How To Plant And Grow Vegetables In Containers And Pots
Don't have a large enough space on your property to grow a conventional garden in the ground? This doesn't mean you can't grow vegetables and get big yields. In fact, the smaller the space you grow your vegetables in the bigger the yields. This is because you can take better care of a smaller garden space than a larger one. Too often, the beginning vegetable gardener starts out tilling up a huge garden area but by early summer it's overrun with weeds and the plants are drying up due to lack of irrigation. When growing vegetables in containers weed and moisture control is very easy. Too, you can provide the right nutrients less expensively. All this adds up to healthier plants and increased yields.

Not all, but many vegetables lend themselves well to container gardening. With some thought to selecting bush or dwarf varieties, or by the use of trellises or other supports, almost any vegetable can be adapted to growing in a pot. Vegetables that take up little space, such as carrots, radishes and lettuce, or vegetables that produce fruits over a long period of time, such as tomatoes and peppers, are perfect for container vegetable gardens.

Selecting Containers

You can use almost anything for a container: flower pots, pails, buckets, wire baskets, bushel baskets, wooden boxes, window planters, washtubs, strawberry pots, plastic bags, large food cans, old bath tubs or any number of other things that are suitable for a container. Some gardeners are growing certain varieties of vegetables in bales of straw.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a container:

No vegetables like wet feet. So, whatever type of container you use make sure it has drainage holes. If the container doesn't have drainage holes drill one or more at a 3/4-inch diameter. Larger containers will need several holes.

Container Color
Keep in mind that darker containers absorb more heat. Since you'll be growing most vegetables in full sun, it's best to choose lighter color pots or paint dark ones a lighter color.

Container Size
The size of the container is important. For larger vegetables such as indeterminate (vining) tomatoes, and eggplants, you should use at least a five gallon container for each plant. Smaller vegetable plants, such as peppers, can be grown in smaller pots of 3 gallons in size.

Cultural Needs

The best thing to use as a growing medium is potting mix - not cheap-grade potting soil. Yes, potting mix is more expensive than potting soil, but it holds moisture more evenly. If you want to save a few bucks on soil, go ahead and thoroughly mix the two at a 50/50 ratio. You can also add a good organic compost, such as mushroom compost, at a 10% ratio to the mix. Vegetables love organic matter - it's like vitamins to them.

Most vegetable plants like lots of sun. I'd recommend at least 7 hours of direct sunlight for best overall growth and fruit production. Full, all-day sun or morning through mid-afternoon sun with some shade or filtered sun in the afternoon would be best. 

In addition to adding the organic compost to the soil mix, I also feed with a slow-release organic vegetable food. Follow feeding instructions on product label.

Vegetable plants prefer well-drained but consistently damp soil for best performance. Soil in containers dries out more quickly than soil in garden beds. That means plants growing in containers will require closer attention to and monitoring of soil moisture. Too, the larger your plants grow through the season, and the hotter the temperatures get, your vegetable plants will need more water. So, using the finger test, check the soil moisture in your containers gardens daily to judge the need for water. If the soil is damp or wet, don't water. If the top 2 inches of the soil is dry, provide some water. Don't water again until the top 2 inches of the soil has gone dry again. Be careful not to allow the soil get so dry that the leaves of your plants wilt before you water them again. This may be okay with some plants, but not with vegetables. To help retain moisture and reduce needs for water cover the soil surface in the container with shredded wood mulch or straw.

Step-By-Step Planting Instructions

Before filling your container with the soil mix, I recommend lining the bottom with shade cloth or a porous landscape fabric. This will keep the drain holes from becoming stopped up with soil. You can also place a 1 to 2" layer of gravel in bottom of pot for improved drainage.

Use a professional potting mix to fill container to a level that will allow your plant to sit with the top edge of its rootball approximately 1/2 to 1" below the rim of the container. Professional potting mixes will hold moisture evenly. Avoid using cheap grade, dollar-a-bag potting soils as they do not hold moisture as evenly.

TIP:  When planting tomato plants, add Calcium to the soil. This calcium prevents the blossoms from rotting later on down the line. When planting any vegetables, it's not a bad idea to add a teaspoon of hydrated lime to each gallon of potting soil to balance pH. Hydrated lime is rich in calcium and is absolutely great for tomatoes and other vegetable plants. 

If you intend to use a stake to tie your tomato plant to for support as it grows, put the stake a little off center in the pot.

Gently remove the vegetable plant seedling you intend to grow in the container, from the pot it was growing in.

Set root ball or plug on the soil in the container and make necessary adjustments to insure that the top edge of the root ball will sit 1/2 to 1" below the rim of the container.

Backfill with potting mix around rootball, tamping as you go, until the the level of potting mix is even with the top edge of root ball.

Water thoroughly and add more potting mix if settling occurs during watering. 

Apply a 1/2" layer of shredded wood mulch, pine or wheat straw, or sphagnum moss to soil surface to help retain moisture, and act as a barrier between soil and the leaves of your tomato plant.

If you intend on using a tomato cage or other plant support install it now and your done with the planting process!

Best Vegetable Plants for Containers

In general, stick to the smaller growing vegetable plants. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are a given. Bush variety tomatoes are the best choice and will not require a tomato cage or some other type of support. With other vegetables, look for bush, compact, or space saver varieties. Seed companies realize that homeowners have less and less space to devote to vegetable gardens. Every year they are coming out with new varieties of smaller growing plants.

Here's a list of vegetable types that are well-suited for growing in containers:

  • Carrots - A little tedious but can be done. The ferny tops are quite attractive in pots. You can mix in some flowers for a nice appeal.
  • Cucumbers - Grow the bush type rather than the trailing vines. The bush types can still spread out a bit so plant them in larger containers.
  • Eggplant - The slender varieties are best. Growing eggplant in containers helps to control some common pests, like wire worms. Eggplant plants can get heavy with fruits and some staking may be required.
  • Green Beans - Pole beans are a great choice for containers. They grow up, instead of out, and they continue producing beans for a couple of months. They will require some type of support, to climb on. You can start seeds in late spring and start a second batch in mid-summer to keep harvesting beans well into fall.
  • Green Onions - Green or bunching onions are best for containers. They can be combined with other vegetables or grown on their own.
  • Leaf Lettuce - Lettuce is perfect for growing in containers. When growing the loose leaf varieties cut only the outer leaves and the plants will continue to grow for months. 
  • Peppers - All varieties of peppers are very well suited for growing in containers. As they are tropical plants, wait to grow them outdoors until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F.
  • Radishes - Radishes grow quickly so are great for growing in containers. You can mix them with carrots if you like.
  • Squash - Bush varieties are best. Vine varieties will require a trellis or some form of support. Most summer squash plants are bush types.
  • Tomatoes - All varieties of tomatoes can be grown in containers. The bush and dwarf cherry tomatoes are best. Full size tomatoes will require staking, a tomato cage or some other type of support.