Container Gardening

Maybe you don't have the space, time or energy to plant and tend a traditional garden, but still want the fresh taste and satisfaction of homegrown vegetables and herbs. Container gardening may be your answer!

Designers often add color and interest to an area with containers of ornamental grasses and flowers. But you can put those pots to work to please your palate as well as your eye. Tomatoes are a classic choice, but think about experimenting with radishes, cabbage, beans, peppers or even potatoes.

First, consider site size and location. How many containers can it fit, and will it accommodate plants of different heights? Is it a sunny spot? At least four to six hours of sunlight is ideal for most vegetables, but some prefer shade.

Plants will grow in most any container, as long as you provide a good soil mix. So look around—an old wheelbarrow, crate, bucket or hanging basket could work.

If you buy containers, the three most common are clay, ceramic and plastic. Plants that like dry conditions will be happy with clay, which is porous and dries out quickly. For more decorative looks, you may want ceramic containers, which tend to be pricier. Bring clay and ceramic containers, as well as concrete ones, indoors over the winter to keep them from cracking.

Plastic containers retain moisture better; they're often lighter, less expensive and easier to keep clean. Many resemble terra-cotta or glazed ceramic containers.

Provide Drainage

Whatever container you choose, remember to check for a drainage hole. Good drainage is key to successful container gardening. Elevating the container on a table, bench or even flat stones will both improve drainage and help prevent stains on your deck or patio.

Your plants need a good soil mix to thrive. Most of what's sold as soil mix doesn't really contain soil—it's just a mixture of organic matter like compost, peat or ground bark that retains moisture in the pot and helps the plant grow faster.

Soil adds weight to the mix—a good thing if you're growing taller plants or worried about containers tipping on windy days. If you add soil, be sure it's sterilized to reduce the risk of disease or insects. You'll want to add the soil after you've placed a large container where you want it, because it will be heavy!

Choose plants that are recommended for containers. They're usually described as compact, bush or dwarf. With vegetables, that often means smaller fruits, but lots of them.

Even if you're focusing on veggies, you don't have to forgo beauty. Foliage or flowering plants and herbs can add texture and color. Just take care to combine plants with similar needs for sun, moisture and temperature.

Fertilize Early and Often

For best results, add a timed-release fertilizer labeled "for flowering plants" to the soil mix when planting, then at least monthly after that. It may seem like overkill, but your plants are in a confined environment and will grow quickly. Plus, frequent watering leaches out nutrients.

Don't skimp on watering—lack of water is the No. 1 reason container gardens fail. Check containers daily to see if they're dry. The size and type of the container affect the rate at which you'll need to water, as do temperature, wind and sun. Water thoroughly, until you see water draining through the bottom of the pot, and don't let your plants sit in water.

With careful planning and proper maintenance, you'll soon enjoy fresh veggies from your garden, no rototilling required!

How Much Soil Mix?

  • 12-inch pot — 3-1/2 gallons soil mix
  • 16-inch pot — 5-1/2 gallons soil mix
  • 36-inch pot — 12 gallons soil mix

Source: Country Woman Magazine – Ann Wied, Brookfield, Wisconsin
Ann Wied is consumer horticulture educator for the UW-Extension in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. She teaches gardeners through workshops, hands-on gardening programs and presentations. Ann has a bachelor's degree in horticulture and agricultural journalism.