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Container Gardening

Container Gardening
Even the smallest patio or porch can boast a crop of vegetables or a garden of flowers in containers. Planter boxes, wooden barrels, hanging baskets and large flowerpots are just some of the containers that can be used. The container gardener is limited only by his imagination. Consider the following guidelines when choosing your container.

Avoid containers with narrow openings.
Cheap plastic pots may deteriorate in UV sunlight and terracotta pots dry out rapidly. Glazed ceramic pots are excellent choices but require several drainage holes.
Wooden containers are susceptible to rot. Redwood and cedar are relatively rot resistant and can be used without staining or painting. Avoid wood treated with creosote, penta or other toxic compounds since the vapors can damage the plants. One advantage of wooden containers is that they can be built to sizes and shapes that suit the location.
Use containers between 15 and 120 quarts capacity. Small pots restrict the root area and dry out very quickly. The size and number of plants to be grown will determine the size of the container used. Deep rooted vegetables require deep pots.
Make sure your pot has adequate drainage. Holes should be 1/2 inch across. Line the base of the pot with newspaper to prevent soil loss.
In hot climates use light-colored containers to lessen heat absorption and discourage uneven root growth.
Set containers on bricks or blocks to allow free drainage.
Line hanging baskets with sphagnum moss for water retention. Keep baskets away from afternoon sun.
If you choose clay pots, remember that clay is porous and water is lost from the sides of the container. Plants in clay pots should be monitored closely for loss of moisture.

Growing Mixture
Make sure your planting medium drains rapidly but retains enough moisture to keep the roots evenly moist. Your compost will make an excellent potting soil. Check the requirements of the plants you grow to determine whether you will need to add sand. If compost is not available, purchase a good quality potting mixture or make your own from equal parts of sand, loamy garden soil, and peat moss. Commercial potting mixes are usually slightly acidic, so you may want to add a little lime.

Most container gardeners have found that a "soilless" potting mix works best. In addition to draining quickly, "soilless" mixes are lightweight and free from soil- borne diseases and weed seeds. These mixes can be purchased from garden centers.

When you add your soil to your container, leave a 2 inch space between the top of the soil and the top of the container. You will be able to add 1/2 inch or so of mulch later.

Your container garden will need at least five hours of direct sunlight each day, and many plants will benefit from even more. As a general rule, leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce can tolerate the most shade, while root crops such as beets and carrots will need more sun. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers need the most sun. The amount of sunlight needed by flowers varies depending on the varieties grown. Check the flower guides for sunlight requirements.

Since potting mixes drain water rapidly, fertilizer will be washed out of the container as you water. Lighter mixes will require more frequent fertilizing than heavier mixes. It's a good idea to use a dilute liquid fertilizer with every other watering. Liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed are great plant boosters, but remember that you need to provide your plants with a variety of nutrients. Check the labels on the products in you garden center to be sure that they contain a complete, balanced solution that includes trace elements.

In an exposed location, container plants loose moisture quickly. Some plants will need to be watered daily, especially during hot, dry weather.
What to Grow?

Small salad green such as oak leaf lettuce and mustard cress, or vegetables such as silver beet, which have a quick maturing period are ideal. You may be able to get several crops of a quick maturing vegetable from your container. Cherry tomatoes and other fruiting vegetables, including peppers or eggplant can be easily grown in containers, as can root vegetables such as baby carrots, radishes or spring onions. Try planting quick-growing small herbs and leaf lettuces around you larger fruiting vegetables.


Container Type

Recommended Varieties

Beans, Snap

5 gal. Windowbox

Bush types such as blue lake, contender, and tavera

Beans, Lima

5 gal. Windowbox

White Dixie Wonder


5 gal. Windowbox

Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red


1 plant/5 gal. pot
3 plants/15 gal. tub

Super Blend, Italian Green Sprouting

Brussels Sprouts

1 plant/5 gal. pot
2 plants/15 gal. tub



1 plant/5 gal. pot
3 plants/15 gal. tub


Chinese Cabbage

1 plant/5 gal. pot
3 plants/15 gal. tub



5 gal. Windowbox at least 12" deep

Little Finger, Thumbelina


1 plant/gal. pot



3 gal. pot

Black Beauty, Rosa Bianca


8-inch deep container

Most Varieties


5 gal. Windowbox

Salad Bowl, Ruby, Grand Rapids, Oak Leaf, Buttercrunch, Dark Green Boston, Little Gem, Bibb


5 gal. Windowbox

White Sweet Spanish, Yellow Sweet Spanish


1 plant/2 gal. pot
5 plants/15 gal. tub

Sweet Banana, Yolo Wonder, Long Red Cayenne, Bell Boy, Keystone Resistant, California Wonder, New Ace, Red Cherry, Long Red Cayenne, Jalapeno, Thai Hot


5 gal. Windowbox

Cherry Belle, Icicle, Champion, Scarlet Globe


5 gal. Windowbox

Dark Green Bloomsdale, Melody, America, Avon Hybrid


2 gal. pot

Scallopini, Baby Crookneck, Creamy, Golden Nugget, Gold Rush, Zucchini (most varieties)


Bushel baskets
5 gal. pots

Tiny Tim, Small Fry, Sweet 100, Patio, Burpee's Pixie, Toy Boy, Early Girl, Better Boy VFN, Pixie, Red Robin, Sugar Lump, Tumblin' Tom (hanging baskets)

If your vegetable gardening is limited by insufficient space or an unsuitable area, consider the possibility of raising fresh, nutritious, homegrown vegetables in containers. A window sill, a patio, a balcony or a doorstep will provide sufficient space for a productive mini-garden. Problems with soil-borne diseases, nematodes or poor soil conditions can be easily overcome by switching to a container garden.

Crop Selection
Almost any vegetable that will grow in a typical backyard garden will also do well as a container-grown plant. Vegetables which are ideally suited for growing in containers include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green onions, beans, lettuce, squash, radishes and parsley. Pole beans and cucumbers also do well in this type of garden, but they do require considerably more space because of their vining growth habit.

Variety selection is of extreme importance. Most varieties that will do well when planted in a yard garden will also do well in containers.

Growing Media
Synthetic "soils" are best suited for vegetable container gardening. These mixes may be composed of sawdust, wood chips, peat moss, perlite, vermiculite or almost any other type of media. Regardless of what mixture is used, however, it must be free of disease and weed seeds, hold moisture and nutrients but drain well and be lightweight. Many synthetic "soils" are available from garden centers, or one can be prepared by mixing horticultural grade vermiculite, peat moss, limestone, superphosphate, and garden fertilizer. To 1 bushel each of vermiculite and peat moss, add 10 tablespoons of limestone, 5 tablespoons of 0-20-0 (superphosphate) and 1 cup of garden fertilizer such as 6-12-12 or 5-10-10. Mix the material thoroughly adding a little water to reduce dust. Wet the mix thoroughly prior to seeding or transplanting.

Almost any type of container can be used for growing vegetable plants. For example, try using bushel baskets, drums, gallon cans, tubs or wooden boxes. The size of the container will vary according to the crop selection and space available. Pots from 6 to 10 inches in size are satisfactory for green onion, parsley and herbs. For most vegetable crops such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, you will find 5-gallon containers are the most suitable size. They are fairly easy to handle and provide adequate space for root growth.

Regardless of the type or size of container used, adequate drainage is a necessity for successful yields. It is advisable to add about 1 inch of coarse gravel in the bottom of the container to improve drainage. The drain holes are best located along the side of the container, about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch from the bottom.

Seeding and Transplanting
Best suited for container culture are vegetables which may be easily transplanted. Transplants may be purchased from local nurseries or can be grown at home. Seeds can also be germinated in a baking pan, plastic tray, pot or even a cardboard milk carton. Fill the container with a good media such as the one previously described, and cover most vegetable seed to a depth of 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch to insure good germination. Another method would be to use peat pellets or peat pots which are available from local nursery supply centers.

The seed should be started in a warm area that receives sufficient sunlight about 4 to 8 weeks prior to the anticipated transplanting date into the final container. Most vegetables should be transplanted into containers when they develop their first two to three true leaves. Transplanting should be done carefully to avoid injury to the young root system. (See Table 2 for information about different kinds of vegetables.)

The easiest way to add fertilizer to plants growing in containers is by preparing a nutrient solution and pouring it over the soil mix. There are many good commercial fertilizer mixes available to make nutrient solutions. If one is utilized, follow the directions on the label. An adequate nutrient solution can be made by dissolving 2 cups of a complete fertilizer such as 10-20-10, 12-24-12 or 8-16-8 in 1 gallon of warm tap water. This solution will be a base solution. From this can be made a growing nutrient which will actually be poured around the plants. To make the growing solution, mix 2 tablespoons of the base solution in 1 gallon of water.

If you use transplants, begin watering with the nutrient solution the day you set them out. If you start with seed, apply only tap water to keep the soil mix moist enough until the seeds germinate and the plants emerge. Then begin using the nutrient solution.

The plants should be watered with the nutrient solution about once a day. While the frequency of watering will vary from one crop to the next, usually once per day is adequate. Should the vegetable make a lot of foliage growth, twice a day may be necessary. Less water will be needed during periods of slow growth.

At least once a week, it is advisable to leach all the unused fertilizer out of the soil mix by watering with tap water. Add sufficient water to the container to cause free drainage from the bottom. This practice will prevent any buildup of injurious materials in the soil mix.

Occasionally, it is a good idea to water with a nutrient solution containing minor elements. Use a water-soluble fertilizer containing iron, zinc, boron and manganese, and follow label directions.

Proper watering is essential for a successful container garden. Generally one watering per day is adequate. However, poor drainage will slowly kill the plants. The mix will become water-logged and plants will die from lack of oxygen. If at all possible, avoid wetting the foliage of plants since wet leaves will encourage plant diseases. Always remember that each watering should be done with the nutrient solution except for the weekly leaching with tap water.

Nearly all vegetable plants will grow better in full sunlight than in shade. However, leafy crops such as lettuce, cabbage, greens, spinach and parsley can tolerate more shade than root crops such as radishes, beets, turnips and onions. The root vegetables can stand more shade than those which bear fruit, such as cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant. One advantage to container gardening is mobility. Container gardening makes it possible to position the vegetables in areas where they can receive the best possible growing conditions.

Diseases and Insects
Vegetables grown in containers can be attacked by the various types of insects and diseases that are common to any vegetable garden. Plants should be periodically inspected for the presence of foliage and fruit-feeding insects as well as the occurrence of diseases. Should problems occur, then the timely application of EPA-approved fungicides and insecticides is advised. Contact your local county Extension agent for the latest information on disease and insect control on vegetable plants.

For the greatest amount of enjoyment from a container garden, harvest the vegetables at their peak of maturity when a vegetable's full flavor has developed. This will yield maximum pleasure from the excellent taste of vine-ripened tomatoes, tender green beans and crisp flavorful lettuce.


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