Posted by Devon, guest blogger for Tom’s of Maine, Burlington, Vermont
Container vegetable gardening is a great option for apartment and condo-dwellers who are short on yard space (or the permission to dig one up), those who want to add visual interest or variety to an existing backyard garden, and folks who have a back issue or a disability that makes working in a traditional garden difficult. It’s also a low-commitment way to grow your own food – think of it as permission to skip the weeding and hard labor and just enjoy fresh produce picked right outside your door! Here’s how you go about it.
Find a good location.
The ideal spot for growing most vegetables is one that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight and is protected from strong winds. The nice thing about container gardening is that most pots are easy to move; if you find that your intended spot isn’t working, just haul your containers elsewhere.
Another thing to consider when plotting your garden is what’s under the containers. You want a surface that’s sturdy enough to support the size and number of pots your using (especially when they’re wet), one that doesn’t get too hot (like asphalt roofs and driveways, which can roast in the sun), and one that has easy access to a water source.
Figure out what you want grow.
When choosing which veggies, herbs, and greens you’d like to plant, look for things that grow to be compact in nature. Key words to look for in plant names and descriptions are “bush,” “miniature,” and “dwarf” varieties of things like peas, beans, and cucumbers, and “determinate” or “patio” varieties of tomatoes. Avoid things that become huge like pumpkins, corn, and zucchini. While many edibles can be started from seed directly in your pots, it’s best to start with plants for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and woody herbs.
Pick your pots.
A gardening container can be nearly anything that holds soil and lets excess water drain out – actual pots, burlap bags, buckets with holes drilled in the bottom, an old sink…you get the idea. Match the size of your pot to the size your plant will be when fully grown. Bigger plants like tomatoes need larger containers in the 4-5 gallon range while small herbs like rosemary can get by in an 8-inch pot; root crops like carrots need depth whereas lettuce loves a shallow planter. You can group multiple plants in the same container as long as there’s enough room; read the seed packet or plant marker for spacing instructions.
Plant your garden.
While it might sound frugal to dig up some dirt from the ground and put it in your pots, don’t. Garden soil is too dense for container gardening; it slows drainage, inhibits root growth, makes pots heavy, and brings in all the weeds you’re trying to avoid. Instead, buy an organic bagged soil labeled “container mix” or “potting soil,” which has ingredients like peat, pearlite, vermiculite, and compost to help with drainage and keep pots light.
Fill each container with soil, then add enough water to moisten it; go ahead and stir it up with your hands, adding more soil and water as needed to bring the soil level to within an inch or two from the container’s top. Resist the urge to pack the dirt in like brown sugar; you want it to be full but not compact. If your potting soil doesn’t already have fertilizer, add an organic one based on the package directions. Dig a hole for a transplant as big as the pot it came in, put in the plant, and cover the root ball loosely with your moist soil. If you’re starting things from seed, read the instructions carefully. Then give everything a little more water and you’re off!
Provide ongoing support.
When plants begin to get tall or floppy looking, use stakes, trellises, or tomato cages to provide them with more stability. Water regularly (every day in hot weather), watch for bugs, and squish any if you see them. Most importantly, don’t sweat it – even the most experienced gardeners don’t have 100% success every year. Enjoy watching things grow, relish what you harvest, and share what you learn with someone else.
Devon Karn is a gardener and freelance writer living in Burlington, Vermont whose latest container gardening favorite is fingerling potatoes grown in a burlap bag.