Growing vegetables in containers means that growing your own vegetables is not impossible if you have a small garden and gives you the opportunity to harvest edible plants without the need for huge beds.
If you’ve ever delved into growing your own vegetables, it’s likely been with a container plant, and you might have an idea how it can feel both incredibly rewarding and at times frustrating. However, for beginners, choosing the container gardening approach to growing vegetables may well yield the best results.
“Growing in containers means you can make sure you have the right soil for your plants, and you’re also unlikely to end up with oversaturation,” says gardening expert Sarah Raven. “A limited size can help you think carefully about what to grow and eat.” Growing in pots also means you can get plants in the right conditions so they can grow to their full potential too.
A little independence never hurt anyone. “We’ve been reminded in recent years how fragile our supply lines are,” says Christian Douglas, a California-based landscape architect who specializes in edible gardens. “The need to grow more fresh produce in our neighborhoods and closer to home is helping cushion the turmoil and uncertainty – while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
You can taste the difference too, explains Christian. “The reason your carrots taste sweeter at home is because flavor is directly related to nutrient content. With good gardening practices, rarely practiced in large-scale farming, your food will be more delicious and your body will thank you.’
If you are interested in taking on the vegetable container garden challenge, the experts here offer their top tips for building your edible garden.
How to start gardening in vegetable containers?
Certain vegetable crops are good for novice growers. “Edible plants have different attention needs, similar to our children,” explains Christian. “They range from ‘Toddlers’ (select vegetables) to ‘Young Adults’ (herbs).”
Once you’ve decided what you want to grow, it’s important to get your setup right.
“Always start any grow with three simple ingredients,” suggests Christian Douglas (opens in new tab). “Healthy soil, regular water, and plenty of sun.”
“The first step is to make sure you’re buying quality organic potting soil,” he suggests. “This will provide a solid base of energy that your plants will need to produce throughout the growing season. Adding drip irrigation is a smart addition so the onus isn’t on you to remember to water. Containers can dry out quickly, especially when they’re small – a larger size is good if you have space.’
The sun also plays an important role in growing vegetables. “Think of the leaves of your precious plants as mini solar panels,” says Christian, “turning those UV rays into delicious food. Position the containers to receive between 6 and 8 hours of direct sunlight if you can.’
“You need to keep up with watering and feeding,” says Sarah Raven (opens in new tab). “We use a liquid seaweed diet weekly and a high potassium diet for fruit tomatoes, comfrey pellets are ideal.”
What vegetables grow well in a container?
The truth is that many container vegetables are relatively easy to grow. Sometimes, though, it’s more about choosing plants that inspire you to continue your exploration of vegetable growing as part of your gardening ideas, says Christian Douglas.
“We like to start people off with these more failsafe options first. It helps build trust and still delivers the goods.”
Why not try one of these seven plants to get started?
1. Leafy greens
“Any leafy greens do well in a pot and can go from seed to harvest in 35 to 40 days in peak season,” says Christian. “These include arugula, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy. They germinate easily and you can literally watch them grow.”
“To speed up the process and feel even better about your speed gardening skills, you can always buy a seed (or “start”) from a local nursery and extend the harvest time by a week or two. The beauty of leafy greens is that most varieties will re-grow once cut – giving you multiple harvests year-round with minimal effort.’
Zucchini (or zucchini) is an excellent crop for beginners. “You can sow them now in May, either covered with two seeds sown vertically in a pot, or directly once the frost has passed,” Sarah Raven suggests.
“It’s about not growing too many and not growing one variety, but growing multiple varieties. I try to grow at least a dark green ‘Romanesco’, a pale green ‘Bianca di Trieste’ which is early to harvest and an excellent flower producer for fills, as well as a yellow ‘Soleil’ and the climber ‘Tromboncino’ that climbs over a fence or frame climbs, is therefore an ideal urban gardening idea.’
3. Salad vegetables
Why not grow the ingredients for a salad in your container garden? “For a good salad, follow my basic rule,” says Sarah Raven, “by adding at least one thing from five different categories of ingredients.”
‘The first is lettuce, which adds smooth flavor, crunch and background bulk to your bowl.’ She suggests. “Next come the lettuce leaves, which add a punch of flavor and color. The third addition is herbs, just a sprinkling, roughly chopped or shredded to give a nice flavor. Then add one or two different salad greens like cherry tomatoes or cucumbers to give them body, and finally edible flowers like nasturtium or violets for beauty and color.”
“With early preparation, radishes can go from seed to harvest in as little as 40 days,” says Christian Douglas. “They can be eaten raw or canned in red wine vinegar to keep them fresher longer.”
5. New potatoes
“It’s also fun to grow new potatoes in containers, especially if you’re a beginner,” says Sarah Raven, “for the raffle thing, choose potatoes one by one – you can’t believe one tuber turned into 20 potatoes are.”
Garlic is a satisfying crop for your pantry, but it won’t give you instant results. “Plug and play garlic has a gestation period of nine months,” explains Christian, “and once in the ground it needs little attention.”
“Harvest once you reach ‘full time’ and then dry and store. It can then be used for up to a year and is available in a surprisingly wide range of sweet to savory varieties.’
When it comes to growing an edible container garden, don’t forget the herbs. They are super accessible and can even be used in super small pots and balcony boxes.
“Thyme, marjoram, oregano, and rosemary are so easy to grow,” says Christian. “Either eaten fresh or dried and stored for the winter months if you are under snow at that time of year. You can handle significant neglect, which is attractive to most busy people.’
“Basil is also relatively easy,” adds Christian. “It produces mountains of leaves every few weeks. Excellent for Caprese salads and making pesto for year-round use.’
How big do planters need to be to grow vegetables?
Even in a small garden, gardening can be done in vegetable containers. “Most vegetables can be successfully grown in pots as long as you have the right sized container and proper drainage,” says Sarah Raven. “We recommend a 30 cm diameter pot for herbs,” says Sarah Raven. “A diameter of 40 cm is ideal for potatoes, tomatoes and courgettes.”
“When you want to grow larger crops like winter squash, asparagus or corn, it becomes a lot harder to get a meaningful crop despite all the effort and care they take,” explains Christian. “Larger vegetable beds shine here. More space offers the opportunity for a more diverse, higher-yielding garden.”