Tips on Growing Vegetables in Pots and Containers

Updated on March 19, 2018
Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert is a Virginia Master Gardener, gardening magazine columnist, and book author. She is also a full-time freelance writer.


Growing Vegetables in Containers

Using containers offers gardeners with limited space the opportunity to grow healthy, nutritious, tasty vegetables at home. If you love to cook, you can grow special varieties of vegetables, such as hot peppers or heirloom tomatoes, in pots and containers. Vegetables need full sun with the exception of lettuce and root crops, which can tolerate partial shade. Make sure that whatever you grow gets plenty of bright, full sunshine each day. That means six or more hours of sunlight shining directly onto the leaves of the vegetable plant.

You can grow vegetables in containers on a sunny window sill, balcony, patio, deck, or even your doorstep if that's all you have. You can also include herbs—some herbs produce attractive flowers, too. Consider planting a few marigold flowers around tomato plants to keep tomato worms away and to add flowers for pollinating insects. When they visit, they won't just stop to visit the flowers; they will also pollinate your vegetables and help your garden produce an abundant harvest.

Choosing Containers for Vegetable Gardens

You can use plastic, clay, wood or even metal containers, but each offer both pros and cons.

  • Plastic containers are lightweight, but they can crack over time.
  • Wood, clay and metal are heavy but durable. Wood and clay containers must be emptied at the end of the gardening season and brought into a sheltered area such as a garage or garden shed, or else they will crack.
  • If you're building a planter out of wood for your patio or deck, consider using a durable, untreated lumber that's naturally resistant to rotting, such as cedar. It's both attractive and functional. While most gardening experts believe that pressure-treated wood is fine to use near a vegetable garden, if you are concerned about the potential for chemicals to leach out of the treated wood and into the soil, cedar offers the durability without the chemicals.

No matter what type of container you choose, make sure it has good drainage holes in the bottom. Drill holes into the bottom of any container that doesn't have them. Do this before planting your vegetables.

Potting Soil vs. Garden Soil

Should you use garden soil or potting soil for your container garden of vegetables? Garden soil is inexpensive since you just dig it out of the garden and place it in the container, but if the soil quality is poor or it harbors insects or diseases, you're just adding them to the container. Potting soil purchased from a garden center offers a good growing medium for most vegetable plants. You can add well-rotted manure or compost to boost the nutrients available to your vegetable plants.

It's a good idea to place a layer of stones, rocks, or pebbles in the bottom of the container before adding the soil. Not only will this help extra water drain out of the pot, it will also add a little weight to the container. Move the container into the location you want it in for the entire season before adding the soil. Adding weight to the container near the bottom can keep it from tipping over in a strong wind. As the vegetable plants grow taller, they can act like sails, catching the wind and toppling over. Not only will it create a mess, it can also damage the plants, so it helps to prevent pots from tipping.

Which Vegetables Grow Well in Containers?

The chart below includes easy-to-grow vegetables for containers along with recommended container size and spacing. Generally speaking, look for vegetable varieties marked "midget", "dwarf" or "bush." These are all terms that mean "small." A small plant doesn't necessarily mean a small vegetable; it just means that the plant has been bred to grow in a compact form, which is a plus when the space is tight.

Growing Vegetables in Containers

Container Size
Space Between Plants
Bush Beans
2 gallons
2-3" between plants or seeds
1/2 gallon
2-3" between plants or seeds
1 quart
2-3" between plants or seeds
5 gallons
One per container
5 gallons
One per container
1/2 gallon
4" between plants or seeds
2 gallon
One per container
Tomatoes, Cherry
1 gallon
One per container
Tomatoes, Beefstake
2 gallon5
One per container

You can grow most leafy green vegetables in containers, but I've found that only lettuce is worthwhile unless you enjoy eating raw spinach. You need quite a lot of raw spinach to cook it down into a portion size for dinner. The same for kale and chard.

Beans grow well in containers. Root crops including carrots and beets also do just fine in containers. If you're growing carrots, make sure the container is tall, or choose Nantes-type carrots which are a bit shorter than the kind you find in the grocery store. They're tasty and sweet but they won't need as much space.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are great container vegetables. For tomatoes, consider buying a tomato cage to use in the container. Tomato cages are wire mesh circles that you stick in the ground around the tomato plant so that the plant grows up through the middle. The wire on either side of the cage supports the branches, especially as they grow heavier and heavier with tomatoes. I prefer cages to staking tomatoes, but you can also use wooden stakes and cloth ties to bind the tomato to the stake. If you don't stake or cage tomatoes, they will flop on the ground, and generally grow into a big mess!

Watering Container Vegetables

Here's where you'll need to be very vigilant with your container vegetable garden. Container veggies tend to dry out faster than in-ground garden vegetables. Daily water until the water runs out through the bottom of the pot is essential to growing great vegetables. Now, if you live on an upstairs balcony, be careful - you don't want water dripping onto your neighbor's chaise lounge or barbecue grill! You may need to add a tray or something underneath the plants' pots to catch the water.


If you've added compost to the soil mix or chosen a soil mixture that comes with a slow-acting fertilizer, you may not need to fertilize vegetables. Others may wish to fertilize their vegetables once a month according to the package directions with a balanced 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer.

When to Plant Container Vegetables

Container-grown vegetables are planted at the same time as any other vegetables, usually in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked or after the last danger of frost is past. If you're not sure, ask at your local garden center or County Cooperative Extension Office.

Enjoy Your Vegetables

Container-grown vegetables are harvested around the same time as other vegetables. Enjoy your vegetables to the fullest, and experiment with new varieties. Keep a garden journal so that you can note which vegetables grew well and which did not. Don't forget to empty your containers of soil at the end of the season, washing the containers well and putting them away safely so that you can enjoy your container vegetable garden again next year.


© 2013 Jeanne Grunert


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Jeanne, this hub came in the perfect time for me, since I'm deciding which herbs, veggies and fruits--even flowers, too--to add to my container patio garden on my apartment's balcony. It would join the three annual flowers I grew last spring, almost a year ago in late May. Excellent tips to give me good ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    • hugsnstitches profile image

      Candy H. 

      5 years ago from Yakima, WA

      As someone with a relatively limited amount of space in her yard to garden, I've been considering removing some of my decorative outdoor potted plants and replacing them with edible alternatives. I really had no idea that root vegetables like carrots could grow in containers. I always figured them more at home in a larger field or garden. Something to consider! Thanks for the great post.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 

      5 years ago from Yorkshire


      I enjoed your hub, mostly because I grow everything these days in tubs and plastic bags not so much to save space as its easier for me, no kneeling in the soil. I have a few deep bed areas for various veg in particular my carrots which escape the dreaded fly because they are elevated and have a surround.

      I like the chart you have made for pot sizes for the different veg.

      nice hub I enjoyed the read.




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