Vegetable Gardening In Containers

One of my fondest memories of gardening was working with my father in the vegetable patch out behind our house. We grew everything: hills of squash, rows of corn, sweet potatoes, onions and beans.

Supper always included something from the garden and as we sat around the table we would entertain ourselves by naming all the ingredients that we had grown.

I still have a vegetable garden out behind my house. It is smaller, but no less of a joy to me. I get the same feeling of pride that I did as a child when I can add something homegrown to a meal.

It is surprising how little space one needs to grow vegetables. You really don’t need a large plot of land for an abundant harvest. You can even produce a bountiful crop in containers.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

Container Choices
Containers of any sort of material are suitable for vegetable gardening. I like to use terra cotta, I think it just looks nice in my garden, but wood or plastic will work as well. One thing to consider is the weight of the container after it is planted. If moving a heavy container around is an issue, select those made of a lightweight material or place them on wheeled plant stands. Be sure that your container has adequate drainage and is large enough to support the root system of a mature plant. Eighteen inches deep is sufficient for most vegetables. I use containers that are about 20" across, so I can grow more than one plant per pot. Plus a larger sized pot cuts down on watering.

If you decide on wood containers be sure that the material has not been treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol. These chemicals can be harmful to both plants and people. You also don’t want to use a container that has been used to hold toxic chemicals.

When it comes to soil for containers, you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking you can just go into the back yard and dig up some dirt – garden soil is generally heavy and it doesn’t drain well.

I prefer to use pre-blended mixes in bags. These are easier to work with and the soil has been sterilized so there’s no problem with weed seeds. These blends are designed to be lighter. The coarse organic material in perlite and vermiculite create air spaces, making it easier for roots to develop. And peat moss and other forms of humus help retain moisture.

Plant Choices
You can grow a wide range of vegetables in containers. These days many varieties are available that have been developed specifically for small space gardening. Look for plants that have the word patio or baby somewhere in their name. I’ve tried the baby watermelons and while I can’t say they compared in taste to the larger watermelons I’m used to – it was great fun watching them grow!

Other plants I have had success with in containers are Roma tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and carrots. I have even grown potatoes in buried baskets along my picket fence.

I like to use combinations of flowers, vegetables and herbs in one container. This works especially well when you have limited space.

Container gardens should be planted at the same time as a regular garden. I like to use a fairly large sized pot and always place a saucer under the container to conserve moisture. Another trick I’ve learned is to use water retentive polymers. In some premium soil mixes, these polymers have already been added, so check the ingredients on the label. If they aren’t included in the mix, you might want to pick up a container and add them as you are preparing to plant. The polymers are little granules that act as water storage systems for your plants. When they are dry they look like old-fashioned ice cream salt, but when they are wet they become soft, full of water and gelatinous. Now, a little of these polymers go a long way, so follow the directions on the back of the package. Fill the container with soil to about one inch below the top and mix in your polymers. Now you are ready to plant young transplants or sow seed.

Most vegetables require at least six hours of sunlight. And try to avoid placing your containers on concrete or similar materials that will reflect light and high heat.

Watering and Fertilizing
Container gardens need to be watered more often than a regular garden. During hot, dry weather they may need to be watered as much as twice a day.

Because frequent watering washes out nutrients, I like to fertilize my containers every five to ten days with a liquid fertilizer. As with any chemical it is important to follow the directions on the back of the package. You don’t want to over do it. Plants in containers are especially susceptible to fertilizer burn because they do not have a large volume of soil to absorb excess fertilizer. Occasionally I apply fish emulsion to add trace elements to the soil.

Vining Plants
Many of my favorite summer fruits and vegetables are vining plants, such as melons, cucumbers and pole beans. These tend to take up a lot of room because of their sprawling habit. In order to get around the large amount of space they require I plant them in pots with a simple twig teepee so they can scamper up the support. I anchor three long twigs in a pot filled with soil and bind the tops together with wire. Then I create rungs by wrapping sisal twine around the twig legs. I begin by tying the end of a piece of twine to the bottom of one of the teepee legs begin moving upward looping the twine around the legs of the teepee as I go. When I reach the top I simply tie the end of the twine and cut it from the spool.

Now, some plants will produce tendrils that will grip onto supports while others need to be tied.