Small Garden Space – No Problem!
Even though I have a big yard and plenty of room to have a large garden, I still grow vegetables, fruits and flowers in containers. Over the years, I’ve learned a few container gardening tricks that give me control over my crops and allow me to raise small batches of food in a limited space. You can do it too.
The traditional method for container gardening might be to use purchased pots. These come in as many sizes, shapes and materials as you could imagine and are fantastic for growing things. Clay pots, plastic pots, half barrels and Styrofoam are all good looking and sturdy enough to grow flowers, vegetables or herbs.
If you are just getting started with container gardening it can be expensive to purchase new pots, so get creative with your containers.
Be Creative With Your Container
Have some fun! I have been known to use just about anything as a planter. If I like the way it looks and if it will hold soil and water, I consider it fair game. It gives my garden and deck area a wonderful eclectic look. That might not be for you, but I like the character it gives my garden.
Mint in a pail and monarda in a 5-gallon red bucket will work for me.
Another unusual container you may find me using is a straw bale, which has been growing my fall garden this season until I can get new raised beds built. The broccoli and cabbage are looking fabulous!
My newest container garden is the A-Frame Pallet Planter. I’ve taken two pallets and created grow bags for containers. This new planter is giving me 20 feet of growing area in just 3.5 feet of space.
Plastic buckets are great for container gardening too as long as they’re food grade and that you’ve added some strategically placed drainage holes to protect the roots from rotting. To save yourself some extra space, you can mount the buckets on a pellet frame as shown in the picture on the left and keep them outdoors.
Steer clear of PVC containers as they’re not only toxic to you and your family but, when exposed to too much sunlight and moisture, it leeches harmful substances in the garden soil poisoning plants and wildlife as well.
There was even a study several years back which showed worrying levels of common hormone disruptors and cancer-causing agents known as phthalates in edible plants routinely exposed to PVC. Bear in mind that phthalates are present in some takeaway containers and microwaveable plastics too.
Other containers you can toy with in your small edible garden are grow bags. These are great for growing potatoes as they are very roomy (potatoes need plenty of room to grow) and can be rolled up and down depending on how much dirt and sunlight your developing potato plants need (check out my other post on how to grow potatoes in grow bags, especially if you’re battling rocky soil in your garden.
I’ve also written an entire post on some Creative Ways for Growing potatoes in Containers. One year, I even managed to grow them in laundry baskets (check out the link if you gotta see it to believe it!)
Soil Is Critical
It is possible to have a productive garden in appropriate size containers. You just need a big enough pot size to accommodate the root requirements of your plants and good potting soil to support the nutrients your plants will need.
Keep in mind that a container is an enclosed ecosystem – it cannot receive nutrients without constant human input. So, feed your edibles regularly to prevent them from starving to death. Also, nutrient deprived plants are more prone to nasty bugs and diseases, just like a starved human body.
Regular garden soil is too heavy to use in container gardening. It is also compact and may not have the ideal texture for growing anything in pots. Look for something light but water retaining at the local nursery.
“Containers require a potting soil that will provide enough support for plants as they grow, and one that will help retain moisture while in the container.” from the A-Frame Pallet Planter eBook.
If you cannot find a potting soil that fits your needs or budget, consider creating your own.
Mix your own personalized potting soil by using a few basic ingredients in place of peat moss, perlite and vermiculite (the three leading ingredients in bagged potting soil).
- Start with your best garden soil, 1/3 volume
- Add cured compost or leaf mold, 1/3 volume
- Add rotted sawdust (from untreated wood) or sharp sand, 1/3 volume
You may want to add other organic ingredients like bone meal (adds phosphorus), blood meal (adds nitrogen), and ground limestone (calcium and magnesium) to round out the nutrients.
Planting Depth or Planting Width?
The wonderful thing about plants is that their root systems are adaptive. They will use the space they are given to grow healthy plants. That means you have options when choosing your containers.
Every plant has a certain soil depth as a minimum requirement. Think about a tomato plant growing large juicy fruit. Its root system is huge and the more room you give it to reach into the soil, the bigger your fruit will become.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow tomatoes in containers – they just need to have enough depth in order to grow roots successfully. People who want to grow tomatoes in containers use 5-gallon buckets or 32 gallon totes. It’s all about the roots.
Other plants – like lettuce – do not require much in the way of soil depth and can be grown in shallow containers. My two favorite ways to do that are plastic tubs and gutters.
As a general rule the shallower your container the wider it should be. Give the plants roots a chance to spread wide instead of growing deep. The good news is that there are small plant varieties that can grow even in some of the tinniest containers.
-// In a wide 4-inch pot, you can grow Asian greens, mustard greens, spinach, leaf lettuce, radish, mint, thyme, garlic, and marjoram;
-// In a 6-inch pot, you can grow everything that you can grow in a 4-inch pot, along with basil, bush beans, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, nasturtium , onion, oregano, peas, pole beans, round carrots, shallots, runner bean, strawberries, and globe zucchini;
-// In an 8-inch pot, you can step up your gardening game and grow bell pepper, cabbage, carrot, chard, chiles, cucumber, eggplant, fava bean, fennel, kale, leek, melon, parsley, parsnips, pumpkin, rosemary, sage, squash, tarragon, tomato (small varieties) and turnip.
-// In a 12-inch container, you can grow all the veggies, herbs, and fruit listed above along with bay, beet, blueberry, corn, currant, fruit trees (!), goose berries, potato, raspberry, and rhubarb.
The possibilities are endless.
How often should you water your containers? That will vary depending on several factors:
- The time of the year,
- The location of the container,
- How long the container has been planted,
- The type of container, and
- The type of plant material.
Containers will always require extra watering during the hot part of your growing season. The limited soil area will dry out faster than a regular “in ground” garden.
Plan on watering daily during peak season and consider adding a drip system if you are the forgetful type. You can buy a drip irrigation kit and follow the instructions closely, especially if you’re a beginner.
Plants that do not receive water will have drooping and yellow leaves, but they will also produce less fruit and flowers. Edible plants are also less tastier when water deprived than their counterparts that receive the right amount of water.
All lush, productive gardens get that way by having adequate water, sun, and nutrients. So, if you are planning on using your containers for food production, paying attention to the water requirements of your plants is perhaps the biggest thing you can do to be successful.
Why do plants need water? Water is a key element of photosynthesis. Plants need hydrogen as well to thrive so they take most of their hydrogen from broken down water molecules when exposed to sunlight. Hydrogen pairs with carbon from air and morph into carbohydrates, namely food plants need to build their tissue.
What’s more, plant feed will remain stuck in the soil without water, which transports the nutrients in soil to plant roots. If there’s not enough water, plant growth slows down as the plant becomes nutrient deprived. Also, part of the root system starts to dry out and die which further destabilizes the plant. As a result, the plant is stunted and may never recover and become the plant that it was supposed to be.
Plants also need adequate levels of water because all the good microbes in the soil need water to survive. Without water these bugs start to die and the soil and plants’ root system may become overcome with fungal disease and bag bugs. This is how the delicate balance in the soil may become irreversibly disturbed.
And last but not least, plants need adequate watering for transpiration. Around 98% of the water in soil gets through the plants’ stems and is lost to transpiration.
If you are using terracotta pots before (trans)planting your seeds or seedings soak the pots in water overnight. Clay pots are a lot more porous than plastic pots or even glazed clay pots so they need to saturate with moisture in order not to draw the water from the soil and deprive the plants from much-needed moisture.
Also, since terracotta pots are more porous than other containers, keep an eye on humidity levels in the pots especially during hot summer days. The extra porosity is a good thing after all in case you over-water the plants as there is little to no risk of root rot. Also, roots can breath better in a clay pot than in other types of containers but that’s a different discussion.
Your plants need 3 main nutrients to thrive. First is nitrogen (N), which promotes healthy foliage. Next is phosphorus (P), which is working on the flowers and a necessity if you want to harvest any kind of fruit or vegetable, and third is potassium (K) which promotes strong roots and overall vigor.
If any one of these nutrients is missing you will not have a good harvest. When you purchase fertilizer in the store the package always refers to the N-P-K ratio and it looks something like this: 10-20-10. They are always listed in the same order, so, in this case, you would be purchasing fertilizer with 10% Nitrogen (N), 20% Phosphorus (P) and 10% Potassium (K)
- Organic forms of nitrogen include blood meal, fish emulsion, and manure tea.
- Organic forms of phosphorus include bone meal and rock phosphate.
- Organic forms of potassium include green sand, liquid seaweed, and wood ash.
Amending the potting soil with apple cider vinegar (diluted) can give your container plants a big boost of nutrients while lowering the pH of a too acidic soil. Nettle tea is also great for increasing nitrogen levels (which is a boon for leafy greens) and for activating homemade compost.
Comfrey fertilizer tea (check out the link for my recipe) is also an often overlooked fertilizer that you can make in your backyard. Comfrey contains all the chief nutrients plants need to grow and stay healthy – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Just add it too your tomatoes and see how they’re faring afterwards. You’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.
Fertilize the soil monthly with a slow-release organic fertilizer or homemade compost such as chicken manure. Do your research and see what type of fertilizer each plant in your container gardening needs. Some plants may need more nitrogen other may need more phosphorus, and correct any deficiencies accordingly.
Container gardening allows you to be able to grow a variety of vegetables in a way that is possible even if you don’t have a large yard. You can have a productive garden by using these container gardening tricks as part of your overall garden plan.
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This post was originally published on March 14th, 2017, and was last updated in July 2020.