How to Grow Vegetables in Containers for a Plentiful Garden

Pick the right plants, and you can grow a fair amount of food in just a few large pots—here’s how.

You don't need to dig up a huge plot in your backyard to grow your own food. Even if you have only a small space available on your porch or patio, you can create an edible container garden. Growing in vegetable containers opens up many possibilities, and you can even plant and harvest exciting and tasty varieties not normally found in grocery stores. To get started, just find a sunny spot in which to place your container, and choose a few different vegetables that you and your family enjoy. Soon you'll have healthy, delicious produce growing right outside your door

barrel with various plants surrounded by flowers
Brie Passano

Vegetable Containers and Garden Materials

Before you start planting, choose the containers you want to use. Both the type and size of container can affect the care your garden needs, so be sure to pick pots that will work for the space you have and the vegetables you want to grow.

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. Most vegetables aren't fussy about what kind of container they grow in. The only basic requirements are that the pot is large enough to hold the plant and that it has drainage holes so excess water can escape.

In general, plants growing in terra-cotta (clay) pots need more attention to watering than in other types of pots, because of the porous nature of the material. Especially if you plan on moving your vegetable garden around, try to choose a lightweight container. Once it's planted, it can get pretty heavy, especially after watering. 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 areas. Avoid vegetable containers made of treated wood, as that 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 will hold moisture longer, so you don't have to water as much. Look for containers that are at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep. And feel free to think beyond the typical round flower pot. Half barrels, plastic-lined bushel baskets, and window boxes can work just as well.

Plants that grow tall or produce vines (like tomatoes and cucumbers) will be more productive if they're grown with a support in the container. Something as simple as a wire cage inserted into the container at planting time will work. Use larger, heavier containers for trellised plants to minimize the risk of tipping.

pouring soil into container garden
Marty Baldwin

What Type of Soil to Use in Vegetable Containers

While vegetables aren't fussy about the kind of pot they're in, they do need a potting mix that will allow water to drain well. Like most other container gardens, your vegetables will do best in potting mixes made for containers. Fill the containers so the soil is at least 2-3 inches below the rim (that extra space at the top will give you room to water deeply without overflowing the container). Water the soil just before planting.

half barrel planter with vegetable plants
Brie Passano

How to Plant Vegetables in Containers

Choosing the plants for your container garden is up to you, but as a starting point, think about what you like to eat. Most vegetables have similar needs (full sun and well-drained soil), but it's also good to double-check whether their needs are in fact similar, especially if you're planting multiple vegetables in one container.

You can start your vegetable container garden at the same time you would plant in the garden. Depending on what types of vegetables you want to grow, you can start seeds in your containers, grow start seeds indoors, then transplant, or purchase plants from a garden center.

Test Garden Tip:Start container garden crops such as beans, corn, carrots, radishes, and spinach from seeds sown directly in the container.

Add Plants and Fertilize

Leave 3-4 inches of space 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—you can pinch off their lower leaves and plant the stems deeper in the container). If you're transplanting, gently loosen the root ball by tugging lightly at the roots before adding it to your container. Buy plastic tags to help with the identification of each plant.

Sprinkle a balanced, organic fertilizer in the soil, either before or after planting. Don't over-fertilize; plants will grow too quickly so they'll be more likely to flop over, and the flavor won't be as rich. 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 potting soil from drying out by mulching with straw, compost, leaf mold, or a similar material. Water every few days to keep your plants healthy.

Basil, Tomato, Cabbage, Chard, Calendula
Peter Krumhardt

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. Check by sticking your finger in the soil; if it's dry, it's time to water.

Test Garden 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 diseases 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.

hands holding radishes
Scott Little

Vegetable Containers Harvest Tips

Harvesting is the most satisfying step, and it doesn't take much 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. And when harvesting anything except root crops, it's a good idea to use pruners, scissors, or a knife to remove what you need; if you try to pull off leaves or fruits, you risk damaging the plant and even uprooting it from the container.

harvesting vegetables
Ed Gohlich

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 smaller containers with acceptable results.

  • Beets: Direct seed into a 2- to 5-gallon window box.
  • Cabbage: One plant 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 plants per 5-gallon container. If using vining types, grow on trellis or cage.
  • Eggplant: One plant 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.
  • 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.
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