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Container Gardening 101: How to Grow Your Own Food in Plant Pots

These days, more and more people are enjoying the benefits of food gardening. According to a five-year study of gardening trends in the U.S. by the National Gardening Association (NGA), more than one in three 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.

Why is there so much interest in homegrown fruits and vegetables? First, it can help you save money on groceries. According to the NGA report, 54% of food gardeners grow their own food to reduce their grocery bills. Money reports that even a small garden can save a household up to $600 per year.

Second, over half (58%) of food growers cite better-tasting food as a top reason for growing their own food. Homegrown food tastes better because it’s natural and fresh from the earth, not shipped from halfway around the world or genetically modified to produce high-yield while sacrificing taste. If you’ve ever eaten a fresh tomato from a farmer’s market as opposed to the kind you buy in your local grocery store, you can attest to this.

Finally, 51% of Americans cite better quality as a top reason for growing their own food. Research shows a steady decline of up to 40% of the nutritional quality of our produce from 1940 to today. Industrialized farming relies on methods that increase yields while sacrificing nutritional quality, such as the use of chemical fertilizers and genetic modification.

Moreover, most commercial produce is grown with the use of pesticides, which are both toxic and known to have significant health effects. If you’re concerned about pesticides in your food, the Environmental Working Group has a downloadable list of the “Dirty Dozen,” the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. These may be some you want to consider growing yourself.

What if you like the idea of growing your food, but you don’t have a yard to do it in? Container gardening is the perfect solution. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

The Benefits of Container Gardening

Lettuce Vegetables Garden Container Organic

Container gardening means growing fruits and vegetables in containers instead of in the ground. According to the NGA report, 46% of food gardens include containers, and many do so successfully. The report found a 28% increase in urban gardens during the course of their five-year study, and most of these were container gardens.

I’ve been growing food in containers for years and have successfully provided plenty of delicious tomatoes, peppers, and herbs for my family’s meals from plants grown in pots.

If you have a desire to grow some of your own food, there’s no need to feel limited by your space. In fact, container gardening offers several benefits over gardening in the ground:

  • Since you’ll be using potting soil, you won’t have to worry about prepping your soil before getting started.
  • You’ll have far fewer issues with weeds if you have any at all, which means gardening will take up less of your time.
  • It’s easier to protect container plants from threats such as animals or frost damage.
  • You can move containers around to take the best advantage of available sunlight, which can increase your yield.
  • You can start a container garden almost anywhere: on your patio, deck, rooftop, or even kitchen counter.

The Best Vegetables, Fruits & Herbs for Container Gardening

Beets Root Vegetable Wooden Table Fresh Organic

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, here are the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that do the best in containers.

Vegetables

According to Better Homes & Gardens (BH&G), the top vegetables to grow in containers include:

  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Green beans
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Summer squash
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomatoes
  • Winter squash

Fruits

Many fruits grow well in containers, including dwarf tree varieties such as apples and lemons. Gardeners’ World says that the 10 best fruits to grow in containers are:

  • Apples
  • Blackcurrants
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Figs
  • Gooseberries
  • Peaches and nectarines
  • Plums
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

Herbs

Herbs do especially well in containers and represent perhaps the biggest money savings for container gardeners. When you consider that 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 a packet of seeds that will produce year after year 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 in the winter so that you can continue to enjoy adding them to your family’s meals year-round.

According to BH&G, the top herbs to consider growing in containers are:

  • Basil
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Tarragon
  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm
  • Lemon verbena
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme

How to Grow a Container Garden

Container Gardening Eggshells Carton Herbs Green

It’s relatively easy to begin container gardening. All you need are a few basic supplies, including gardening gloves, a hand trowel, starter plants or seeds, containers, and soil. When you’re first starting out, resist spending a lot on fancy gardening tools or irrigation systems. Although you may choose to garden merely because you enjoy it, if you’re looking to save money on your food, bear in mind that you won’t see much in savings if you spend a lot on equipment.

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 tubs, buckets, trash cans, metal troughs, and inexpensive terra cotta pots.

The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing the containers for your plants is size. Your food plants need sufficient space for both root development and proper drainage.

Size

When it comes to root development requirements, different plants need different amounts of space. Lettuce and spinach, for example, grow relatively close to the surface and can, therefore, be planted 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.

The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to choosing container size, according to the University of Georgia (UGA) Extension, 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 will produce.

For a greater harvest, opt for larger containers. Pots that are at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep are best for most food plants, according to BH&G, and will ensure adequate room for root growth. Larger pots also hold more soil, meaning they’ll retain moisture longer and you won’t have to water your plants as much.

Additionally, plants that grow tall or produce vines, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, require some type of support, such as a plant cage. In these cases, be sure to use a large, sturdy pot to prevent the plant from tipping over.

Drainage

The second most important consideration when it comes to choosing your containers is drainage. According to UGA Extension, soils in containers have less adequate drainage due to shallower depths and reduced capillary pull. By contrast, dirt in the ground 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 are easily infected with mold and root-rotting fungi, which cause plants to grow improperly and even die.

You can avoid these issues by using the proper soil mixture (more on that below) and ensuring that your containers have adequate drainage. If you choose a container that doesn’t have holes in the bottom, such as a plastic tub, make sure to poke a few in the bottom so that any excess water can escape. It’s also a good idea to line the bottom of your container with broken pottery shards, stones, or sand, which will prevent your plants’ roots from sitting in pooled water.

Grow Bags

If you’re planning on growing a lot of fruits and vegetables but don’t want to spend a lot on containers, try grow bags. You can buy several of them for a very little investment, they don’t take up much space, and they can even make harvesting easier. You can purchase hanging grow bags for strawberries, tomatoes, or grow bags with windows, which make harvesting root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes easier.

Vertical Planting

If you’re short on space – which is likely the case if you’re pursuing container gardening – you may want to consider vertical planting. For plants that don’t require large containers, such as most herbs, you can even grow multiple plants in a cheap and simple shoe organizer. This guide from Instructables shows you how.

2. Soil Considerations

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 types specially formulated for certain types of plants – everything from roses to vegetables to African violets. Look for an organic potting mix designed for use in large, outdoor containers. According to BH&G, organic mixes will result in the most flavorful fruits and vegetables.

If you don’t mind putting in a little extra work, you can also mix your own potting soil. Despite the name, potting soil doesn’t typically contain soil but various combinations of peat moss, pine bark, 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, 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 your plants may be exposed to extended rain.

If you’re mixing your own potting soil, UGA Extension recommends a mixture of two parts soil, two parts peat moss, and one part perlite. BH&G has a guide on how to make your own potting mixture.

3. Seeds vs. Starter Plants

You can begin your container garden with either seeds or small “starter” plants. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Some plants are best started with seeds, while others are more difficult to germinate, making starter plants the easier choice.

Seeds

The biggest advantages of starting with seeds are price and variety. If you visit a garden store looking for starter plants, you’ll be limited by 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.

In addition, most seed packets contain at least 20 seeds, and many contain hundreds. For the price, you can get far more plants from a seed packet than one or two starter plants, which could mean potentially higher yields.

And you don’t need to use up all your seeds at once. According to the Pacific Northwest Extension, 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 can be 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. Seeds must be started 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 amount. And different plants have different requirements, which can make germination especially tricky. Penn State Extension has a chart that shows the ideal soil temperatures for certain vegetables, for example.

Starting from seeds isn’t for everyone and may best be left to experienced gardeners. If you don’t have a lot of time, space, or adequate light, you might want to reserve using seeds for only those plants that are best started that way – such as lettuce, beets, carrots, and cilantro – whose long taproots don’t transplant well. Or save using seeds for only those plants you’re committed to growing but can’t find in your local garden store.

Starter Plants

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, you won’t find the kind of selection you will with seeds.

For most home gardeners, however, the time and ease of using starter plants greatly outweigh these disadvantages.

When selecting plants, the NGA recommends choosing ones with bushy growth that haven’t yet started to flower. Check to make sure each plant is securely anchored in the pot, which indicates strong roots.

4. Potting Your Plants

When transplanting your seedlings or starter plants into the larger containers where they’ll spend the growing season, follow these guidelines:

  1. 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.
  2. Fill the Container Within 2 to 3 Inches of the Top. This will leave enough room for water to thoroughly soak the potting mixture.
  3. 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 adequately drain the excess water.
  4. Wet the Root Mass Before Transplanting It. Thoroughly wet your plant’s root mass right before transplanting it. It will help protect the fragile plant by ensuring it has adequate water.
  5. Plant Shallowly. Place individual plants just deep enough to cover the root mass. 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 can bury deeper because they’re able to grow roots from their stems.
  6. 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 that air can’t properly circulate.
  7. 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 will reduce your yield. Be sure to check the care instructions that come with your starter plants or seeds, which will guide you on appropriate spacing. Typically, you want 3 to 4 inches between each plant.
  8. Thoroughly Water Your Plants. Just after transplanting, be sure to give your new container garden a good soak. That may require a couple of back-to-back waterings to ensure the potting mixture is thoroughly wet.

5. 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 a day, according to the NGA. Be sure to rotate your containers weekly to avoid uneven growth.

Keep in mind that although most food plants require a lot of light, there are a few that do better with some shade. Pay close attention to the care details that come with your starter plants or are printed on your 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. Be sure to 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 will need regular care to thrive and produce the highest possible quantity and quality of food.

Watering

To keep your plants healthy, water them every few days. It’s the most essential part of garden maintenance. While overwatering can cause root rot, soil that’s too dry prevents your plants from growing and thriving. And if they stay too dry for too long, they will die.

Keep an eye on the soil in your containers and, whenever it seems dry, be sure to give them a thorough soaking. If you live in a particularly warm or dry climate, you can keep your plants’ soil from drying out too fast by covering it with a layer of material such as mulch or straw.

Fertilizing

If you purchase a commercial potting mix, which typically comes pre-fertilized, or you add some fertilizer to your own soil mixture, you won’t need to add any more for the first several weeks. Although fertilizer is necessary for plants to thrive, you don’t want to over-fertilize as it can cause plants to grow too quickly, become soft, and produce less-flavorful food.

About a month after planting, begin fertilizing your plants once per week. Be sure to use organic fertilizer for the best-tasting and safest food, and, if you buy a commercial one, read the package directions for guidelines for its use. You can also make your own organic fertilizer by composting kitchen scraps.

Pest Control

Pests can wreak havoc on your garden, whether you grow it 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 to dangerous and toxic chemicals is companion planting. There are a number of plants, such as marigolds and lemongrass, that dissuade pests. As an added benefit, some plants, when grown together, can help each other thrive as well as contribute to the health of your soil. You can companion plant by potting plants in the same container if it’s large enough, or you can simply group companion plants together 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 useful. For example, 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 plants that grow in containers 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. BH&G has a handy visual guide to many common plant diseases.

Weeding

While not having to weed is one of the benefits of growing plants in containers, the possibility always remains that errant seeds picked up by the wind may land in your pots. Just as you would with plants grown in the ground, be sure to pull any weeds you spot growing in your containers, or they’ll crowd out and pull nutrients from your plants, reducing their ability to thrive.

Harvest

Be sure to harvest your fruits and vegetables as soon as they ripen. As a general rule of thumb, you should harvest early and often as it will encourage higher yields. BH&G 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, it will allow you to continue enjoying the products of your garden long after the growing season is over.

Winterizing

Most vegetables are annuals, meaning you’ll have to replant them each year. For these, dump the potting soil into your compost pile, if you have one, at the end of each season and thoroughly scrub the pot using a mixture of 10 parts water to 1 part bleach. It will ensure you don’t carry over any plant diseases or insect infestations from one season to the next.

A few food plants are perennials, so they’ll continue to grow year after year. You still need to prep them for the winter, however. If you normally keep dwarf fruit trees 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. Lemon trees, on the other hand, are used to warmer temperatures, so when you bring them inside, keep them in a light-filled corner to help them thrive.

Finally, herbs can be brought indoors and set 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 be sure to check the care guidelines for your varieties.


Final Word

Food gardening, whether done in the ground or containers, can bring many rewards. 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 extra special.

And if you’re growing food for your family, your kids can get in on the action too. Research on school gardens shows that kids are more apt to try a variety of fruits and vegetables when they helped to 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 buying produce at the grocery store, you should make sure to plant only those things that you and your family actually like and will 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 will 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 if gardening is something you truly enjoy. Then, as you gain experience, you can keep expanding your garden.

Are you planning to grow any vegetables, fruits, or herbs in containers this year? What are you most excited about enjoying from your own container garden?

Sarah Graves
Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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