How to Grow an Entire Garden in Pots
Do you have limited space for gardening but still want to grow a TON of fresh veggies this summer? Ever consider containers?
Maybe you’re renting and can’t dig up the yard or you have little experience with vegetable gardening. Maybe your soil is just awful and you don’t have the money to amend a large garden’s worth. That’s OK! You can grow all the food crops you want in pots. Let me show you how!
Selecting Your Vegetable-Growing Container
You can grow vegetables in just about anything. However, one thing to keep in mind is BIGGER IS ALWAYS BETTER. I’ll get into more on that later, but for now, anything that will hold soil will work: clay pots, plastic pots, bags, baskets, hanging baskets, barrels, buckets, tubs, troughs. You name it, you can use it.
However, VERY IMPORTANT: The container must have a way for water to drain out. The one thing guaranteed to kill most plants is letting them sit in water (although possibly not tomatoes, more on that later).
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If you’re going to use a clay pot, remember that clay dries out very quickly, so although they are pretty, they aren’t necessarily the most practical.
If you live somewhere that summers get really hot (I’m thinking Zones 8 and higher), clay may not be the best choice.
Even if you live where it’s cooler like I do (Zone 6b), and you just love the look of clay pots, why not plant in a plastic pot and put that pot into a slightly larger clay pot? You’ll get the look of clay and your plants will thank you.
Another consideration is the color of your pot. The darker the pot, the more heat it will absorb. This, in turn, is going to either cook your plants (NOT a desirable outcome) or make it necessary for you to water even more than you’re already going to.
If your pots are dark, you can easily spray paint them a light color so you don’t get so much heat absorption.
Just a little note that if you’d like some more specific information about growing food crops, I’ve started a Crop of the Week series this spring. So far, Peas, Beets, Brassicas (cabbage family crops), Salad Crops, Potatoes & Raspberries have been covered, with many more in the coming weeks. If you’d like the FREE printable cheat sheets that go with these posts, please head here to sign up and see what other goodies are available.
Soil Considerations for Your Container Vegetable Garden
What NOT to use for Soil
Although it’s easy (and tempting!) to go out and dig up some soil from an existing garden or (heaven forbid!!!), your yard, please don’t. Not only is garden soil likely too heavy for your containers, meaning that you’ll get poor drainage, there is also the chance of soil pests or diseases finding their way into your containers.
These same pests or diseases may not be a big deal in a wide open garden, but introducing them into the very tight quarters of a potted garden could be disastrous, so just don’t, OK?
Some Better Soil Options
Instead, you have a couple of options. You can buy a soilless mix, add some compost and use that. I have never tried that particular option, however, so can’t say how it would work.
What I like to do is get a high-quality organic potting soil. Here are 2 options that I’ve used in the past: Fox Farm or Black Gold. I’ve personally used both of these brands and can attest to their quality.
At the moment, I’m using the Earthgro brand for my indoor plants and really like it. This is what it looks like if you’re searching for it at your local store, or you can use my link below to order it from Ace Hardware as well.
General purpose soil for potted plants. For use in container gardens. For indoor and ou… [More]
How much soil should I buy?
Having trouble figuring out how much potting soil to buy or order? A good rule of thumb is that you’ll need about 3 1/2 gallons for a 12-inch pot or 6 1/2 gallons for a 20-inch pot. To find out your pot size, measure straight across the top of the pot with a tape measure or ruler (you’re looking for the diameter).
Don’t forget the compost!
Don’t forget that even if you’re using a good quality potting soil, you should also add some compost to the pot. You can use something like this or maybe you have an outdoor compost pile or a worm composter like I do. (If you’d like to read about my adventures in worm composting, you can check out the post here.)
Just remember that adding raw manure from cows, chickens, horses, etc., is not a good idea. It must be composted thoroughly first (any compost you buy at a garden or hardware store will be safe to use immediately).
A really good way to increase drainage and be sure your plants don’t get too soggy is to add an inch or so of coarse gravel in the bottom of the pot. This isn’t strictly necessary, and it’s not something I’ve done, but if you live in an area with a ton of rainfall, it can’t hurt.
Growing Considerations for your Container Vegetables
There are several more things to consider before you decide what to plant in your garden. Let’s talk about them briefly.
Container plants dry out much more quickly than plants grown in the ground. For the most part, you’ll need to water your containers at least once a day and if it’s really hot, possibly twice.
A neat trick for keeping your containers cool
One thing you can do to keep your containers cool is something we already talked about. If you’ve got your plastic pots inside your clay pots anyway, why not add some crumpled newspaper or sphagnum moss between the 2 containers? When you water, water the paper or moss as well. This will act as an insulator and help keep the soil (and plants) in your container a bit cooler.
You need mulch, even in containers
You can also reduce water loss by mulching your containers, just as you would mulch plants in the ground. In fact, I would venture to say that mulch in containers is even more important than in the garden. Anything suitable for garden mulch works for containers, whether that be straw or wood chips. Whatever your preference, you definitely want to mulch!
Keep in mind that most vegetables require 6 hours or more of sun a day (there are some exceptions, which we’ll talk about when we discuss individual crops). You’ll want to situate your containers so they receive the required amount because once your containers are filled with soil and crops, you’re not going to want to move them (Hint: They WILL be heavy!)
One last consideration before we move on to individual crops: AIR FLOW. You want to have your containers somewhere that they’ll receive good air flow. This cuts down on the possibility of diseases.
However, you don’t want them somewhere that they’ll receive strong winds that might blow them over or damage your plants. Close to your house or a fence, assuming they don’t block needed sun, is a good place. Plus, as a bonus, the closer to your house your containers are, the easiest harvesting will be.
Additionally, if you have your containers close to a fence, you can save yourself the step of adding plant supports to your containers when you plant and use the fence for support for climbers such as cucumbers. Even though tomatoes aren’t climbers, they often need support as well because the plants themselves get so heavy and they often bear a lot of fruit all at once.
Ok, let’s move on to the fun stuff, what do you want to grow?
Tomatoes and Eggplants
Tomatoes are such a popular vegetable, I thought I’d start with them. And yes, you can grow them in containers, as you can eggplants.
Pick your varieties carefully
However, you’ll want to pick determinate tomatoes. Determinates are plants that usually only reach 3-4 feet in height, as they stop growing once the top bud starts setting fruit. Indeterminates will continue to grow until frost takes them out and can get as high as 12 or more feet, although 6 or 7 is more normal.
Determinates are thus a better choice for containers, and cherry and grape tomatoes are particularly fun, especially in hanging baskets close to your front or back door (just remember those sunlight considerations!)
Tomatoes and eggplants do need a large container, with 1 plant per 5 gallon container reasonable. They also need a lot of nutrition (the term for this is “heavy feeder”), so be sure to fertilize them regularly (every 2 weeks or so) with an organic fertilizer or fish emulsion. For my absolute FAVORITE plant food, check out this post.
Feeding your plants
I also add Tomato Tone to my tomatoes once when I plant them and then again when they start to set blossoms. This adds vital calcium to the plants. Without it, blossom end rot is a distinct possibility. You can find it here. (Warning: This stuff stinks! Don’t open the bag in the house. Trust me on this!)
If don’t want to order the TomatoTone, another plant-friendly calcium source can also be used. Your local garden center should be able to help you.
Tomatoes and eggplants also require very regular watering. Try to stick to a good schedule with them.
Although this is not necessarily recommended, I actually put my tomato pots into a kid’s plastic pool one year and kept the pool filled with several inches of water all the time. The tomatoes did not drown, in fact, they thrived. This goes against all conventional wisdom that says this will drown your plants, but it worked.
When I was in school, there was another student in Plant Physiology who did an experiment where he grew tomato plants underwater. What I mean by that is that the plants were submerged up to the top of the pots they were in. He assumed they would not grow as well or even drown compared to the controls.
Nope. His experiment was a complete failure, in a way, because they did just fine. I honestly don’t know why tomatoes are ok with this kind of treatment, but they do seem to be. Again, take this with a grain of salt and try it at your own risk (or at risk of your tomatoes!)
Green or Red Bell Peppers
Peppers have much the same requirements as tomatoes and eggplants as they’re all in the same plant family. They can be grown in a slightly smaller pot, with 1 plant per 2 gallon container.
A (useful?) Trick
There’s anecdotal evidence that adding matches to the hole when planting peppers adds needed sulfur, although I’ve never tried this. They also can benefit from a little bit of extra calcium and regular fertilizing, much like tomatoes.
Lettuce, Radishes, Spinach, Chard, Asian Greens, Beets & Carrots
I’m going to lump these all together because they have similar requirements. They can all be grown in many different types of containers as they don’t require lots of space, with the only caution being that carrots need room to grow down, so a container of at least 12″ depth is a good idea.
Direct seeding recommended
All of these crops should be direct seeded into your containers (versus putting transplants in) as none of them are too happy being transplanted (although I have had success transplanting chard and beets I purchased at a garden center, so you can certainly try it).
They all benefit from cooler weather, so planting early in the spring and giving them some partial shade when the weather heats up is appreciated.
Fertilizer not required
None of these crops is a heavy feeder, although they will benefit from some fertilizer. The nice thing about radishes, lettuce, spinach, chard and Asian greens is that they either mature very quickly (radishes) or you can cut some leaves from the plants and let the rest continue to grow for repeated harvests (lettuce, spinach, chard, asian greens).
Snap Beans (green beans, string beans)
Select your Varieties carefully
If you’re going to grow beans in a container, you’ll want to be sure to select bush varieties, not pole varieties. The pole varieties get much too tall to grow in a container, even with support.
They also appreciate being direct seeded into the containers, and don’t do as well when transplanted (although, again, I have transplanted bean plants with some success, so feel free to try if you’d like). You don’t need a huge container for beans, window boxes work very well, just pay attention to spacing requirements listed on the plant care label.
Bean Care Tips
Beans like warm weather and soil, regular watering and lots of sun. They don’t require a lot of fertilizer, although adding an inoculant when planting is of some benefit. This is the kind I use.
The inoculant is a special type of bacteria which helps the bean plant to fix nitrogen in the soil, basically self-service fertilizer. Cool, huh?
Selection of variety is important
As with beans, if you’re growing peas in containers, you’ll want to choose bush-type, not pole-type peas. Peas also can be grown very nicely in a large window box and would prefer to be direct-seeded versus transplanted. Additionally, the same inoculant used on beans should also be used on peas, for the same reason.
Plant peas early!
The one way in which peas differ from beans is that peas are cool weather plants. You can plant peas before your last frost without worry, whereas you don’t want to do that with beans.
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Cucumbers and Zucchini
Cucumbers and zucchini can also be successfully grown in containers. Two plants per 5-gallon container will give you good results. However, keep in mind that cucumbers are climbers and need some form of support, whether that be something you place in the pot, or a nearby fence or trellis.
Feed those plants!
Cucumbers and zucchini also appreciate regular fertilizer, as they are considered heavy feeders. They are quite susceptible to powdery mildew, so will do well where they get very good airflow, even more so than other crops. I would even consider planting each in its own 2-gallon or larger container just so the airflow is better.
Broccoli, Cabbage & Cauliflower
All three may be grown in containers with some success. Each single plant should have its own 5-gallon pot as they do get quite large and need room to set heads.
Plant early for best results
These crops do well in cooler weather, and so may benefit from some shade in very hot weather. They are also somewhat frost-resistant, so may be planted early, similar to peas. Unlike peas, transplanting these 3 crops is not an issue so you can buy plants from the garden center or start them indoors for an earlier start if you’d like.
Regular feeding and watering and lots of sunshine (other than in really hot weather) will result in happy, healthy plants.
Grow bags are a good container option for potatoes
I almost forgot about my favorite container plant: Potatoes! I’m sure you’ve seen the potato grow bags on Amazon. If not, here you go! The link brings you to a page with lots of different grow bags to try. I haven’t used any of these specifically, but wanted you to have a selection to choose from as there are lots of different price points and sizes.
As always, the bigger the better when it comes to grow bags, as with containers. I’ve used grow bags for potatoes in the past and they work very well. You can start with a little bit of soil in the bottom of the bag, place a layer of seed potatoes in, then cover with a couple inches of soil and plant another layer. The bags should have specific directions included with them.
This is a great way to get lots of potatoes in a fairly small amount of space. As the potato plants grow, you’ll want to continue to add soil until they reach the top of the bag. This will increase your crop yield.
Potato care tips
As with other plants, regular watering and lots of sun is a must. Potatoes will benefit from regular applications of fertilizer, every 2 weeks or so, but you shouldn’t fertilize once they begin to blossom. When the plants begin to die back in the fall, just dump out your bag and harvest your potatoes. It’s kind of like Christmas morning!
One more thought before I close. If you read my last post (Planning Tips for a Spring Garden), you know that I’m a huge fan of planting flowers or herbs with veggies in your garden. This is because flowers bring in the pollinators that will increase your veggie harvest.
With containers, you can plant several types of plants in one pot. For instance, you could plant some low-growing herbs with your tomatoes (tomatoes and basil are particularly good companions), or how about adding some nasturtiums to your lettuce or spinach? As a plus, the nasturtiums grow fairly tall and may help to shade your vegetable crops as the weather heats up.
You can even plant several types of vegetables in one container, assuming you have a fairly good-sized container. For instance, try planting a root vegetable, a low grower and a taller plant all in one pot. How about a cucumber plant, some lettuce and some radishes?
How about a Whole Salad in one container?
For fun, you can grow an entire salad in a container. Try a tomato (probably cherry or grape for space purposes, as they tend to be smaller plants), lettuce, spinach (or Asian greens and chard, depending upon preference) and radishes? Again, the tomato plant will help to shade the other plants, which they will appreciate as the weather heats up.
Container vegetable gardening is really only limited by your imagination, as long as you follow the basic guidelines I’ve outlined above. I hope you’ve enjoyed my post and that it’s given you some ideas for your own garden.
As always, please leave me some comment love, and share my little blog with your gardening friends. I’d also love it if you’d pin a photo below on Pinterest.
Smile and have a crazy organic day!
Container Gardening-related Posts
- Planning Ideas for your Spring Garden
- Tips for Beginning Gardeners
- Growing Peas Successfully
- Growing Organic Beets
- Resource Library information