Maybe you don’t have the land or the time to grow a sprawling vegetable garden. But with a container garden, you can grow a lot of food in a little space—with less work than growing vegetables in the ground.
For centuries, people have been fascinated by the idea of growing gardens in containers. For instance, ancient Romans cultivated container plants in the courtyards of their villas. In recent years, container gardening has experienced a resurgence in popularity, partly due to city dwellers’ lack of space and time for full-scale gardening.
But container gardening isn’t just for cramped urbanites. No matter where you live, a container garden can be an easy way to grow your own food without too much effort. In fact, in the loose, fresh soil of a container, vegetables and herbs grow more quickly—and weeds rarely find their way in. And because it takes less water to irrigate containers than a plot, you’ll spend less time watering and maintaining your garden. In addition, much like a plot garden, your container garden can add creativity, personality, and panache to the landscape.
Advantages of Container Gardening
Although in-ground gardens may allow you to grow more food, there are a number of advantages to box or container gardens. For instance, when you grow vegetables and herbs in a ground plot, you have to walk on the soil to pull weeds or tend to plants, which can disrupt or compact the soil, making it more difficult for plants to grow and thrive. Plants grown in containers, on the other hand, have stronger roots because their soil is never trampled. You can prune, harvest, and weed by reaching into the container rather than walking through it.
Container-grown plants are also less likely to be overrun with weeds, as few weeds will find their way into the controlled environment of a container garden. Similarly, because the container garden is off the ground, there will be fewer insects or pests nibbling on your plants.
You might be surprised to learn that you can fit more into a container than a plot of the same size: Plants can be planted closer together in a container than in the ground because you don’t need to leave room to walk between rows, as you should be able to reach everything in the container from the sides. In addition, plants can grow over the sides of the container, freeing up space for more plants in the middle.
Of course, perhaps the most obvious benefit of container gardening is that it can be done anywhere, even in very small spaces or spaces with no soil. For instance, even if you live in a tiny apartment, you can set up a container garden on the fire escape or the roof.
Choosing a Pot
Many people plant vegetables and herbs in raised garden beds, which can be easily constructed using four pieces of lumber fastened together in the shape of a rectangle or a square. The most common type of container for gardening is the clay-based terracotta pot, which has both benefits and drawbacks. These pots are widely available in many different shapes and sizes, and are relatively inexpensive. They’re heavy—meaning they don’t tip over easily—and they’re porous—meaning excess moisture can evaporate readily.
However, that porous nature can also lead to too much water loss, forcing you to water your plants excessively, and when placed, these containers can be difficult to move. And because they are clay-based, terracotta pots can crack, chip, and even break over time.
Although terracotta pots are the container of choice for many gardeners, you can plant in almost anything that can hold soil—and a unique container can give your garden a sense of character. For example, you can plant herbs in an antique crock pot, wash basin, or an old chest of drawers with each drawer pulled out to a different length.
You can turn almost anything into a planter, but be sure to consider drainage and toxicity before settling on a container. For instance, make sure the inside of the container does not contain lead-based paint, which could be toxic to your plants. Also make sure that there are drainage holes in the bottom of the container. If not, drill some yourself.
Filling the Pot
Once you’ve chosen your containers, the fun can begin. Anything that can be grown in the ground can be grown in a pot, but some crops require so much soil depth that they may not be worth the effort. Some foods that grow well in containers include all types of herbs, carrots, chards, eggplants, lettuces, onions, peppers, pole beans, potatoes, summer squashes, and tomatoes. If you want to grow an assortment of vegetables and herbs, consider purchasing several containers of various depths.
If you want to place different plants in one container, group them according to their needs for sunlight, shade, and water. That way, you can move the whole container into the sun or the shade when needed, or water the entire container at once. For instance, beans, carrots, and squash all have similar needs, as do tomatoes, basil, and onions. Lettuces and herbs can also be planted together successfully.
You may also want to group plants in containers based on the depths at which they need to be planted. For instance, Basil, chives, lettuce, and radishes should be planted only four or five inches deep, whereas bush beans, mint, onions, peas, and thyme should be planted six or seven inches deep. And carrots, cucumbers, parsley, peppers, pole beans, rosemary, and spinach need to be planted eight or nine inches deep.
Once you’ve planted your containers, keep them watered and weeded as necessary. And in a matter of weeks, you may be able to harvest your own vegetables and herbs. You can skip the effort and time of a full-fledged, in-ground vegetable garden, and still serve your home-grown food, seasoned with herbs you planted and harvested with your own hands, and experience the therapeutic powers of gardening at the same time.
READ MORE: Tips and Tools for Mature Gardeners