Tomato in planter; container gardening
Image by Leandro Rocha

Container Gardening

Container gardening is a great alternative for people who have limited space, poor soil or would like to grow vegetables with less effort. Instead of a plot in your yard, you can grow your plants on a patio, balcony, porch or just about anywhere else as long as there is adequate light. Container gardening helps gardeners avoid some common pitfalls like weed competition, poor drainage, and time required to maintain a conventional garden.

Suitable containers come in all shapes and sizes and are made of various types of materials but there are a few important requirements. All containers must have drainage holes to ensure healthy roots. They must be large enough to support your plants when fully grown and they must be able to hold soil adequately. Beyond that, the sky is the limit. Some common containers to consider are plastic and clay pots, bushel baskets, barrels, garbage cans, window boxes, milk cartons, tubs and more. Regular and elevated raised bed gardens available from garden supply companies are also very popular.

There are a couple of very important keys to success in container gardening. Number one on the list is to provide adequate water to your plants. Container gardens will need to be watered more often than conventional gardens once they become established. The larger your container plants get the more often they need water. This becomes especially evident as we get into warm summer days and some plants may require 2-3 applications per day. Frequent watering will wash nutrients from the soil so you will need to feed container plants with either water soluble plant food or slow release fertilizers. Frequent watering also requires that containers drain well.

A light weight soil mixture is ideal for your container gardens. You can find commercial container gardening soil mixes at your local garden center. Most of these contain various mixtures of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, compost or other organic materials. Do not use normal garden soil in containers since it is usually too heavy and slower draining.

If you are growing larger plants like tomatoes in containers be careful to choose varieties that are limited in size. Smaller fruited types or those labelled as determinate would be better choices than tall vining tomatoes. Dwarf cherry tomatoes work exceptionally well in containers.

It is easy to underestimate the size of container needed if you are doing this for the first time. If you are using smaller containers like half or one- gallon pots or milk cartons try 2-3 lettuce or spinach plants or maybe one pepper. A five gallon pail will support a smaller growing tomato plant but I usually prefer a 10 or 20 gallon garbage can for large tomatoes, or multiples of other deep rooted plants.

Plants in containers need much of the care that plants in gardens need. Most vegetables will do best with full sun conditions with the exception of leafy greens that will tolerate some shade. You may need to thin out carrots, radishes, beets and others in containers so they don’t become overcrowded.

Check your pots at least once a day and more often on hot days. Wilting and drooping of leaves is a sign that water is needed. Tomatoes in containers will be more prone to blossom end rot if they dry out between watering.

If you are a beginner and want to try something simple you could pick up a patio tomato or salad bowl garden, or herb planter at your local garden center. These are already planted in appropriate containers and just need sun and water. For everyone else, use your imagination and have fun growing fresh produce.

For more information on container gardening contact:

John Farfaglia CCE Niagara County

Horticulture Educator

Last updated April 23, 2020