Vegetable Container Gardening For Beginners

Plants and herbs in pots on a deck
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Growing your own food can bring you both joy and bounty. The simple pleasure of biting into a tomato still warm from the sun—picked and eaten on the spot—is almost unbeatable. You can grow just about any vegetable in a convenient container, a practice that saves you lots of money at the grocery store.

However, vegetable container gardening can be a frustrating endeavor if your plants don't thrive and produce. These basic tips apply to most vegetables and will help you and your plants get off to a good start.

Sun and Temperature

Most vegetables need full sun—that means at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. Most people overestimate how much sun an area really gets. For your veggies to thrive, you'll need an accurate assessment. To secure an ideal growing area, check the location every 30-minutes throughout the day to confirm how long the sun directly hits the spot where you want to put your vegetable container garden. You can also use a sun calculator to get an accurate (rather than optimistic) assessment.

If you live in a really hot zone, you may need to shade your plants in the middle of the day so they do not overheat. Also, it's best not to use metal containers, dark-colored plastics or ceramics because they can become very hot and cook your plant's roots.

On the flip side, many vegetables don’t like cold soil, so if you live in a cool climate, do not to put your vegetable container gardens outside full time until you know the temperatures are warm enough. For many plants, the soil needs to be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a meat thermometer (if the graduations go low enough or if it's digital) to find out the temperature of your soil. Always make sure to harden off your plants (acclimate them to the outdoor conditions) before you put them outside permanently.

Watering Your Container Garden

Vegetable plants need water, and some, like tomatoes, need lots of it. However, you don't want to drown your plants. The goal is to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. To figure out if your plants need water, stick your finger down into the soil (about an inch) or up to your first knuckle. 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 and sometimes twice a day. Proper watering may be the single most important and hardest part of vegetable container gardening.

Soil Best Practices

Quality potting soil is really important for vegetables. Don't use soil from your garden because it will compact in your container and won't drain water properly. Also, one of the reasons to garden in containers is so you won't have to deal with weeds. Chances are pretty good that if you use garden soil, you will be importing weeds into your container.

Studies have shown many benefits to growing produce organically, including better taste and a higher percentage of antioxidants and phytochemicals. Organic soil, which has a higher variety of nutrients than regular potting mixes, comes in a variety of pH levels and blends geared toward different crops.

Feeding Your Plants

Plants need food to thrive, and their food is fertilizer. If your soil doesn’t have fertilizer already mixed in, add some several times throughout the growing season. Mix organic, granular fertilizer into your containers from top to bottom before planting your vegetable of choice. 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 fertilizer is to make or buy compost tea.

Optimal Drainage

Drainage is key in order to keep plants from drowning. Your pot or container should let excess water out of the bottom so that your plants won't sit in overly soggy soil and succumb to root rot. You need one large hole or several smaller ones located at the base of your container. You can usually drill holes if the drainage is insufficient, and you can cover a large hole with coffee filters or plastic screening to keep the dirt from washing away. If your pot sits on a hard surface, the hole may plug up. Elevating your pots with pot feet (or large, heavy containers with little wheeled pot cards) will help your plants drain with ease.

Selecting the Perfect Container

Choosing a container can be daunting. You can use almost anything for a garden planter as long as it's big enough, has good drainage, and is made of food-safe material. Keep in mind, though, that the larger your container, the easier it will be to maintain. The more soil a container can hold, the more moisture it will retain. Don’t bother with containers that are smaller than 12 inches or even 18 inches. Bigger really is better when it comes to growing vegetables in containers.

Wooden containers look lovely when growing vegetables, and you can get really optimal-sized containers that aren’t too expensive. Or, you can make your own wooden planter box.

Growing vegetables in self-watering containers works wonderfully well. They are large, easy to use, and incredibly durable. They make watering plants a cinch because all you have to do is keep the water reservoir full.

Plastic or glazed ceramic containers also work well. You can even use terra cotta pots, but it's harder to keep your plants moist because the clay sucks the water out of the soil. 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.

For an inexpensive container, use a 5-gallon plastic bucket from the hardware store. Another alternative is to make an unusual container from something you have loitering around your basement or garage—such as an old laundry basket or a toy bin. As long as it’s big enough and has good drainage, you can really use anything. You can also grow vegetables in straw bales on your driveway (or elsewhere).

Seeds or Seedlings

You can start your veggies from seed or you may choose to buy seedlings. There are some significant advantages and disadvantages to each. Starting your own seeds is much less expensive than buying seedlings after initial startup costs. You can organically grow hard-to-find varieties. However, starting seeds isn't for everyone. You absolutely cannot let them dry out or they're toast. Conversely, if you give them too much water, they’ll keel over dead. To avoid this, you can make a self-watering seed starter. They need 12 to 16 hours of light and moving air in order to grow up strong.

Vegetables for Container Gardens

When choosing vegetable varieties to plant into containers, look for bush or small varieties (dwarf, compact), and ensure that your zone has enough growing days for the required time to mature. Veggies that you can grow in containers include:

  • Peas: Put tall supports in the pot when planting the seedling. 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: Be sure to use a container that's double the length they'll grow.
  • Radishes: Containers don't have to be big or deep for this spring vegetable.
  • Eggplant: When planning what variety to buy, know that eggplants are more sensitive to cool temperatures (lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit) than peppers and tomatoes.
  • Summer or zucchini squash, cucumbers: Choose bush varieties rather than the 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 reach the plant.
  • Leafy greens: Spinach and leaf lettuce are among many greens that you can snip to eat for lunch one day and a few days later snip again. Keep the cool-season crops in partial shade.
  • Peppers: Try traditional bell peppers or spice it up with hot peppers perfect for homemade salsa.

Vegetables that don't work well in pots include:

  • Large melons
  • Corn
  • Large pumpkins or squash