The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Grow beautiful bountiful vegetables in containers

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Do you have a yearning for yams? A hankering for jalapenos? Or a craving for carrots? Good news. It's not too late to grow your own and you don't need your own plot of land. Many vegetables will grow well in containers on a patio or balcony. Plus many varieties are as beautiful as any ornamental flower.

A successful vegetable container garden requires particular attention to the size of the container, type of soil mix, and plant variety. Any container can be used as long as it is free of toxic materials, has adequate drain holes, and is large enough to accommodate the roots of desired plants. For example leafy crops such as lettuce grow well in hanging baskets; however, tomatoes need at least a three-gallon container. Have the kids paint kitty litter or bird seed buckets for colorful garden containers. Or dress up 5-gallon restaurant buckets with spray paint specifically for plastic.

Be sure to use potting mix or container soil mix rather than garden soil.

When selecting vegetable varieties for containers look for bush, compact or dwarf varieties. For tomatoes select determinate types that stay smaller than indeterminates such as Big Boy.

UI Extension educator, Maurice Ogutu, suggests these minimum container sizes and appropriate vegetable varieties:

  • Half-gallon containers: parsley (one plant, varieties Dark Moss Curled, Paramount);
  • One-gallon containers: cabbages (one plant, any varieties); cucumbers (two plants, varieties, Salad Bush, Bush Champion, or Spacemaster); green beans, (two to three plants, Topcrop, Tendercrop, Derby); leaf lettuce (four to six plants, varieties, Green Ice, Salad Bowl, Red Sails, Black-Seeded Simpson, Buttercrunch, or Oakleaf); spinach (direct seed, thin to one to two inches apart, varieties, American Viking, Long-Standing, Bloomsdale, or Melody); Swiss chard (one plant, varieties, Fordhook Giant, Lucullus); cherry and patio tomatoes (one plant, varieties, Pixie, Sweet 100);
  • Two-gallon containers: beets (thin to two or three inches apart, variety Ruby Queen); carrots (thin to two to three inches apart, varieties, Little Finger, Danver 's Half Long, or Nantes Half Long); egg plant (one plant, variety, Dusky); pepper (two plants, varieties, Lady Bell, Gypsy, Crispy, New Ace, or Red Chili); radishes (thin to one to two inches apart, varieties, Champion, Comet, Sparkler, White Icicle, or Early Scarlet Globe);
  • Three-gallon containers: standard tomatoes (one plant, varieties, Jetstar, Celebrity, or Super Bush).

If space allows add a few edible flowers such as signet marigolds or pansies. Or grow a theme garden of tasty culinary combinations in large containers such as half barrels.

  • Salsa garden: one garden bush type meaty tomato such as Roma, San Marzano or Viva Italia with one hot pepper plant. Add a few green onions or scallions. Sprinkle seeds of cilantro around the outside edge of container.
  • Pesto garden: two or three lettuce-leaf type basil plants, two parsley plants, several garlic cloves (this method of planting garlic will yield harvestable leaves. To produce garlic cloves plant in October for July harvest).
  • Herb garden: one each of chive, sage, and rosemary plants surrounded by thyme.
  • Salad garden: cherry tomato plant with sprinkling of lettuce and radish seeds around the outside edge.

Vegetables require at least six hours of sun. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, collards, mustard greens, and spinach tolerate partial shade better than root vegetables such as turnips, radishes, and carrots and fruit-bearing vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers.

Plants grown in containers will need frequent often daily watering. Be sure to water thoroughly each time. Try adding water-sorber crystals to soil to help keep containers moist.

Fertilize plants at least weekly using water soluble organic or inorganic fertilizer containing micronutrients. Choose fertilizers listed for vegetables such as a 10-20-10 analysis. Follow label directions.

Cultivate containers of bountiful vegetables to enrich your taste buds and your budget. Bon Appétit.

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