Your Step-by-Step Guide to Successful Edible Container Gardening

If you’ve tried growing vegetables in pots but ended up frustrated, this advice is for you, as well as for anyone looking to grow beautiful, bountiful edible container gardens.

Photo By: DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Grow Plants in Pots © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: Courtesy of Brian Patrick Flynn

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Grow Plants in Pots © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Grow Plants in Pots © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Gardening Step by Step © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Grow Plants in Pots © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Gardening Step by Step © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Gardening Shortcuts © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - Simple Steps to Success: Fruits and Vegetables in Pots © 2012 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Why Grow Fruits and Vegetables in Containers?

Containers are a great option for those with limited (or no) ground space, such as apartment dwellers, and for newbie gardeners who don’t want to commit to digging just yet. They’re also a beautiful addition to a larger garden. Growing in containers can be easy if you set your garden up right.

Start With the Soil

Just like with any type of gardening, successful container gardening starts with the soil. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, but in containers, you shouldn’t rely on regular gardening soil, which can be too heavy and get water-logged in a pot. Light and fluffy is the name of the game. While bagged potting mixes can be expensive, it’s better to put in the investment up front than to grumble about heavy pots and poor yields later in the season.

Make Your Own Potting Mix

You can also make your own custom mix by combining peat moss (best bought in bales at your local garden center) with compost (your own or bagged) at about a 2:1 ratio. You can also throw in a little perlite, a common ingredient in bagged mixes, to make your custom mix lighter and more apt to retain water.

Choose the Right Container

There are about as many container types as there are plants suitable for containers, including upcycled ones, so your imagination is the limit. But it’s important to think about three things: size, materials and drainage.

Container Size Matters

Honestly, the bigger, the better. Large pots require more soil (again, more upfront cost) but will save you time and money when it comes to water.

Watch Your Weight

The downside of large containers is weight. All that soil adds up. Add casters to containers or place a heavy container on a plant caddy (a stand with wheels) so you can easily move it around.

Material Matters, Too

Materials vary from clay to plastic, metal to wood, and each material has its own set of pluses and minuses.

When to Choose Clay Pots

Clay will dry out quickly and require more watering, but glazed clay will retain moisture much better than unglazed. If you hate watering, don’t choose clay. But it can be a great option for plants that don’t like wet soil, like most herbs as well as these strawberries, grown in a traditional clay strawberry pot with side pockets.

Planting in Plastic

Being nonporous, plastic tends to hold water, which may be a negative for plants that need drier soils and great drainage, such as most herbs and peppers.

Mind Your Metal

Metal will get hot under high temps, cold under low ones. Eggplant likes hot weather so this setup should work well. But you could provide many plants a little more shade when planted in metal pots so they don't fry in the hot sun. You could also plant in a plastic pot and place it inside a metal one.

Wood Will Work

Wood, such as for a whiskey barrel or old crate, is a happy medium when it comes to moisture and temperature, but it will rot over time.

Think About Fabric

A new option for modern gardens, especially small-space patios, is breathable spun fabric that lets moisture out but keeps soil in. Hanging pocket planters made of this fabric create a cool look. You’ll also see bags for growing potatoes and other crops made from this type of fabric.

Wicker Wears Quicker

Another option often seen in cottage-style gardens is wicker. While it rots over time like wood, lining the wicker container with landscape fabric will help prevent soil from leaking out and slow the wicker from breaking down.

Upcycled Containers

Vintage and found items, like these metal wagons, can make great planters with a little extra personality. Mind the same the rules depending on the material of the upcycled container. Whatever material and container you choose, just know the considerations that come along with it. And whatever you do, be sure the pot has good drainage holes.

What Edibles Can You Grow in a Pot?

Almost any fruit or vegetable plant can be grown in a container, provided your container is large enough, but it helps to choose varieties specifically bred for small spaces. Look for variety names and descriptions including these words: bush, dwarf, patio, trailing and miniature. You can easily grow herbs, peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, summer squash, and greens, as well as broccoli, cabbage and other cool-season crops in spring and fall.

Go Deep With Root Crops

Root vegetables such as radishes, carrots and beets also grow well in pots that are deep enough, at least 12 inches deep.

Add Some Onions

Onions and relatives like garlic and leeks also love deep containers with good drainage so the bulbs won’t rot.

Try Fruit Trees and Shrubs

Fruit trees, especially dwarf varieties, can also be grown in large pots and make beautiful statement pieces for a patio garden. Depending on the type and your climate, you need to be prepared to bring these pots inside during the colder months, so plant caddies or pots with casters are an especially good idea for these plants. You can also try dwarf varieties of blueberries and raspberries in containers.

Train Climbing Vines

Climbing plants like peas, beans, cucumbers and some melons can be growing in pots but need trellises to work well.

Use Trellises

A simple teepee trellis is always a good solution.

Work the Wall

You can also attach a trellis to a wall and have the climbers creep up it.

Design Thyme

Planting taller vegetables, like tomatoes, with lower-growing herbs and flowers will encourage pollinators and create a balanced container garden. The “thriller, filler, spiller” concept of container design — with a tall, spiky plant in back, a mounding plant in the center, and a trailing plant in the front — works great for edible containers as well. Thyme is a go-to trailer.

Nice Arrangement

Containers can be crucial to sprucing up a bland outdoor space. Set out a variety of pot sizes and materials around a patio to add a sense of privacy and lushness.

Water Often and Well

Plants grown in containers need to be watered more often than in-ground gardens, because containers have less soil and dry out more quickly. How often will depend on your climate, what you’re growing and the type of container material you choose (clay more often, plastic less often, as described previously). Distribute water well and gently using a watering can or a watering wand on the end of your garden hose.

Go for Drip

You can also set up a drip system for pots using a kit, or try soaker hoses. Both options direct water to the soil and roots, rather than the leaves, which is a good gardening practice however you're growing. These systems also can be set up on timers for watering consistency, a key to preventing problems like blossom end rot.

Don’t Forget Mulch

However you water, be sure to add mulch to retain soil moisture in your container gardens just as you do in in-ground beds. Hardwood bark mulch isn’t great for vegetable gardens, including containers, because it takes too long to decompose and ties up nutrients in your soil. Instead, choose cedar or cypress (from sustainably grown sources), which have the added benefit of deterring some insects. Oat or wheat straw can be great, just be sure you get seed-free straw, otherwise you’ll be pulling grass out of your containers for months. 

Fertilize Wise

Because pots need frequent watering, fertilizers can get diluted more quickly than with in-ground gardens. Use a liquid fertilizer that’s meant to be mixed in water, such as organic fish fertilizer. You can also mix in a time-released fertilizer or an organic fertilizer that includes microorganisms to encourage soil health.