How to grow a container garden if you don’t have a yard
You don't need a backyard to enjoy harvesting fruits and veggies
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No yard? No problem! You can grow fresh, tasty vegetables, fruits, herbs, and more on your deck, porch, railing, or even indoors under lights. All you need is a container (the more creative the better), a drainage system, the right soil, and you’re on your way.
Here’s how to get started—and why you should consider container gardening in the first place.
Benefits of container gardening
There are plenty of advantages to growing veggies in containers.
There’s no weeding
For at least the first year, your container vegetables should be nearly weed-free. Watch out for tiny sprouts from wind-blown seeds, though.
Enjoy easy access to plants
You can put containers up high where it’s easy to reach them without bending over—and out of the way of rabbits, rodents, and accident-prone young children.
Creative opportunities abound
You can take advantage of vertical space
If you don’t have much (or any) yard space, containers can let you take advantage of vertical space on the walls, decks, railings, and steps.
Maintain a more watchful eye
It’s a lot easier to spot signs of disease and insect damage on your container plants, which are closer to your line of sight than plants on the ground, which means that you can fix the problem faster.
What sort of containers can be used to grow plants?
When it comes to growing veggies, herbs, and other plants in containers, anything goes! Well, almost.
Don’t use containers that have previously held toxic materials like herbicides or fungicides, and don’t use pressure-treated wood, which can leach chemicals that aren’t safe to eat into the soil.
Be cautious about using an old, painted piece of furniture, window frame, or other house part. If it was made before 1978, it might be coated with lead paint, which will contaminate the soil.
Many experts recommend against using certain types of plastic pots. All plastics have a recycling code—a small number in a triangle printed on them somewhere. Plastics numbered 1, 2, 4, and 5 are considered “food safe,” and should be fine for vegetable gardening. Plastics that have a 3, 6, or 7 are not considered food safe, and may leach chemicals into your soil. Avoid them.
If you have a balcony, consider that part of your container. You can grow vining plants that take advantage of bannisters, grow peas up your railings, or even put up a net for cucumber vines.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. It can be fun to match plants to containers by color, shape, or theme. Remember, when you start container gardening, you’ll find a world of possibilities.
Which plants grow well in containers?
Great news: Almost any vegetable you could want can be grown in a container—except maybe sweet corn, which won’t yield much of a harvest.
When you’re shopping for container vegetables or seeds, look for words in the name like “miniature,” “baby,” “dwarf,” “little,” “tiny,” “bush,” and even “patio” to find plants that will stay compact and not outgrow your container.
For leafy greens, look for “cut and come again” varieties, where you can harvest a few leaves at a time for a long period, like arugula, Swiss chard, spinach and salad/mesclun mixes. For a constant supply of fast-growing herbs and greens like cilantro, basil, or lettuce, plan on sowing a new crop every 3 to 4 weeks.
Here are some tried-and-true vegetables, herbs, and berries you can grow in containers.
- Bok choy
- Mesclun mixes
- Swiss chard
- Summer savory
If you’re growing root crops, make sure your container is deep enough to accommodate the entire root.
- Strawberries (there are dozens of strawberry planters on the market)
- If you live in the South, or you have space to bring containers in for the winter, you can try growing dwarf citrus trees and figs.
- Tomatoes: Most tomatoes will do fine in containers, assuming you have space to put in a stake in the pot to support the vine. Smaller tomatoes like grape and cherry tomatoes do better in containers than “beefsteak” types because they yield better with less water. If you don’t have space, look for tomatoes that are bred for short vines and container living, like Tiny Tim or Patio.
- Chilis (chili peppers)
- Green beans
- Peppers (bell peppers)
- Scallions (green onions)
For peas and beans, look for short or “bush” varieties if you don’t have access to a trellis or stake.
For even more inspiration, check out this list of growing options, which includes information on light, water, and fertilizer.
How to grow vegetables (and fruits!) in containers
Step 1: Do your homework and plan properly
Where is your water coming from? Most containers need to be watered daily. Figure out if you’re going to be carrying water in a milk jug or watering can (remember, a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds), or using a hose. You can get a mini hose that attaches to your faucet if you don’t have an outdoor hose connection.
Are you planning to move your containers? Remember, dirt is heavy. A container that’s 2 ft. across can easily weigh more than 100 pounds.
How are you going to keep your containers from falling? If you’re planning to mount your container on a railing or wall, think about how to keep your container (and your vegetables) secure.
What’s going under your container? If you’re putting your container on a wooden deck or stairs, you can end up with water stains. Make sure your container has a dish or saucer underneath.
Step 2: Add soil
Now that you’ve got the perfect container in the perfect location, it’s time to put in the “growing medium,” that is, soil. Don’t just dig up soil from your garden; it will get heavy and compacted in a container, keeping vital oxygen from your plants’ roots.
Most vegetables thrive in regular potting soil, but you can make your own potting soil by mixing garden soil with other materials that make it lighter and coarser, so it drains better. (Consider substituting coconut coir or compost for peat moss in these mixtures, as peat moss harvesting is unsustainable.)
Lavender, thyme, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, and chives thrive in dry, Mediterranean climates. They do best in shallow containers with a lighter, drier soil—either a potting soil that contains perlite or vermiculite, or potting soil mixed with horticultural or builder’s sand at a 1:3 sand-to-soil ratio.
Step 3: Create a drainage system
Make sure your container has several drainage holes, then fill it up to about 1 inch below the lip of the container with your “growing medium” to allow room for water (and your plants). You can include some slow-release fertilizer in the mix, or wait and fertilize later.
Don’t smash the soil down, and don’t bother putting sand, gravel, or rocks at the bottom of your container unless you need it to be heavier than it will already be—and it will be plenty heavy!
Step 4: Plant and water
Plant your plants, and water as soon as you’ve put them in the soil. Don’t crowd your container: Here’s a chart of the minimum space and container depth vegetables need to grow and be healthy. Miracle Gro has a handy chart of what plants you can fit in a pot of a certain size, whether it’s 10, 14, 18, or 24 inches. You don’t want your plant to outgrow its container.
When you’re planting, don’t be afraid to mix and match your veggies and herbs. Plant a pasta garden with tomatoes and basil, or a salsa garden with tomatoes, cilantro, and miniature peppers.
If you’re really tight on space, you can also plant “in succession,” harvesting a quick crop that likes cool weather, then planting a longer-season crop in the same pot. North Carolina State University suggests great succession combos like spinach, peas and bush beans; lettuce and hot peppers; and parsley and tomatoes.
Check your plants for moisture and water them before they dry out completely. Dark colored pots in full sun will need watering more often than light-colored planters in the shade. Make sure you water your plants deeply at least once a week, so that water collects in the dish under the pot, especially if you have “soft” water.
Soluble salts from soft water and fertilizer can collect in the soil, creating a pH imbalance that can keep plants from absorbing nutrients. Deep watering helps wash excess salts out of the soil.
If you haven’t mixed compost into your potting soil, consider using a soluble fertilizer once a week to keep your plants healthy. Organic gardeners can opt for fish and kelp fertilizer, or make compost tea.
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