These days, more and more people are enjoying the benefits of food gardening. According to a five-year United States gardening trends study by the National Gardening Association (NGA), more than 1 in 3 Americans currently grows their own food. Over the five years of the study, NGA found a 17% increase in food gardening — the highest in decades.
But you don’t have to dig a plot in the ground to grow your own fruits and vegetables. Whether you’d rather not plant in-ground or you have no yard at all, container gardening has several benefits over in-ground gardening:
- Since you use potting soil, you don’t have to worry about preparing your soil before starting.
- Container gardens have far fewer issues with weeds (if they have any at all), which means gardening takes up less of your time.
- It’s easier to protect container plants from threats like animals or frost damage.
- You can move containers around to take advantage of the best available sunlight, which can increase your yield.
- You can start a container garden almost anywhere: on your patio, deck, rooftop, or even kitchen counter.
And growing food in containers doesn’t limit your options. I’ve been growing food in containers for years, including herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots, cucumbers, peas, strawberries, and even pumpkins and watermelon. You can grow almost anything in containers.
How to Grow a Container Garden
Resist the urge to spend a lot on fancy gardening tools or irrigation systems upfront. Although you may choose to garden because you enjoy it, if you’re looking to save money on food, you won’t see much in savings if you spend a lot on equipment.
For even more money-saving gardening ideas, see our article on gardening hacks to grow your garden for little to no cost.
1. Choosing Your Containers
You can grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs in just about any container as long as it has adequate drainage. That includes plastic pots and tubs (such as storage totes), buckets, trash cans, metal troughs, and inexpensive terra cotta pots.
The most important thing to watch for when choosing the containers is size. Your food plants need sufficient space for both root development and proper drainage.
When it comes to root development requirements, different plants need different amounts of space. For example, lettuce and spinach grow relatively close to the surface, so you can plant them in shallow containers. Other plants, such as cilantro, need deeper containers. Cilantro has a long taproot, so you shouldn’t plant it in a container less than 12 inches deep.
According to the University of Georgia (UGA) Extension, the most crucial thing to remember when choosing a container size is that the roots of your plants can only go down so far in a container. Because smaller pots restrict root growth, the smaller your pot, the less top growth (or yield) your plants can produce.
Thus, for a greater harvest, a large pot or container is always better. Containers that are at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep are best for most food plants, according to Better Homes & Gardens. A container that size ensures adequate room for root growth. Larger pots also hold more soil, meaning they retain moisture longer and you don’t have to water your plants as often.
Additionally, plants that grow tall or produce vines, such as tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers, require some type of support, such as a plant cage or trellis. In these cases, use a large, sturdy pot to prevent the plant from tipping over.
The second-most important container consideration is drainage. According to UGA Extension, soils in containers have less adequate drainage due to shallower depths and reduced capillary action, the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of external forces like gravity. By contrast, dirt in the ground continually drains by capillary action, which pulls any excess moisture downward.
Poorly drained soil can lead to root problems. When soil is consistently exposed to excess moisture, the roots become stressed and easily contract mold and root-rotting fungi infections, which cause plants to grow improperly and even die.
You can avoid these issues by using the proper soil mix and ensuring your containers have adequate drainage. If you choose a container that doesn’t have holes in the bottom, such as a plastic tub or food-safe 5-gallon bucket, drill drainage holes in the bottom so any excess water can escape. You can also line the bottom of your container with broken pottery shards, stones, or sand, which prevent your plants’ roots from sitting in pooled water.
If you’re planning to grow a lot of fruits and vegetables but don’t want to spend a lot on containers, try grow bags. You can buy several for very little money, they don’t take up much space, and they can even make harvesting easier. You can purchase hanging grow bags for strawberries or tomatoes or grow bags with windows, which make harvesting root vegetables like carrots and potatoes easier.
Self-watering containers allow container gardeners to grow their vegetable gardens with very little maintenance. These pots and large tubs typically have water reservoirs that collect water at the bottom, including rainwater or water you add yourself. Additionally, they involve a wicking system that allows the plant roots to draw water as needed from the reservoir. You can buy these containers as your budget allows or save money and DIY one from a repurposed plastic storage tote, as shown on Grow a Good Life.
If you’re really short on space, vertical planting is an option. For plants that don’t require large containers, such as most herbs, you can even grow multiple plants in an inexpensive shoe organizer following the directions on Instructables.
2. Buying or Making Potting Soil
Since adequate drainage is crucial to your plants’ health, you can help them grow better by potting them in a porous planting mixture. Commercial potting soils come in a range of premixed varieties specially formulated for certain plant types — everything from roses to vegetables to African violets. Look for an organic soil mix designed for use in large, outdoor containers. According to Better Homes & Gardens, organic mixes result in the most flavorful fruits and vegetables.
If you don’t mind putting in a little extra work, you can save money by mixing your own potting soil. Despite the name, potting soil doesn’t typically contain soil. Instead, it’s a mixture of various combinations of compost with peat moss, pine bark, or coconut coir and either vermiculite or perlite.
Vermiculite and perlite help keep the mixture aerated and promote drainage. If you buy a commercial mix that doesn’t already contain perlite, the UGA Extension recommends adding it. Peat moss absorbs and holds moisture, and adding perlite to your potting mixture aids with drainage, especially if you keep your container garden outside and live in a wet climate, where plants are often exposed to extended rain.
Note that peat moss has raised some environmental concerns in recent years because its harvesting releases a considerable amount of carbon dioxide gases into the atmosphere, according to The Washington Post. So, if you’re mixing your own soil, sub an equal amount of coconut coir in any recipe that calls for peat moss. It does the same job and is a renewable resource that won’t cause harm to the atmosphere.
Mel’s Mix, named for Mel Bartholomew, author of “Square Foot Gardening,” is a basic soil mix that works well in both raised beds and containers. Mix equal parts compost, coconut coir (instead of the original recipe’s peat moss), and vermiculite. Get the full instructions on Growing in the Garden. See also Better Homes & Gardens’ guide on how to make your own potting mixture.
3. Deciding Between Seeds & Starter Plants
You can begin your container garden with either seeds or small starter plants. Each has advantages and disadvantages. It’s best to start some plants with seeds, while other plants are more difficult to germinate, making starter plants the easier choice.
The most significant advantages of starting with seeds are price and variety. If you visit a garden store looking for starter plants, you’re limited to what the store has available. But you can buy seeds — especially if you order them from an online store — for any plant in any variety imaginable, including any heirloom variety. The possibilities are virtually limitless.
Additionally, most seed packets contain at least 20 seeds, and many contain hundreds. You can get far more plants from a seed packet than one or two starter plants, potentially meaning higher yields for the price.
And you don’t need to use all your seeds at once. According to the University of California, many seeds can last anywhere from one to five years if properly stored in a cool, dry place. So buying one packet of seeds and using them over multiple seasons is an effective way to save money. You can also participate in a seed exchange in your community as a way to experiment with a wider variety of plants without spending anything extra.
However, there are drawbacks to starting with seeds. They require more experience, skill, and time than starter plants. You must start seeds indoors weeks or months before the planting season begins. Harvest to Table has guidelines for how early to start germinating seeds for many common garden vegetables.
Also, you must carefully control growing conditions to have successful germination. Seeds won’t germinate unless you expose them to the correct temperatures and light. And different plants have different requirements, which can make germination especially tricky. Visit Morning Chores for a guide to the optimum seed germination temperatures for many common garden fruits and vegetables.
Starting from seeds isn’t for everyone and is easier for experienced gardeners. If you don’t have a lot of time, space, or adequate light, reserve seed use for only those plants that start best that way, such as lettuce, beets, carrots, and cilantro. Their long taproots don’t transplant well. That said, if you’re committed to growing a specific plant but can’t find it in your local garden store, you may have to resort to seeds.
Starter plants are small plants you can buy from your local garden store. They’re the quickest and easiest way to start your garden. You don’t have to wait and hope as you do with seeds, and if something goes wrong with your plant, many stores have return policies.
The two main drawbacks to starter plants are cost and availability. Plants sold individually can cost several dollars apiece, which can quickly eat up any savings you might accumulate from growing your own food. Also, because garden stores only stock the most common varieties of plants, it can be hard to find the selection you do with seeds.
But for most home gardeners, the time and ease of using starter plants greatly outweigh these disadvantages.
When selecting plants, the NGA recommends choosing specimens with bushy growth that haven’t yet started to flower. Ensure each plant is securely anchored in the pot, which indicates strong roots.
4. Potting Your Plants
There are a few things you should know before transplanting your seedlings or starter plants into larger containers for the growing season.
- Don’t Pack the Soil When Filling the Container. You can tap the container on the ground to settle the soil, but make sure it stays relatively loose for proper aeration and drainage.
- Fill the Container Within 2 to 3 Inches of the Top. Leave enough room for watering your plants. If you fill larger containers to the top, water (including rainwater) will just spill over the sides before it has a chance to soak into the soil. Note that when you hand-water smaller containers, those top 2 to 3 inches will fill up with water rather quickly, so pause for a moment to let it soak in before adding more.
- Water the Container Before Planting. Before you transplant your seedlings or starter plants, thoroughly soak the potting mix, then let it sit for a few hours to drain the excess water adequately.
- Wet the Root Ball Before Transplanting It. Thoroughly wetting your plant’s root ball right before transplanting it is the only way to ensure it gets adequate water. That’s because the soil within the root ball can actually become hydrophobic (repel water) over time, according to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. If that happens, the roots can’t absorb water no matter how much you water the surrounding soil. So make sure it’s well-watered before transplanting it.
- Plant Shallowly. Place individual plants just deep enough to cover the root ball. Essentially, you want to place them at the same level at which they were growing in their original container. The exception to this is tomatoes, which you should bury so deep that part of the stem is underground. Tomatoes can grow roots from their stems, so burying them deeper helps them grow a stronger root system.
- Don’t Pack the Soil Too Tightly Around the Plant. Tap down the soil around each plant just enough to hold it in place but not so tightly air can’t properly circulate.
- Don’t Overcrowd Your Plants. Although you can certainly put more than one starter plant in a container if it’s big enough, avoid overcrowding, as it reduces your yield. Check the care instructions that come with your starter plants or seeds, which provide guidance on appropriate spacing. Typically, you want 3 to 4 inches between each plant.
- Thoroughly Water Your Plants. Just after transplanting, give your new container garden a good soak. According to Grow Journey, your new plants need to be watered immediately after planting to encourage the roots to grow into the new soil. But plants also need to be able to breathe. Oxygen must reach the plant’s roots, and the plant also needs contact with oxygen-dependent microbes to thrive. So avoid overwatering. Ultimately, the soil should feel like a wrung-out sponge — damp but not overly wet.
5. Deciding Where to Put Your Containers
One of the benefits of growing your food in containers is the ease with which you can move them around according to their individual sunlight needs. Most food crops require a lot of light — at least six hours of full sun per day, according to the NGA. Rotate your containers weekly to avoid uneven growth.
Although most food plants require a lot of light, a few do better with some shade. Pay close attention to the care details that come with your starter plants or seed packets.
Wind is another factor to consider to safeguard your plants’ health. To prevent damage, place containers with large plants, such as tomatoes or peppers, in sheltered areas. If you’re gardening in an urban area, avoid placing plants in narrow alleys or other spots that produce a wind-tunneling effect. And use wire cages or other plant supports to protect large and vine-producing plants, such as tomatoes, eggplant, beans, and squash.
6. Maintaining Your Garden
Planting your container garden is just the beginning of your journey to healthy and delicious homegrown vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Throughout the growing season — and potentially beyond — your plants need regular care to thrive and produce the highest possible quantity and quality of food.
To keep your plants healthy, water them every few days. It’s the most essential part of garden maintenance. But don’t overwater them, as that can lead to root rot or plant diseases like fungal infections. So skip giving your fruits and veggies a drink on rainy days. That said, when it comes to growing in containers, underwatering is more common, as water evaporates more quickly from containers than in-ground garden soil. And plants that stay too dry for too long will also die.
Keep an eye on the soil in your containers by sticking a finger into the dirt — don’t rely on eyesight alone. If the top inch of soil feels dry, it’s time for watering.
When you water your plants, water as close to their base as possible. Splashing water on their leaves can lead to fungus growth. To help make watering more manageable, if you’re not using self-watering containers, install a drip-irrigation system. That involves winding hoses around the base of your plants to let water drip directly onto the soil, avoiding the leaves entirely. Get the full instructions on CaliKim29 Garden & Home DIY’s YouTube channel.
To keep container soil moist, cover it with a layer of mulch. You can use wood chips purchased from your local garden center or shredded cardboard. If you get a lot of deliveries, sending the boxes through a paper shredder to repurpose as garden mulch keeps them out of a landfill. Plus, it replenishes your soil as compost as it breaks down. But remove any tape first, as the plastic doesn’t decompose.
In addition to holding moisture, mulching your containers can cut down on weed growth.
Fertilizing & Composting
If you purchase a commercial potting mix, which typically comes fertilized, or add fertilizer to your own soil mixture, you don’t need to add any more for the first several weeks. Although fertilizer is necessary for plants to thrive, you don’t want to overfertilize, as it can cause plants to grow too quickly, become soft, and produce less-flavorful food.
A month after planting, begin fertilizing your plants about once per month, which is sufficient for most specimens. Use organic fertilizer for the best-tasting and safest food, and if you buy a commercial product, read the package directions for usage guidelines. You can also make your own fertilizer by composting kitchen scraps.
Pests can wreak havoc on your garden, whether you grow in containers or the ground. An insect infestation can destroy a crop and even kill your plants.
You don’t have to use chemical pesticides to keep pests at bay. One alternative is companion planting. There are numerous plants, such as marigolds and lemongrass, that dissuade pests. As an added benefit, some plants can help each other thrive and contribute to the health of your soil when grown together. You can companion-plant by potting them in the same container if it’s large enough, or you can simply group companion plants by placing pots next to one another.
Another alternative is to use natural and organic pest deterrents. For example, neem oil keeps aphids at bay, and diatomaceous earth dissuades ants. For some plants, physical barriers are also helpful. For instance, broccoli tends to attract worms and moths, but you can keep them away from your plants by surrounding them with bug netting.
Dealing With Disease
Although container-grown plants are less susceptible to disease than those grown in the ground, you should still keep an eye out for any signs of disease. If you spot any, remove or treat those plants promptly. Better Homes & Gardens has a handy visual guide to many common plant diseases.
And while you can reuse container soil yearly as long as you continue to amend it with compost, never reuse soil diseased plants grew in unless you sterilize it first. Otherwise, any new plants become susceptible to the same disease. You can sterilize small batches of soil by steaming it in a pressure cooker, baking it in an oven, or cooking it in a microwave. Get the full instructions on Gardening Know How.
While not having to weed is one of the benefits of growing plants in containers, it’s possible errant seeds picked up by the wind may land in your pots. Just as you would with plants grown in the ground, pull any weeds you spot growing in your containers to prevent them from crowding out and pulling nutrients from your plants, reducing your food’s ability to thrive.
Harvest your fruits and vegetables as soon as they ripen. Generally, you should harvest early and often, as it encourages higher yields. Better Homes & Gardens has a guide on the best times to harvest many common garden vegetables.
There may be occasions when your fruits and vegetables ripen faster than you’re ready to eat them, but you can preserve your harvest by canning or pickling. As an added benefit, preservation allows you to continue enjoying your crops long after the growing season is over.
Most vegetables are annuals, meaning you must replant them each year. As long as they’re free of diseases, dig them up and dump them in your compost pile at the end of the season. Then winterize your containers by mixing some fresh compost into the leftover soil and covering it with a layer of mulch. The compost ensures your soil is fertilized and ready to go in the spring, and the mulch protects the soil from wind erosion and errant weed seeds throughout the fall and winter.
A few food plants are perennials, which continue to grow yearly. But you still need to prep them for the winter. For example, if you usually keep strawberries or dwarf fruit trees — miniature versions of full-size trees that grow well in containers — outside, bring them inside or insulate them against the cold by grouping their containers and wrapping them with blankets. Also, drape the plants themselves with burlap or additional blankets to keep them safe from the cold.
Alternatively, you can store certain plants in a garden shed. Some fruits, such as blueberries, go dormant in the winter, so there’s no need to keep them in a sunny spot. However, lemon trees are used to warmer temperatures, so when you bring them inside, keep them in a light-filled corner to help them thrive.
Finally, you can bring herbs indoors and set them on a sunny windowsill where you can keep enjoying their yield year-round. In fact, herbs are ideal for both indoor and outdoor container gardening.
All plants have different requirements, so check the care guidelines for your varieties.
The Best Vegetables, Fruits & Herbs for Container Gardening
Lots of food-producing plants grow well in containers. Pretty much anything you can grow in the ground can grow in a container as long as it’s big enough — even large crops you might never imagine, such as corn. But if you’re looking for the easiest way to start with food gardening, there are many vegetables, fruits, and herbs that can thrive in containers.
According to Better Homes & Gardens, the top vegetables to grow in containers include:
- Green beans
- Summer squash
- Swiss chard
- Winter squash
Many fruits grow well in containers, including dwarf tree varieties, such as apples and lemons. Gardeners’ World says the 10 best fruits to grow in containers are:
- Peaches and nectarines
Herbs do exceptionally well in containers and represent perhaps the most significant money savings for container gardeners. When you consider a bundle of herbs from the grocery store can cost anywhere from $1 to $4, it’s clear that investing $2 in a starter plant or packet of seeds that produces perpetually can save you a lot of money over the long run.
Moreover, because many herb varieties can grow well in small containers, they’re easy to bring indoors during the winter so you can continue to enjoy adding them to your family’s meals year-round.
According to Better Homes & Gardens, the top herbs to grow in containers are:
- Lemon balm
- Lemon verbena
Food gardening can bring many rewards, whether you do it in the ground or containers. Growing your own food not only puts fresh and delicious produce at your fingertips, but it’s also enjoyable. There’s just something about food you’ve grown yourself that makes mealtime special.
And if you’re growing food for your family, your kids can get in on the action too. School garden research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2017 shows that kids are more apt to try a variety of fruits and vegetables when they helped grow them. And according to Cornell University, gardening can benefit children by improving environmental and nutritional awareness and promoting healthy eating. I can attest that my son is far more interested in vegetables he helped grow himself than in anything I grab from the freezer.
That said, it’s easy to get excited about all the possibilities of growing your own food. But just as with grocery store produce, only plant things you and your family eat. Otherwise, you’ll not only negate any savings, but much of your harvest will go to waste.
As with any endeavor, start small at first. Plant a few containers to get a feel for how much your plants produce and whether you actually consume and enjoy your yield. You’ll gradually learn which plants grow best in your containers, the best ways to care for them, and whether gardening is something you enjoy (or can at least tolerate for the savings). Then, as you gain experience, you can keep expanding your garden.