Gardening for real people: Container vegetable garden

Almost any vegetable can be grown in a container, and almost any container will work.Almost any vegetable can be grown in a container, and almost any container will work.

By Jackie Albarella

For folks with little or no space, lousy soil, or trouble working on the ground, here’s a great solution: Grow this year’s garden on a table, on your porch, sidewalk or roof! You can have fresh veggies all season long in a container garden that takes little time, and little care.

Almost any vegetable can be grown in a container, and almost any container will work. You can use traditional pots, window boxes, or use that old cooler from your softball playing days that’s been sitting in the garage gathering dust. Five-gallon buckets you bought at the bakery at such a good price also work well, or the aluminum tub bought at the last garage sale. The correct size container will be determined by what you want to grow. Shallow rooted crops like lettuce, beans and radishes will only need a depth of about six to eight inches. But, if you want tomatoes (and who doesn’t?) you’ll need at least 12 inches of depth. The minimum for tomatoes and peppers would be a 5-gallon container. If you just want a few plants, you could grow them individually in separate pots, like the patio tomatoes you see everywhere. 

First, put some drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Use a drill, ice pick, or a hammer and a nail. This is very important! You’ve got to have good drainage, so poke some holes in the bottom and put the container on some wood or other material that will raise it slightly off of the ground so the holes stay open.

Next, fill your container with a sterilized soil mixture. Any packaged potting soil will work or make your own. Keep in mind, one of the advantages of a container garden is that you can move it around. Be careful not to use a very heavy potting soil or the container will be too heavy. Also don’t use a mixture that is too light, for example, a seed starting mix. General potting soil is usually a good happy medium. 

Most packaged soil is a neutral pH and has no nutrients, so you will have to feed your growing plants. Be sure to pick the right fertilizer. There are several that are good for container growing. Concentrated liquid fertilizer can be sprayed on while you’re watering, just as you would in a garden bed. A second choice would be timed-released, organic fertilizer. This is a granular mixture you can mix right into the soil before you plant. Be sure to mix this very well into the soil. This fertilizer will release over a period of time. The label will tell you when you will need to feed again. Compost mixed into the container is always a good choice. Just remember, there are no nutrients in the container so you must feed your plants.

You tend your container garden the same way you would a garden bed. For tall plants like tomatoes, peas and peppers, you need to provide stakes so they don’t fall over. If your container is big enough you could use a tomato cage. Be careful not to place your container garden in a spot that will be overly windy. Start your veggies from seed, or use plants. Place the container in a sunny location; you’ll want to try for about a minimum of six hours a day of sunshine.                                                         

Keep your garden well watered! This is crucial. The soil in the containers will dry out quicker than the ground does, so be sure to keep an eye on this. Keep the soil evenly moist; on hot summer days you may need to water twice.

Here’s some varieties that work well in containers:

Carrots: Use a shorter squat variety, such as Imperial Chantenay or Danvers Half Long.

Tomatoes: You don’t have to settle for only cherry tomatoes, so use some full-size ones like Big Beef or Heintz, or try one of my favorites, Roma.

Beans: If you’re not committed to Jack for his beanstalk, try bush varieties like Bush Blue Lake and Cherokee Wax.  

Cukes: Give them something to climb on and Straight Eights will really perform for you.

Lettuce: it’s better to use leaf varieties rather than head lettuce. Ruby Red, Salad Bowl and Black Seeded Simpson will give you a nice mix. Keep cutting for use and they will last the entire season.

Radish: Great for containers, and you can plant a second crop when the first one finishes. Cherry Belle, Champion or White Icicle are good choices.

Onions: For spring onions try White Lisbon, and for a later variety try Yellow Spanish.  

Get creative! Mix some edible flowers such as Nasturtiums or herbs in with your vegetables. Marigolds will help keep some pests away, and tomatoes love basil! 

Remember that anything that can hold soil can be used for container gardening. So, grab that old hamper, that bread pan you don’t need now that you have a machine or even the old kitchen sink. Hey, how about an old sink filled with a beautiful summer salad garden!

Jackie Albarella is a lifelong gardener and can be seen Saturday mornings on WGRZ-TV Daybreak. For more information, please visit