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How to Grow Food in Containers and Small Spaces

How to Grow Food in Containers and Small Spaces

Whether you live in an apartment or have a very small yard, you can still increase your food security and do a little homesteading of your own. A kitchen garden (growing the food you eat) is completely attainable in containers, and we're here to help!

Container Garden

What Should I Grow?

Think about what you and your family regularly enjoy and choose those veggies and herbs that are prolific or more expensive at the grocery store. Some vegetables offer one harvest from one sowing, like beets, carrots, and corn, and others produce until the weather isn't favorable anymore, like peppers, cucumbers, and kale. If you just want to try some simple crops, check out these easy crops that can be sown right into your containers. Don't be afraid to mix in some flowers to attract pollinators, too! They will "bee" especially helpful if you grow fruiting crops like squash or tomatoes.

Tomato Trellis

Tips to make the most of a small space

Grow up!

Growing vertical is an efficient use of space for vines like tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, and peas. Using trellises, cages, and fencing also saves your knees, puts harvest within arm's reach, and increases airflow to plants, which reduces the risk of fungal diseases. See our DIY Tomato Supports blog for a low-cost, easy, way to construct a sturdy trellis.

Container Trellis

Smart spacing

Sow crops in successions. For crops that offer a one-time harvest, like carrots or radishes, thin seedlings to half the suggested spacing. Harvest every other plant when they are half grown for baby carrots and beets. In the spaces between, sow radishes or cilantro between the rows. Quick to sprout radishes not only mark where you've planted and where you need to water, but will be harvested before the other crop is large enough to feel crowded. One more tip: Planting in a staggered triangular pattern is more space efficient than rows or squares.

Start indoors

Many crops can be started by seed indoors and transplanted out shortly after. This can save time in the garden bed, leaving room for something else to grow.

Zucchini Sunlight

Container growing

Sunlight

Full sun (over 6 hours a day) allows you to grow any vegetable your heart desires, as long as the container is big enough.

Partial shade (4 to 6 hours a day) to shade (no direct sun) will still work for leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, spinach) or any herbs. With less light, you can expect crops to take a little longer, and any vibrant reds may fade a bit as plants adapt their leaves to photosynthesize in lower light.

Soil Medium

Planting Medium

A professionally made planting mix or potting soil that holds both moisture and air space for healthy roots is preferred to outdoor soil that may contain pests and diseases. Read the bag instructions carefully; if there is a big price difference between brands there is probably a reason. Some contain nutrients that will save you some time and money in fertilizer, and some may be certified organic, which may be important to you. If you know an experienced gardener, ask them what their favorite is and why. Gardeners love sharing tips!

Container Size and Material

In this case, the old adage, "bigger is better", is almost always correct. Similar to goldfish, plants can grow only as big as their container allows, and the bigger the plant, the more the potential harvest. Also, bigger containers require less frequent watering and insulate the roots against temperature fluctuations.

Container Lettuce

How big is big enough? Here are some general ideas on how big a container should be: Root crops need a minimum depth of 12″ but at least 18″ for long carrots; tomatoes need the space of about a 5 gallon bucket; peppers need 3 to 4 gallons; lettuce's roots are shallow and grow in just 4″ of soil, but 6″ is better; squash also need about 5 gallons of soil but would thrive in a half wooden barrel-style container. This is in the second paragraph below.) We've seen a lot of items reused as planters--cowboy boots, rusty wheelbarrows, broken pots--gardeners are a thrifty and creative bunch.

Want to use a really big container but worry about being able to move it or about the cost of all the soil to fill it? You can place a turned over plastic pot or recycle some packing peanuts in the bottom to displace some of the soil. You'll save on potting soil and water, and your container will weigh less, too.

Clay pots tend to dry out faster and are heavier than resin or plastic pots, but that can be an advantage if you live in a wet climate, or have plants like rosemary that does best when it dries out between waterings. Dark colored pots will collect more heat which can cause the potting medium to dry more quickly but is also an advantage in a climate with cool nights--just something to keep in mind when choosing your color palette. One key element all containers should have though, is drainage.

Marigold Watering

Watering

Keep the soil in your containers consistently moist to the surface when plants are young, and let them dry to the depth of your first knuckle as plants get established (unless pots are small; keep them moist to the top). Apply water until you see excess water flushing out of the bottom of the container to make sure there are no dry spots. When plants get larger, if you notice your pots need water daily, they could be rootbound and need a larger container.

Containers that are really full, very small, or in sunny and windy places will need water more often, maybe twice a day! Watering in the morning or evening is ideal. Plants that have consistent moisture, instead of periods of drought, will stay pretty healthy, and productive longer.

Maintenance

Remember the potting medium you chose? Does it have fertilizer in it? If not, you should add some granular fertilizer or plan on feeding plants with a liquid fertilizer when they have a few sets of leaves. Even if it does have fertilizer, it is a good idea to start using a liquid fertilizer after a couple of months when nutrients have likely been used or washed out. Granular fertilizers generally last longer; however, liquid fertilizers have a more immediate impact and you can change them more easily throughout the season. For instance, a tomato plant at first needs a good amount of nitrogen to get big and strong but then we switch to a phosphorous-rich fertilizer to boost flower and fruit production. We've got a whole article on which fertilizer to choose that can help guide you.

Harvest frequently and scout for any damage or pests regularly. Also, remove yellow and dying leaves to expose plants to more sunshine in.

Container Varieties

Great container varieties

Our Container Vegetable Collection is a great choice for container growing. Just remember, don't rule out crops you thought were too big for containers.

Summer squash, bush-type winter squashes (acorn types), 'Spacemaster' or lemon cucumber, beets, carrots, kohlrabi. Add alyssum or borage, too, for color and fragrance while attracting beneficial insects and pollinators. Swiss chard, 'Redbor kale, or 'Red Giant' mustard will add beautiful, edible color and texture to make your container plantings decorative.