Growing vegetables in containers is an easy way to experience the flavor and freshness of home-grown vegetables. Here's a little-known secret: Most vegetables actually grow really well in containers. And by picking the right plants, you can create your own vegetable container garden and grow a fair amount of food in just a few pots!
Why go to the effort of growing vegetables rather than simply buying them at the store? Well, vegetable gardens allow you to grow produce that you typically cannot find at your local supermarket—and they're way easier than you think! A container vegetable garden places delicious veggies right outside of your door. Use our tips and tricks to learn everything you need to know before planting your own container vegetable garden.
Vegetable Container Garden Materials
Type of Container
Not sure what type of container to grow your vegetables in? Don't fret—typically, you'll care more about this than your plants will. Happily, most vegetables aren't fussy about what kind of vegetable container garden they grow in. The only basic requirements are that the vegetable container garden is large enough to hold the plant and that it has drainage holes so excess water can escape.
In general, plants in terra cotta (clay) need more attention to watering for a vegetable container garden than other types of pots, because of the porous nature of the terra cotta. Also think about the color. Dark colors absorb heat—so they may make the soil too warm for some vegetable crops in summer, especially in hot-summer areas. And avoid vegetable container gardens made of treated wood, as it may contain chemical compounds that could be absorbed by your vegetables.
Size of Container
When it comes to size, the bigger the pot is, the better, especially for beginners. The reason for this is that large pots hold more soil—and thus, hold moisture longer so you don't have to water as much. Look for vegetable container gardens that are at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Large flowerpots, half barrels, plastic-lined bushel baskets, window boxes, planters, and large containers (like 5-gallon buckets) work just fine.
Some vegetables need particularly large pots to grow in a vegetable container garden. Standard-size tomatoes and vining crops, such as cucumbers, will do best for you in containers 20 inches or more across. Peppers like pots at least 16 inches in diameter. In a pinch, most will still grow in a 5-gallon or larger container.
Plants that grow tall or produce vines—like tomatoes and cucumbers—will be more productive if grown up a support in a vegetable container garden. A wire cage, inserted into the container at planting time, will do. Use larger, heavier containers for trellised plants to minimize the risk of tipping.
Related: Planting Your First Vegetable Garden
What Type of Soil to Use in Containers
While your vegetables aren't fussy about the kind of pot they're in, they do care about the potting soil in your vegetable container garden. As is the case with most other types of container gardens, your vegetable container garden will do best in organic potting mixes made for containers. Bonus: organic soil will give your vegetables better flavor. Ask at your nursery for a mix designed for use in larger outdoor containers, or save money by blending your own vegetable container garden mix. Use equal parts of peat moss, potting soil, and vermiculite, perlite, or clean sand. Fill the containers to within an inch or two of the rim.
To determine how much potting mix you'll need, figure:
- 3 pints of soil per 6-inch pot
- 3 1/2 gallons of mix per 12-inch pot
- 6 1/2 gallons of mix per 20-inch pot
Related: Grow an Organic Vegetable Garden
How to Plant Vegetables in Containers
Plant your vegetable container gardens at the same time you would plant in the garden. Depending on what types of vegetable you want to grow, you can start seeds in your containers, grow transplants from seeds started indoors, or purchase transplants from a garden center. Editor's Tip: Start vegetable container garden crops such as beans, corn, carrots, radishes, and spinach, from seeds sown directly in the container.
Fill Pot with Soil
When filling your pot with soil, stay 2-3 inches below the edge of the pot so that you have room to fill with water. Regardless of whether you are planting seeds or transplants, thoroughly water the container before you plant. Soak the potting mix completely, then allow it to sit for a few hours to drain excess water.
Add Plants and Fertilize
Leave 3-4 inches of space in between each plant, and adjust according to the seed package directions. Because not all seeds will germinate, plant more than you need, then thin the excess later. Set transplants or starters at the same level they were growing in their pot (except for tomatoes, which you can pinch off their lower leaves and plant them deeper in the container). Bury plastic tags to help with identification of each plant.
Sprinkle organic fertilizer in soil, either before or after planting. Don't over-fertilize—plants will grow too quickly, get soft, and the flavor won't be as intense. Starting about a month after planting, feed your vegetables about once a week with a water-soluble fertilizer, following the package directions. After planting, water gently but thoroughly to settle the seeds or transplants. Keep the soil in your vegetable container garden from drying out as fast by mulching with straw, compost, leaf mold, or a similar material. Water every few days to keep your plants healthy.
Care Guide for Vegetables
Watering is the most important thing to watch for in your vegetable container garden. So inspect your vegetables regularly to make sure the potting mix hasn't dried out. Editor's Tip: Make watering your vegetable container garden easier by installing a drip-irrigation system. It can automatically irrigate your vegetables for you.
To keep your vegetable garden its most productive, keep an eye out for weeds and other pests. While plants in containers usually aren't as susceptible to disease as varieties grown in the ground, you'll still want to watch for problems. Remove or treat any plants that show signs of disease or insect damage.
Vegetable Harvest Tips
Harvest is the most satisfying step, and all it takes is a few harvesting tips to get it right. Pick your crops as soon as they reach a size where you will enjoy them. Most vegetables are more productive if you harvest early and often. Letting plants "go to seed" will often cause a drop in fruit set.
At the end of the season, add the vegetable container garden soil to your compost pile. Reusing soil from year to year can spread infections and insect infestations. So, it is important to first thoroughly scrub the container to remove all soil. Rinse in a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water, then rinse with clean water and store in a dry spot.
Top Vegetables for Containers
Below are the basic instructions for growing a variety of vegetables in containers. Note that the suggested planting instructions are for optimal growth. You can often grow vegetables in small containers with acceptable results.
- Beets: Direct seed into a 2- to 5-gallon window box.
- Broccoli: One transplant per 5-gallon container.
- Cabbage: One transplant per 5-gallon container. Or with small varieties, one plant per gallon container.
- Carrots: Direct seed into a 2- to 5-gallon deep container. Thin to 3 inches apart.
- Cucumber: Two transplants per 5-gallon container. If using vining types, grow on trellis or cage.
- Eggplant: One transplant per 5-gallon container.
- Green Beans: Sow directly into a 5-gallon window box.
- Kohlrabi: Direct seed into a 5-gallon container. Thin to three plants.
- Lettuce: Direct seed or transplant into 1-gallon or larger container. Thin to 8 inches apart. Thin to 8 inches apart
- Onion: Direct seed into 1-gallon or large container. Thin to 2 inches between green onions; for bulb onions, thin to 6 inches apart.
- Peas: Direct seed into 5-gallon container. Grow taller varieties on a trellis. Thin to 5 inches apart.
- Pepper: One transplant per 5-gallon container.
- Radishes: Direct seed into 2-gallon or larger container. Thin to 3 inches apart.
- Spinach: Direct seed into 1-gallon or larger container. Thin to 3 inches apart.
- Summer Squash: Direct seed or transplant, two plants per 5-gallon container.
- Swiss Chard: Transplant or direct seed four plants per 5-gallon container.
- Tomatoes: Transplant one plant per 5-gallon container.
- Winter Squash: Direct seed one plant per 5-gallon container.