Container Vegetable Gardening

— Written By Susan Condlin and last updated by
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Vegetable gardens are popping up all over the country. There may be many reasons to grow your own produce – food safety concerns, economics, nutrition, or just for the personal satisfaction of growing your own. There are many people, however, who cannot grow a traditional garden. For those of you, there is container gardening.

Container gardening is a great alternative for people who want to grow their own produce but do not have space or time to have a large garden. Kids, disabled people, renters – anyone – can use containers to produce vegetables in a limited amount of space. Container vegetable gardens can be very inexpensive and do not require large tools. You can obtain high yields with few pesticide inputs. And the best part, they are moveable!

You have many choices when it comes to picking a container. Containers come in many shapes and sizes. Keep in mind plant growth (is it a root vegetable or does it vine?) and mature size when picking a container size. There are many materials pots can be made from: plastic, terra cotta, metal. Choose a material that will be easy to move when filled with soil. Containers can be ornate or inexpensive. You can use everyday objects such as 5 gallon buckets, tires, crates, and half whiskey barrels. The most important thing to look for in a container is drainage holes. Do not buy a container without them (unless you are going to drill them yourself).

Although container gardening is relatively inexpensive, the one place you do not want to skimp is with the potting media. The potting media supplies roots with nutrients, water and air, allows for maximum root growth, and physically supports the plant. Purchase a soil-less potting mix from a garden supply store. Do not use the soil from your backyard. Even the best soils in Lee County contain diseases, weeds, and insects. Soil-less mix is sterile, loose, light and drains freely.

What do you do with old potting mix? You can reuse potting mix if the plants did not exhibit disease symptoms the previous year. You will probably need to apply more fertilizer since there will be fewer nutrients available to the plants. If you do not want to reuse the mix, dump it in the woods or incorporate it into your garden.

You can plant almost any vegetable in containers. Corn, okra, melons, and cucumbers may need more space than containers can provide. Be sure to use vegetables that will thrive in the current growing season. Look for cultivars that are described as bush or dwarf; these will fit in containers better. You can add color and interest with flowers and herbs incorporated into the container. This way you will have a container that is both edible and beautiful.

Do not add gravel to your container since gravel will add weight and decrease drainage. Fill the container ¾ full with mix and gently firm the top. Some vegetables will do well if directly seeded, some will do better if you use transplants. When selecting transplants, look for plants that are stocky, medium green, and have a good root system.

You may need to provide support to some vegetables. Be prepared to trellis peas, pole beans, and cucumbers. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers may all need cages.

When growing in containers, you will need to keep a close eye on your plants. They will require about one inch of water per week. In the summer, when it is hot and plants are large, this may mean watering every day. You will also need to provide fertilizer, either in a slow-release or soluble form, on a regular schedule.

Place your containers on a level surface where plants will receive 8-10 hours of sunlight per day. Some leafy greens and cool-season crops can tolerate a minimum of 6 hours. Keep containers near a water source for easy maintenance.

Container vegetables are great for growing food in small places. Place them near the house so you will have produce close to where you prepare it. For more information on container vegetable gardening, reference HIL 8105: Container Vegetable Gardening or call our Center at 775-5624.

Want more pertinent horticulture information delivered directly to your home computer? Subscribe to the Lee County home horticulture e-mail list. Simply send an e-mail to mj2@lists.ncsu.edu with subscribe leehomehort in the body of the message. You will then be a member of leehomehort@lists.ncsu.edu.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County