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Picking the Best Veggies for Container Gardening

The Joys of Container Gardening

Being a lifelong gardener, I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for the beauty and convenience of container gardening. While there’s nothing quite like wandering through row after row of plants in a large plot, tending to my potted plants on my deck right outside my kitchen door has become one of my favorite things.

Container gardening is ideal for those with limited outdoor space, such as urban dwellers, apartment residents, or homeowners with small, shady yards or land with poor soil. By taking advantage of open space on a sunny balcony, patio, or deck, you can still enjoy an abundant harvest of herbs and vegetables. I’ll put containers anywhere – on an outdoor windowsill, in a hanging basket on the deck or porch rail, or on a raised garden bench my brother built me, which is absolutely my favorite gardening thing in the whole world.

One season, a Black Swallowtail butterfly laid eggs all over my dill and parsley plants on that bench, and I was treated to this amazing spectacle. Yes, of course butterflies lay their eggs in gardens all the time, but these caterpillars would not have survived out in the bird-heavy environs of the yard. They were protected from predators by the shade screen I keep draped over this bench. So, yes, I give all credit to container gardening for that gift during a pandemic when we needed all the beauty we could get.

The Benefits of Container Gardening

Planting your herbs and vegetables in containers allows you to control their environment to a greater degree than plants in the ground. Some plants, such as celery, benefit from partial shade during the day, and I can reposition the pots as needed. Others, like tomatoes, need full sun at all times. During heavy periods of rain, it’s easier to protect vegetables in pots from becoming waterlogged for days. And, of course, preventing damage during severe storms is much easier with container gardens.

I was lucky being a home gardener meant I just lost a few plants when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through in 2008, knocking out power for five straight days and heartbreakingly decimating a few of my September-tall tomato plants. There was no way to sufficiently stabilize those plants against wind shear out in the yard, but on my deck, I would’ve had several options. Some corn and tomato farms nearby lost their entire crops – and revenue – for the last half of the season.

Another significant benefit of container gardening is accessibility. When I first started gardening in earnest, I was young and hardy and wasn’t even thinking about it. Today, as a fifty-something, I greatly appreciate being able to remain fully vertical during my gardening tasks, from planting to watering to harvesting and clean-up. Container gardening opens the door to people with a wide variety of disabilities, from back injuries to those using supportive devices to walk, to people needing wheelchairs or scooters.

Choosing the Right Containers

One of the few disadvantages of container gardening is the need to be discerning about the soil mix you use. Many years ago, commercial soil mixes were actually pretty decent, and you could buy bags from the local garden center with complete confidence. But time and capitalism have not been kind, and the potting soil mixes available today leave much to be desired.

The DIY soil mix I use in all of my vegetable pots is:
– 1 part potting soil
– 1 part compost
– 1 part peat moss
– 1 part perlite
– A handful of Plant-Tone

By “part,” I simply mean some volume of measure – it doesn’t have to be precise. I mix it all well in a large bucket or storage tub and then scoop it into my pots. All of these components, including the compost, can be found at your local garden center or home improvement store.

When choosing a container, make sure there are drainage holes or that the container is made of a material where you can create drainage holes yourself. I do not recommend self-watering pots, as they can fail in both directions – giving plants wet feet during wet weather and drying out more quickly than expected.

For larger growing plants, such as tomatoes, my go-to containers are large storage tubs. They’re incredibly sturdy and roomy, low to the ground so they won’t tip over, and have built-in handles on the sides for easy maneuvering. Plus, it’s no problem to drill drainage holes in the bottom. They’re also quite economical when compared to large containers you’ll find at the garden center.

Caring for Your Container Garden

The most relentless challenge you’ll have with container gardening is keeping up with watering. Plants in containers dry out faster than their counterparts in the ground because they have less protection from the heat of the sun and less soil surrounding them to retain moisture. I water my plants early in the morning, filling the pots until water drips out of the drainage holes. During periods of high heat, I check the plants throughout the day and give them an extra sip if the top inch of soil has dried out.

One of my favorite water management techniques is using ollas – unglazed clay pots buried in the soil and filled with water that allow for the slow release of moisture directly to the plant roots. This not only conserves water but also ensures a steady supply of hydration, minimizing the risk of over- or under-watering. I use them on my big plants like tomatoes and peppers, and it helps me rest easier knowing they won’t dry out on those blazing, super-hot days.

Regular fertilizing is another task you have to stay on top of, as vegetable plants are heavy feeders and will quickly use up the nutrients in the soil in the pot. I maintain organic gardens, so I use fish emulsion and side dressings of Plant-Tone as needed throughout the season. A balanced, general vegetable fertilizer will also serve your container plants well, with applications every other week or so, unless there’s a stretch of heavy rains when I’ll fertilize everything as soon as it stops to replenish the soil.

The Best Veggies for Containers

When it comes to choosing the best vegetables for container gardening, there are so many great options. Some of my personal favorites include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, radishes, potatoes, garlic, carrots, green beans, peas, onions, green onions, ginger, lemongrass, lettuce greens (including arugula, mustard greens, and leaf lettuces), spinach, kale, Swiss chard, basil, parsley, mint, thyme, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, chives, cilantro, culantro, chamomile, lemon balm, and bay leaf.

The key is to look for dwarf, bush, or compact varieties, as these smaller versions of full-size plants tend to do better in the limited space of containers. And don’t forget to add an olla or self-watering container to ensure your plants get a consistent supply of moisture.

Whether you’re a beginner gardener or have a limited outdoor space, I highly encourage you to give container gardening a try. With the right vegetables, soil, and care, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest right outside your door. And who knows – you might even be treated to a magical butterfly encounter, like I was. Happy patio planting!

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