you can grow one in a pot, or group in a container.  Plant in 2-gallon or larger containers.  Choose from an array of colorful peppers.

Potatoes  Buy potato sets (seed pieces).  Bury about 6 inches apart, 4 inches deep, cut-side down.  Four or five to a 5 gallon container.  You can also buy potato grow bags mentioned above.

Radishes  Go crazy with the sizes, colors, shapes.  Plant seeds 1 inch apart, then add ½ inch of soil on top.  Keep moist.  Plant a section, then 10 days later plant another section, and so on to keep a continuous supply of radishes.

Shallots Grow like you would onions.  You can pack your container full, giving just enough space for the size bulb that will develop.  Good cooks everywhere will be growing shallots.

Spinach  Sow seeds about 2 inches apart and cover with ½ inch of soil, then thin seedlings to about 4-5 inches apart.  Make at least two plants ten days apart for a continuous crop. 

Squash (summer)  Select ‘compact’ varieties.  The larger the container the better.  Plant 2 plants per containers. 

Tomatoes  There are any number of ‘container varieties’ available through seed catalogs, and no doubt at your local nurseries.  Use containers, hanging baskets, or any other container large enough to hold these compact beauties.  Go crazy with different colored tomatoes.

For a complete list of vegetables and seed sources, visit:

Planters – Photo courtesy

Copyright 2013 by Karen Newcomb

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