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: Photo by Melissa Caughey

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Photo By: Photo by Melissa Caughey

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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

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. About size: 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. Clay will dry out quickly, so be sure to water often. Plastic will hold water so be sure there's enough drainage. Metal absorbs heat and will raise the soil temperature, so plant heat-loving plants only.

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.

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.

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.

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