Gardening Tips

How to Grow a Thriving Container Vegetable Garden for Small Spaces

Tehrene Firman

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Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar- Nakic

You might think you need a yard and a lot of space in order to start a vegetable garden, but you only need sunlight, water, and a container to make it grow.

Container vegetable gardens have been rising in popularity. And anyone can grow  the kind of vegetables used in every day cooking—including tomatoes, spinach, and potatoes—with limited space. “Containers are such an easy way to grow vegetables if you lack backyard space,” says Susan Spanger, professional gardener and floral designer of Bloomful Floral Design. “All you need is a patio, balcony, rooftop, or even a kitchen window with good sun exposure.”

When you’re ready to start a container garden of your own, the first step is choosing the right container.

How to choose a container for your vegetable garden

While you can use unglazed tera-cotta pots, Spanger recommends going with plastic containers for the best results, as they retain moisture better and won’t dry out as quickly. You should also try to avoid small containers if you can, because they can’t store enough water and your plants will quickly outgrow them.

To build a thriving container garden, Spanger says to work with larger containers, which hold more potting soil and amble space for roots to grow. The soil also holds nutrients and moisture for a longer stretch of time. There are options available on Amazon, like this kit from EarthBox, but you can also use something you already have on hand. “Some people like to dig through their belongings and repurpose a big vessel of some kind, such as wooden buckets or half-barrels, boxes, baskets, troughs, or tubs,” she says. “The key thing is to make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of the container.”

How to choose your soil for your container vegetable garden

According to Spanger, container plants need high-quality soil, aeration, and drainage to promote healthy root growth. If you don’t choose the right soil, your garden won’t be nearly as successful.

“Whatever you do, don’t use soil from an outside garden because it’s too heavy and may bring in disease or insects. Rather, select a lightweight, quick-draining soil, typically referred to as a ‘soilless potting mix,'” she says. “Technically, it isn’t soil because it’s comprised of organic matter, such as peat, wood chips, coco coir, perlite and/or vermiculite, and a slow-release fertilizer rather than inorganic matter like sand, silt, or clay.”

You can also use compost and gravel, will helps your garden thrive even more. “You can make your own homemade compost with a mix of kitchen scraps, garden trimmings, and manure if you can get your hands on some,” she says. “Then to help with drainage, you add about one inch of coarse gravel in the bottom your containers.”

The best vegetables for your container garden

When you’re planting veggies in your container garden, Spanger recommends maximizing space—and your harvest!—by planting root crops, low-growers, and tall climbers together in the same container. “Climbers will easily grow up a trellis while smaller plants gather around the base. It cuts down on weeding because there’s less room for weeds to take root. Plus, during the hot summer months, low-growers like lettuce will thrive in shade provided by the taller plants.” These are the best veggies to start with:

1. Nightshades

Spanger says nightshades are one of the easiest veggies to grow in containers—particularly tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. “If you go with tomatoes, add staking to keep the heavy fruit from bending or breaking the vines,” she says. “When planting tomato seedlings, plant them very deep in the soil and provide with full sun exposure.”

2. Peas

Peas are the ultimate container garden plant. According to Spanger, they grow incredibly quickly. Plus, they really don’t need much attention to thrive: just full sunlight and water. Now is the best time to plant them, as they like cool spring weather. “They also add nitrogen to the soil, giving the next batch of plants an advantage,” she says.

3. Lettuce

Bagged lettuce will soon be a thing of the past. Instead, you’ll be able to grow your own lettuce, making every salad you make crispy, fresh, and delicious. “My top recommendation to grow from seeds is lettuce. It requires less sunlight compared to other vegetables and varieties,” she says.

4. Spinach

Growing your own spinach is easy, too, and it’s one of the best plants to start in the spring from seeds. “Spinach is one of the most versatile and nutritious plants and can be harvested several times in a growing season,” Spanger says. “Spinach thrives when there’s still a cold nip in the air, and it prefers morning sun and afternoon shade. If you’re strictly growing seeds indoors, it can be challenging to source enough natural light, even from a south-facing window.”

5. Squash

Squash seems like it would be a chore to grow in a container garden, but that’s not the case at all when you choose the right kind. “It’s easy to grow and the blossoms are captivating and edible,” Spanger says. “Look for smaller varieties—namely ‘honey bear’ squash, which is an award-winning crop.”

How to care for your container vegetable garden

While your other plants thrive off of little attention, garden vegetables are perfect for overbearing plant moms. “Most vegetables grown in containers must be watered, on average, twice a day,” says Spanger. To be safe, do some research on the care needs of your exact plants. In terms of lighting, your containers should be placed in areas where they can receive maximum sunlight and have great ventilation.

To make sure your plants get all the nutrients they need to grow, you can also use liquid fertilizers twice a month, which nurture your plants. “You can order them online or purchase them from a garden center,” she says. “I specifically recommend Fox Farm or Coast of Maine products.” When you follow this expert advice, you’ll have a beautiful container vegetable garden in no time.

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