Vegetable Container Gardening for Beginners in Five Easy Steps

If you’ve wanted to try growing vegetables but haven’t given it a go for reasons such as your area is small, the soil conditions not right, or you simply don’t want to make a large investment in time or money, container gardening might be a good solution. As long as you have an area with lots of sun, whether that be your porch, patio or windowsill you can grow vegetables. Growing vegetables in containers can be much easier to manage than in a garden plot.

Additionally, if conditions aren’t right such as poor soil or amount of sunlight, they can be easily manipulated; the soil can be changed or the pot moved to a new location. You can also use self-irrigation systems for pots that make watering simple, even if your gone for a couple of days. If you eventually decide you don’t want to grow vegetables, you haven’t made a large investment. Follow these steps to start growing your own container vegetables this spring!

You can grow nearly any vegetable in a container that grows in a typical garden plot. Some vegetables perform especially well in pots and are a nice size for growing in containers. Some of these choices include: peppers, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, squash, onions, radishes, and most edible herbs.

Step 1: Choose your vegetable plants

When you go to pick your plants at the garden center, pay attention to the variety you select for growing in containers. Sam Cotner, Extension Horticulturalist at Texas A&M, suggests the following varieties for containers:

Table 1. Varieties for container-grown vegetables

Patio, Pixie, Tiny Tim, Saladette, Toy Boy, Spring Giant, Tumbling Tom, Small Fry
Yolo Wonder, Keystone Resistant Giant, Canape, (Hot) Red Cherry, Jalapeno
Florida Market, Black Beauty, Long Tom
Dixie, Gold Neck, Early Prolific Straightneck, (Green) Zucco, Diplomat, Senator
Leaf Lettuce:
Buttercrunch, Salad Bowl, Romaine, Dark Green Boston, Ruby, Bibb
Green Onions:
Beltsville Bunching, Crysal Wax, Evergreen Bunching
Green Beans:
Topcrop, Greencrop, Contender, (Pole) Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder
Cherry Belle, Scarlet Globe, (White) Icicle
Evergreen, Moss Curled
Burpless, Liberty, Early Pik, Crispy, Salty

After you have decided what vegetables you want to grow you need to select your containers. You can choose from many different styles and materials. You don’t need to go out and buy new containers; use your imagination and find household items that would work well.

Step 2: Choose your garden container or planter

Some selections might include tubs, bins, wooden boxes, bushel baskets, terra cotta pots, even old wheelbarrows and tires! The size you select depends on the vegetable you are growing: for smaller vegetables such as herbs and green onions, sizes from 6 to 12 inches are sufficient. For larger vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers, 5-gallon containers are a good size.

Regardless of the style or size of the container, proper drainage is a must for successful container gardening. For the best results, either chose a container that has drainage holes in the bottom (near the outer edge) or drill your own small holes. You are going to need to place about an inch of gravel on the bottom of the pot when planting.

When growing vegetables in containers it is important to use synthetic “soil” and not soil taken out of your garden. Synthetic soils have components in them designed specifically for plants growing in containers such as Perlite, sawdust, small wood chips, and vermiculite. When choosing a medium, make sure it is disease and weed free. The soil will need to hold moisture, yet also drain well. A heavy soil is not a good choice for container gardening. Do not re-use soil from pervious years as various diseases may contaminate the new plants.

Step 3: Using the Right Soil for Your Container Garden

Remember that you will need to decide whether to start your container garden from seed, or with starter plants?

Vegetables that are easily transplanted are the best choices for container gardens. Transplant seedlings can either be purchased from a local nursery or you can start your own from seed. You will find many small transplant seedlings in the vegetable section of your nursery or garden center. If you are growing your own vegetables from seed, make sure to begin about 4-8 weeks prior to transplanting to the final container. Specific germination times and growing conditions will be listed on the seeding instructions. When your seedlings have grown to produce about 2-3 leaves, they are ready to transplant. Be careful not to disrupt their delicate root system when transplanting. Give your newly transplanted vegetables a nice watering after transplanting to your containers.

Vegetables grown in containers will need to be fertilized more frequently than their garden counterparts. This is because the limited space does not allow for absorption of surrounding nutrients found in the soil. All nutrients must be directly supplied to the plant from the fertilizer.

Step 4: Fertilize and Water Your Vegetable Container Garden

You can either choose a time-released fertilizer or a water-soluble variety. Time-released fertilizers are in pellet form and are mixed directly into the soil in your containers; water-soluble fertilizer is a liquid that is mixed into water and fed to the plant during watering. Another choice is to mix your own fertilizer and apply to the plants. You can find many varieties of fertilizer mix in garden centers. Fertilizer mixes usually require dilution prior to use. Be careful to chose a vegetable fertilizer (and not one for flowers) and apply at the rate suggested on the manufacturers instructions. The directions will also give you suggestions on how often to fertilize container plants; every two weeks is common.

Most container vegetables will need to be watered once a day. After initial planting, check to make sure your container is draining properly. Plants that sit in water-logged conditions will slowly die from a lack of oxygen. If the soil is not properly draining you can add additional holes in the bottom or amend the soil if necessary.

In recent years there has been a trend toward use water holding “gels” to prevent plants from drying out. The gels are designed to hold up to 100% of their weight in water and be slowly released as soil conditions become dry. If you have a busy schedule and forget to water your plant for a day, or will be gone for a day or two and cannot water your plants, using this in your soil may be a good idea. The gels must be incorporated into the soil when you plant and not added afterward.

Another way to prevent moisture loss is to use a mulch on top of the soil. Mulch can be composed of wood chips, bark, straw, hay, pine needles, grass clippings (do not use if recently treated with chemicals) or dried leaves.

Harvesting container vegetables is the same as garden vegetables. You will know they are ready by visual inspection, or sampling the produce. Once you have harvested everything from the plant, dispose of the plant and do not use the same soil to grow the next season’s vegetables because various diseases can spread that way.

Step 5: Harvesting Vegetables from Your Container Garden

Not sure which planter will work for your container garden? Here are some good options that are versatile for growing different types of vegetables:

Deluxe Grow Box for a Patio Garden
This planter is great for a deck, balcony, or patio. It can hold several plants, so it’s a great choice for gardening in small spaces. The bonus with this container is that it is a self watering planter, holding up to four gallons of water in the reservoir. That’s enough water for fifteen to thirty days, depending on your climate. These are only $79.99.

Raised Cedar Gardening Planter
Another good choice for a planter is the cedar raised bed. It resists garden pests with the natural oils in the wood, and by being elevated to keep small pests, like rabbits, out of your lettuces. Also, it raises your garden plot so there is no bending, which can be tiresome if you have a bad back. It’s only $189.99.

Vegetable Grow Bags
Grow bags are a popular way to grow vegetables, too. The benefit of grow bags is your soil in the container stays aerated since the fabric grow bag is porous. Grow bags also help regulate soil moisture levels in your container. The fabric of the grow bag allows water to drain easily, so you don’t have to worry about overwatering and getting root rot. Also, as the soil dries the fabric pot shrinks around the soil, helping prevent the roots from drying out. These pots are only $12.99, so get a couple of them for a container garden.