By Barbara Perry Lawton
Are you short on gardening space but still want the unbeatable taste of fresh vegetables? Want to beautify your patio or create new interest along a fence or wall? Gardeners faced with the limitations of condominiums or even apartments should learn a few of the tricks of growing veggies in containers. Even if you have lots of room for your gardens, you might want to consider growing a few edibles in containers. Another good reason for growing in containers is if your soil is thick clay or just a thin layer over ledge rock – both conditions that can occur in our region.
Things to Consider
Most vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, squash and eggplant – require full sun, at least six hours each day, if they are to produce well. Some, including the lettuces, carrots, radishes and beets, will tolerate partial shade. Site your containers accordingly.
In choosing containers, be sure there are drainage holes – good drainage is a key in growing vegetables. Larger containers are more practical since they will not dry out as quickly. Plastic pots, likewise, do not dry as fast. For the best insulation against high summer temperatures, choose thick wooden or foam plastic containers.
Shallow-rooted plants – lettuce, radishes, spinach and onions – require soil 9 to 12 inches deep. Plants such as broccoli, eggplant, peppers, carrots and peas need the soil to be 12 to 14 inches deep. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans and tomatoes require soil to be 16 to 18 inches deep. Choose your containers accordingly. Deeper containers will generally increase your crop yield.
Use high quality potting mixes, not garden soil. If the commercial soil does not include a slow-release fertilizer (read the label), I like to use a slow-release pelletized fertilizer formulated for fruiting and flowering plants. Check soil moisture daily – a moisture meter will be a big help, especially if you have very large containers.
Grow the shallow-rooted plants from seed. Grow tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and squash from six-packs of seedlings. If at all possible, choose dwarf varieties that brag about their high yield. And always select sturdy compact seedlings that are in excellent health.
Staking or Caging Plants
Staking tomatoes, cucumbers and other plants that profit from support is not as easy in containers as in garden beds but it is possible. You may be able to take advantage of nearby fences or walls. Garden centers often carry contemporary stakes such as those that are like giant corkscrews. Place them directly in large containers or in the soil next to the container.
If the container is large and you are planting beans or peas, you can put a teepee of stakes right in the container. My favorite and, thus far, foolproof method of staking is to use wire cages. Place them in the container to cover the plants. You will soon have lush foliage covering the entire cage.
What Makes a Good Container?
Just about anything that meets the requirements above will make a good container for growing veggies. Wander around a hardware store with container growing in mind. Wash tubs, trash containers and buckets can serve as practical planters once you punch a few holes in their bottoms. These days there are foam plastic containers in classic designs that would be attractive planters for your vegetables. Look around your home and you may find things that would make good planters.
Consider that raised beds are, in essence, garden containers. Beds that are 4 to 8 feet long and 2 to 4 feet wide (easy to reach across) can be constructed with wood or plastic lumber and sited next to a patio or along a walkway where they will be decorative additions to the landscape. You also can construct raised beds of brick or interlocking concrete blocks you want more height. A major asset of raised beds is that people with limiting conditions such as arthritis find it easier to garden in beds that are at an easy-to-reach level.
Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis MO.