Gardeners are a persistent bunch. They don't let something like a lack of space keep them from growing plants. And plant hybridizers have taken note. Thanks to them, even gardeners who only have patios can find a wide range of edibles that thrive in containers—tomatoes, of course, but also berries, zucchini and sweet corn!
Follow our tips for choosing plants and growing them. You'll be rewarded with an attractive landscape and a tasty harvest.
pick your plants
When deciding what to grow in containers, research the plants that are best-suited to your climate (your county's cooperative extension service can be a huge help with that). Then consider the amount of space you're willing to give to potted produce, noting that some edibles like lettuces can be grown in part shade while others, like tomatoes and cucumbers, require full sun.
match pot to plant
Bigger is better when choosing pots for edible plants. Although varieties bred to grow in containers are more compact and need less space to thrive than their larger counterparts, they'll be more productive with more soil. Follow these guidelines for choosing pots to match what you're growing (and make sure they have drainage holes).
- Herbs: The container should hold about a gallon of soil per plant (roughly an 8-inch-diameter pot).
- Lettuces: Grow several plants in an 8-inch pot, and shear them back every few weeks.
- Patio vegetables: The container should hold about 3 gallons of soil per plant (roughly a 12-inch pot).
- Fruit trees: The container should hold about 6 gallons of soil per plant (roughly a 24-inch pot).
Keep this in mind: The taller the plant, the wider you'll want the container to be, for stability (so it doesn't topple over in the wind).
"Bigger is better when choosing pots."
If you want two plants per pot—for more produce or to create more visually interesting plantings by putting different varieties together in the same pot—increase the size of the pot accordingly. For example, if you want two peppers, look for a container that holds about 6 gallons of soil. If you want to grow basil with tomatoes, use one that holds at least 4 gallons of soil.
And if in doubt, you're better off putting fewer plants together in a pot. If there isn't enough room to support their roots, you'll have to water them more frequently and they'll be much less productive.
use the right potting mix
Choose a high-quality potting mix, ideally an organic one mixed for edibles. Avoid using pure topsoil or garden soil; raw earth doesn't drain well in containers and can harbor diseases and pests. Potting mixes are made specifically for containers, to provide the best balance of moisture-retention and drainage.
don't neglect them
Tend to potted herbs, vegetables and fruit trees the way you would if they were planted in the ground. Just remember: They're entirely dependent on you for moisture and nutrition.
Be ready to water daily, especially if you live in an area with hot summers. Or use an easy-to-install drip-irrigation system with a timer to do the watering for you. Consistent watering is vital to healthy plants and high-quality produce. Tomatoes, for example, are more likely to suffer from blossom-end rot and other maladies if they don't get regular watering.
To keep soil moist longer, apply a 1-inch layer of mulch, such as compost. Feed weekly with a balanced fertilizer (following the recommendations on the product's packaging), or use a slow-release fertilizer at planting time and again halfway through the season. Slow-release products gradually dispense nutrients throughout the growing season.
Pinch back or prune plants the way you would if they were in the ground. And make sure the pots are spaced properly to ensure good air flow; they'll resist diseases better that way.
Justin Hancock gardens in Miami, Florida.