Jen likes writing about cats, gardening and travel. She lives in the UK.
How to Successfully Grow Vegetables in Pots and Containers (Even in Small Spaces)
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to grow your own vegetables and experience the pleasure of nurturing them until they are ready to be harvested and enjoyed? But maybe you are reluctant to turn any part of your garden into a vegetable plot, or you don’t have a garden big enough for a vegetable patch. Maybe you don’t have a garden at all, just a small area of outdoor space, an accessible flat roof or a balcony. Well, you can still grow your own vegetables even if this is the case.
Many vegetables will grow happily in pots and containers with the right conditions, and you’ll be surprised how much can be produced from just a small space. There are some main factors to successfully growing vegetables in pots and containers, but it’s fairly easy to learn, and with a little bit of trial and error, you can soon be enjoying fresh vegetables that you grew yourself.
It's very easy to get carried away when buying vegetable seeds or plants—you get excited about all the different types you can grow but end up neglecting some because they are not suitable. It's better to choose vegetables you actually want to eat.
It sounds obvious, but it is all too easy to automatically go for the obvious choices without considering if you actually like eating them. Tomatoes are a very popular plant to grow in pots, but if you hardly ever eat them, it's probably best not to waste your precious time and space growing them. Instead, choose plants that you know you will enjoy and particularly varieties that are harder to find in shops or more expensive.
Presentation and Appearance
If your pots are in an area where you spend a lot of time, consider choosing plants that look attractive as well as taste good. For example, the foliage of carrots is pretty, and the different colours of rainbow chard will add some extra interest to your vegetables in pots.
If you only have limited space, choose vegetables that will give you the most amount with minimal space taken. Growing pumpkins may not be the best idea if you only have space for one or two pots.
Choosing a Container
Any container will do as long as it is suitable for the type of vegetables you want to grow. A metal bucket will work just as well as a purpose made pot; it all depends on how much you want to spend and if you want the pots to look attractive as well as being functional. The different types of pots have advantages and disadvantages over each other.
- Terracotta: Terracotta pots are attractive but quickly lose warmth and moisture, whereas glazed versions may not look as traditional but are more effective at retention.
- Plastic: Plastic pots are light to move around, hold moisture well, but have less charm.
- Metal or Wooden: Metal pots look more contemporary but conduct heat, whereas wooden pots look more traditional but will eventually rot.
- Recycled: Recycled containers originally intended for other purposes are cheap or free, but if not carefully selected, can look trashy.
When choosing a container, make sure it will be suitable in size for the vegetables you will want to grow in it.
- Deep: If you are growing root vegetables such as carrots or plants with long roots, such as chard, you will need to use deep containers.
- Shallow: Vegetables such as salads only have shallow roots, so they are quite happy growing in containers with less depth.
- Tall: If you want to grow tall vegetables or grow them up a pole or structure, make sure the pot is of suitable weight and size to prevent it being blown or knocked over easily.
All vegetables require sunlight to grow. Some will require a minimum of six hours such as tomatoes, while others, particularly leafy vegetables such as spinach, can tolerate some shade and may benefit from it if the weather is particularly hot. Position your pots where they will catch the sun but are also sheltered from strong winds. If you have a sunny but exposed area, consider erecting a wind breaker to protect your plants.
There are many high-quality organic potting composts available on the market, so there is little reason to buy compost with chemical additives. You can use general purpose organic compost and add a top layer of potting compost, or if you have a compost bin, use some of the compost from that in the bottom of the pot first.
The compost will gradually lose its nutrients, and although you can add feed, the compost will have to be changed when it no longer provides the optimum growing conditions. How quickly this happens will depend on the type of vegetables grown in it, as some need more nutrients than others.
It is essential not to let the compost dry out. Regular watering will keep the plants healthy. If the conditions are too dry, leafy vegetables may bolt and go to seed and become bitter, fruiting vegetables that may split when they next get watered. Make sure the container is given enough of a watering to reach the bottom of the compost. This will encourage the plants to put down deeper roots and will make it stronger and healthier.
To prevent the pot or container drying out, mulch it with bark or gravel. This will make it harder to see if the compost is dry, so do a finger test. Simply push a finger through the mulch and feel if the compost is still moist.
Though it is important to keep the plants watered, it is essential that they do not become waterlogged, as this can damage your crop, rotting their roots and killing them off. Every outdoor pot should have adequate drainage to allow excess water to drain away.
Purpose-made pots should have these, but if you are using other containers make some in the bottom by drilling or punching holes in the base. If the pot or container is large and only has a few holes makes some more. In the bottom of the pot, before adding the compost, add some old bits of broken terracotta pots or stones to encourage drainage.
Your plants will happily take up the nutrients in the compost but will sometimes require extra feeding. Plants such as lettuce will happily thrive with new compost with no additional feeding, but plants such as tomatoes will benefit from regular feeding once they start flowering.
A general-purpose organic feed will be suitable for most vegetables. If you want to use more specific feeds for different plants, potassium-rich feeds are good for flowering and fruiting vegetables, nitrogen is good for leaf crops and for root vegetables, phosphorus-rich feeds work well.
Enjoying the Rewards
Growing your own vegetables in pots is a rewarding experience. Realising the difference in taste from truly fresh vegetables you have grown yourself compared to those bought in the shops will spur you on to grow more and continue growing. You will save money, eat more healthy and nutritious vegetables and will have discovered an activity that many already enjoy.
Jen Smith (author) from UK on February 29, 2012:
Thanks for sharing what worked for you and about the coffee grounds - great idea.
Try Tomatoes on February 28, 2012:
I grew tomatoes in pots in Denver,cherry tomato is best,too cool for eggplants and peppers.I used coffee grounds for fertilizer.