Would you like to grow fresh vegetables, but don’t have a piece of land to call your own? Or perhaps you’d like to try growing some veggies and herbs indoors this winter, away from Jack Frost?

Welcome to the realm of container gardening, where one can easily grow fresh and wholesome foods from a sunny patio, balcony, porch, sun deck, fire escape, terrace, rooftop, or even a sunny south-facing window. To get started, you’ll need the three “S’s” (soil, seed, and sunshine), water, of course, a little know-how, and a bit of tender loving care.
What Should I Plant?
With proper variety selection and plant care, a container gardener can grow a generous array of different vegetable types. The easiest vegetables to cultivate for the fall or for a very early spring garden include radishes, lettuce and other greens, and bush varieties of beans, peas, and cucumbers, among others.
I prefer miniature and dwarf varieties, since these compact plants are well suited to pot culture, and will provide maximum vegetable yields in minimal space. However, almost any vegetable variety can be grown in containers as long as ample soil and water is provided. When purchasing seed, try to select varieties that are disease resistant.
Selecting the Right Container
There are a variety of container types to choose from: clay, metal, plastic, concrete, rot-resistant wood, and an assortment of composite materials.
Different containers will have distinct properties. For example, plastic tends to be light in weight, which is especially important when employing large containers; but plastic does not allow for the easy circulation of air that clay containers do, nor is plastic considered as aesthetically appealing.
The porosity of clay allows plants to “breathe,” but it also creates greater watering requirements to replace the moisture that’s lost. You will need to monitor potted clay containers more closely and provide more constant watering. You may choose to experiment with different containers or choose a variety of types and see which works best for your location. I prefer to use black plastic pots with ample drainage for my vegetable plants, and the smaller clay pots for my herbs. I find that the black color helps absorb heat from the sun and maintains the soil at warmer temperatures.
Whether you choose to grow vegetables in plastic milk jugs or whiskey barrel halves, be sure to select a container with a one-gallon minimum capacity, even when growing miniatures. Soil depth is also important for the formation of strong and healthy roots. A good rule of thumb to follow is to allow a minimal depth of 12 inches for deep rooted plants such as tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower; 10 inches for beans and cucumbers; and between 6 to 7 inches for short-rooted vegetables such as radishes, turnips, beets, onions, lettuce, cabbage, and dwarf carrot varieties.
Drainage is another important factor when selecting containers. Be sure to line the bottom of each container with a one- to two-inch layer of gravel or pebbles, or several pieces of broken clay shards. Its also a good idea to partially cover drainage holes with a few large rocks or broken clay shards (concave sides facing away from the holes). This will help to reduce the amount of soil lost during watering.
For a lightweight alternative, use throw-a-way products such as foam packing peanuts or bottle caps to line the bottoms of your containers. Heavy containers set on dollies or wheeled platforms make it easier to move the pots, should you wish to provide either sunlight or shade for a particular plant at certain times of the day.
Cleaning Used Pots
It’s important to thoroughly clean containers that have housed other plants or were former food containers to prevent the spread of disease. To do so, scrub the inside of each container with a solution of warm soapy water, with an added tablespoon of bleach for each gallon of water. Clay pots in particular will often have white-colored deposits of mildew and minerals clinging to their interiors. Soak these pots in hot water prior to scrubbing, if necessary, then scrub the interiors with a stiff bristle brush or plain steel wool.
Mixing Your Own Soil
Contained plants do best and are less susceptible to disease when grown in a loose and loamy soil with proper aeration and drainage. Mix your own soil by combining one-third commercial top soil, one-third fine compost or peat moss, and one-third vermiculite or per-lite. If using peat moss, add a half cup of dolomite lime for every five gallons of soil. This will offset the acidity of the peat moss, and keep the proper pH balance in check. Avoid collecting soil from the outdoors for your garden. Unsterilized soil will often contain weed seeds and diseases that can prove harmful to young seedlings‹such as damp-off disease which causes stems to rot at the soil line.
Keep in mind that the soil in the containers will pack down over time. You’ll need to replenish the surface of each potted plant with an additional two to three inches of soil once or twice early in the season. Loosening the soil with hand tools to “fluff it up” is also helpful.
Empty milk cartons and plastic cups can be used to start seeds. First wash the containers thoroughly, then poke a few holes in the bottom to allow for proper drainage. Set these containers inside a larger tray to collect draining water. Seeds do best when germinated in a commercial soil-less mix, specifically formulated for this purpose, or start seeds in peat pellets. Set sown seeds in a warm location, such as the top of a refrigerator or sunny draft-free window.
If you’re in a mild climate and plan to grow your plants on a protected balcony or other moderate spot this winter, harden off seedlings by placing them outdoors in a partially sunny location for short periods each day, steadily increasing this time over the span of a week or more. As soon as seedlings can be left outdoors for a full day and night, they are ready to be transplanted.
Try to do your transplanting on a cool and/or cloudy day. When transplanting seeds which have been started in peat pellets, be sure to score a large “X” in the bottom of each swollen peat pot using a sharp knife. This will break through the tough outer netting and encourage down and outward root growth after transplanting. Also be sure that the top of the peat is buried below the surface of the soil. Exposed peat material can act as a wick and draw moisture away from the plant.
Of course, you may choose to purchase seedlings in flats and then transplant these into ready containers. Be sure to select plants which appear sturdy‹avoid plants with a leggy, spindly appearance, or which have roots growing out of the bottom of their containers. Even when planting bush varieties of squash, peas, and cucumbers, it’s a good idea to provide stakes, lightweight trellis-work or other bracing structures in each individual container for added support. Growing climbing varieties up a vertical trellis saves space, too.

Water & Fertilizer Requirements

Contained plants have greater watering and fertilizing needs since they lose more moisture than their garden bed counterparts, and have no underground source to replenish them from. Water when the soil is barely moist to the touch, and don’t allow the soil to become crumbly and overly dry. Properly moist soil should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Insufficient or uneven watering creates plant stress, and problems such as the common blossom end rot in tomatoes. (This is when the bottom of the fruits turn black.) Over watering can cause root rot and provide a welcome medium for the proliferation of pests and fungal diseases. Also, avoid wetting the leaves of squash, cucumbers, and other cucurbits to avoid powdery mildew disease.
Practice deep watering by fully saturating the soil, but avoid muddiness which is an indication of over watering. Shallow watering will cause roots to remain near the soil surface and thereby weaken the plant’s structure. Deep rooted vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, will easily drink up to 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of water a day for every two to three gallons of soil.
Your contained garden will need regular feedings of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients. Once the plants have been growing in their containers for about three weeks, fertilize every 10 to 14 days. You can feed plants with a commercial 5-10-5 solution, or you may wish to mix up your own organic fertilizer. To do so, add all vegetable scraps from your kitchen to a large container. Scraps can include onion skins, carrot, potato and cucumber peels, the leftover stems of broccoli and cabbage, and even egg shells. Cover the leftovers with a generous amount of water and allow the solution to sit uncovered for two to three days. Strain the fertilizer solution and use it to water your plants every one to two weeks. You can also whip this mixture up in a blender or food processor to make a thin liquid. Feed the plants, then cover any remaining vegetable particles along the surface of the soil with another thin layer of soil, to further break down the vegetable nutrients and prevent mildew. Your plants will thrive with this nourishing solution, and it will allow you to recycle vegetable matter that may otherwise be discarded. Because pesticides accumulate in their most concentrated forms on the skins of vegetables, it’s wise to use organic produce when possible, or to gently scrub the vegetables prior to peeling. I like to collect the kitchen waste from my garden vegetables and use it to further feed my growing plants.
142189Even when a garden is located several stories above ground level, a variety of pests can find their way to your vegetable plants and begin a course of destruction if allowed to become established. The most common pests of contained gardens include aphids, spider mites, and white flies.
You can combat pests with several methods. Hand picking is the most labor intensive, but most valuable method to use at the onset of a problem before pests are out of control. Once pests have begun invading several plants however, you’ll need to treat the problem with a commercial or homemade insecticide solution. When applying a commercial solution, be sure to follow the manufacturer¹s directions. It’s also important to spray the solution along the bottom of each leaf. This is where many adult pests congregate, and where eggs are laid and hatched.
You can try mixing your own pest-deterring solution, consisting of one tablespoon liquid dish washing detergent, and two tablespoons rubbing alcohol added to a quart of tepid water. Add a half teaspoon of chile powder or several drops of Tabasco sauce to the solution and shake well. Spray the plants daily until all signs of pests are gone, and then spray every few days thereafter.
The Harvest
This is my favorite part picking fresh herbs, crispy radishes, and tender string beans just a few paces away. Container gardening has many advantages, including easy accessibility, efficient use of space, and perhaps most important of all this time of year‹fresh produce as winter winds howl and holiday lights twinkle outside. Enjoy your fresh and healthful container-grown vegetables in your own small piece of paradise.