Container vegetable gardening offers the urban or suburban gardener with limited backyard space the opportunity to enjoy fresh vegetables. A sunny balcony or patio may be all that you need to grow your favorite vegetables. The best vegetable varieties for container gardening may differ according to your gardening zone, but the following varieties may work well in most gardens. Seeds are readily available online from the major seed companies or from your local nursery and garden center.
The Basics of Container Vegetable Gardening
Before discussing the best varieties for container vegetable gardening, it’s important to understand a few basics about growing vegetables in containers.
Containers for Patio Vegetable Gardening
You can use almost any container or pot for patio vegetable gardens, but be sure that it’s lightweight if you think you’ll need to move it during the growing season. Adding wheels to the container or placing it on a wheeled dolly can make it easier to move it indoors if an unexpected spring frost is predicted or in the event of severe weather.
Choose a lightweight potting mixture from the bagged soil mixtures available at the garden center. Seed starting mixtures are too lightweight to support mature plants, and they may not contain the best nutrients for your plant.
Other Considerations for Growing Vegetables in Containers
Vegetables need full sunlight, defined as six hours or more per day of bright, direct sunshine. Some leaf crops such as lettuce and chard and some root crops such as radishes can grow with less than that, but for best results, place your containers in bright, direct sunshine.
Make sure that any container you use has drainage holes to allow excess water to drain away from the plants. Many attractive plastic or resin planters for sale at your local nursery and garden center lack drainage holes. Use a drill to add three or four holes to the bottom of the planter so that excess rainwater can escape and you won’t rot your plants. A layer of pebbles on the bottom of the pot before adding the soil mixture can improve drainage and prevent soil from washing out of the pot.
Fertilize your container vegetables with a balanced fertilizer such as a 14-14-14 slow release fertilizer. Follow the package directions.
Always be sure to keep your containers well watered. Many vegetables need plenty of moisture during the entire growing season, but especially when setting fruit or developing the edible portion of the vegetable plant. Tomatoes, for example, develop best when they have continual moisture during the flowering and fruit development period. Keep a large watering can filled and handy near your container vegetable garden. When you notice plants are dry, water them.
Best Varieties for Container Vegetable Gardening
Choose the vegetables you want to grow in your patio vegetable garden based on what you and your family like to eat and what makes the most sense to grow in a limited space. Many backyard gardeners enjoy growing tomatoes, for example, because the taste is often far superior to those purchased at the store. Tomatoes are a great example of a vegetable that’s both easy to grow in containers and one that yields a lot of fruit for its size and space.
Try the following varieties of vegetables for your patio vegetable garden or container vegetable gardening:
- Carrots – look for Nantes or midget varieties of carrots, and choose containers that are deep enough to accommodate the growing carrot root. Both Nantes and the midget varieties are shorter than the carrots you buy in the supermarket but very tasty.
- Cucumbers – yes, you can grow cucumbers in containers. Look for varieties marked “Bush”. I’ve grown these in pots on a patio when space was at a premium. They do create a bit of a vine, but not much compared to standard cucumber varieties. Burpee’s Bush Burpless cucumber grew in my zone 6 garden in New York, and there are many other fine Bush varieties. Place a tomato cage in the pot when the cucumber plant is young and the little bit of vine that develops will grow right up to the cage instead of trailing all over your deck or patio.
- Eggplant – eggplants can be grown in a container or pot. Look for dwarf, miniature or midget varieties.
- Lettuce – most lettuces grow great in containers, pots and window boxes. Bibb, gourmet greens mixtures and most any lettuce mixture grow fine in a container.
- Melons – cantaloupes (muskmelons) can be grown in a large container. “Minnesota Midget” is a cantaloupe variety that can be successfully grown in a patio garden. The fruits are smaller than average, but it’s vining habit is subdued. As with the cucumber, place a tomato cage around the pot and guide the vine tendrils of the melon to the wire cage when it wants to climb.
- Peppers – almost any variety of pepper, including California Wonder (big green bell peppers) and Carnival or Rainbow (yellow, red, purple and green bell peppers) can be grown in a container.
- Radishes – radishes are great because you don’t need a particularly deep container. Cherry Bomb and similar radish varieties develop quickly and grow fine in patio containers.
- Tomatoes – grow cherry tomatoes or beefsteak tomatoes in pots. Look for those marked especially for ‘patio’ containers. Early Girl, Best Boy, and similar beefsteak varieties are good for containers. Cherry tomatoes such as Supersweet 100 do great in planters and containers.
- Herbs – I’ve placed the herbs in one category last on the list because there are so many that you can grow in containers, and even many herbs you can grow indoors. Grow basil, rosemary, chives, tarragon and parsley in containers or a window box near your kitchen. Oregano, mint and similar herbs that spread rapidly in the garden can be easily contained if grown in a pot on the patio or deck.
Vegetables to Skip
For many years, I lived in a suburban house that had dense shade in the yard. The only place to grow vegetables was in big pots on a sunny patio. I experimented with many vegetables and found that some are more trouble than they’re worth. Although others may disagree with me, I have found that corn, beans, spinach and chard, beets, turnips, and onions were more trouble than they were worth trying to grow in containers. For many of these such as the spinach and chard, I couldn’t grow enough to make a decent meal, although I could grow some spinach as greens for salads. Others such as corn just toppled over and smashed the pot, making a big mess, when they grew tall and storms brought strong winds. Some books and Cooperative Extension offices (your local state system that provides gardening information) can provide you with beans, root crop, and other vegetables and vegetable varieties to grow in pots for your area, but my personal experience is that they were cheaper and easier to buy fresh at the farmer’s market once the growing season began than to grow them in pots on my patio.
General Tips for Selecting Vegetable Varieties for Container Gardens
Vegetables adapt easily to containers, but be sure to keep the containers well watered and in full sunshine. Look for varieties marked “midget”, dwarf, miniature or patio, and for vegetables that produce vines, the words “bush.” These are all signals that growers have worked hard to create a variety that will thrive in small spaces. Such vegetables have been bred to grow smaller, more compact plants, and many flower earlier and produce more than their traditional garden counterparts.
Container-grown vegetables are just as susceptible to garden pests as those growing directly in the soil in your backyard garden. Check tomatoes for tomato hornworms, and pick off any that you see. Plant old-fashioned marigolds, the kind with the noticeable and strong smell, around tomatoes to ward off hornworms. Check plants for mildews, insect damage and other problems and treat accordingly.
One last problem that many homeowners may be surprised to learn about is that vegetables grown in containers on a patio or deck can actually get burned by too much sunlight. During the very hot, bright days of summer, sunlight can bounce off of a cement patio or desk or any reflective surface and actually burn the leaves of your plants. By placing your pots on casters or wheels, you can move them away from such an area more easily if you see browning of the leaves or any other signs of heat damage.
Just because you live in an apartment in the city or have limited sunlight in your backyard area doesn’t mean you have to give up the pleasure of biting into a rich, juicy tomato this summer. By using a sunny deck, patio or balcony, and growing the best vegetable varieties for pots and containers, you can enjoy fresh vegetables this summer.