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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Edible Container Gardens

Growing vegetables in containers is nothing new; there are entire books dedicated to this topic. I have a lot of experience in growing vegetables in traditional in-ground gardens or raised beds, and have grown a few different vegetables in various containers.

Successfully growing vegetables in containers largely hinges on having sufficient amounts of soil to support the plants, and being able to provide adequate amounts of water on a consistent basis.

One simple rule of thumb when deciding on appropriate soil volumes for vegetables in containers is the bigger the plant, the more soil it will need to grow and produce. Lettuce for example, is a relatively small plant with a small root system. It can be planted in shallow containers without much soil as long as its water needs are met. A full-size tomato or vining plant has quite a bit of plant to support above ground, and an enormous root system and need for water to match. Vegetable varieties with terms like "dwarf", "bush", "patio" and "compact" in their names and descriptions may be better suited to growing in a container. In general:

  • Smaller vegetable plants like peppers, broccoli, cabbage, and dwarf tomatoes need at least 2 gallons of soil. Using more than 2 gallons of soil will make it easier to keep up with water needs as the plants reach mature size.
  • Large vegetable plants like full-size tomatoes and vining crops need 5 or more gallons of soil per plant.

When choosing soil for vegetables in containers, even the best garden soil will not drain properly and may harbor insects and disease if used in a container. A better choice is to use soilless mix—the same mixes commonly sold for planting containers of annual flowers. These mixes are formulated to be used for container plantings and will drain properly and are sanitized to eliminate pests and disease.

An appropriately-sized container will not live up to expectations when growing vegetables if the plant's water needs cannot be met. A few years ago I tried growing tomatoes and peppers in containers outside the Piatt County Extension office and it was nearly impossible to keep up with the watering. As if the summer temperatures of central Illinois weren't enough, the office in Piatt County is surrounded by concrete and asphalt. The reflected heat made watering a multiple times per day endeavor. I couldn't keep up. The only plants that survived were ones in self-watering containers that had built-in reservoirs to rely on between waterings; but even those began to suffer in the dog days of summer.

Using drip irrigation is one way to make watering containers less of a chore. In a drip irrigation system, over 90% of the water flowing actually reaches the plants. Compare this to a traditional lawn sprinkler, and only 50 to 70% of the water flowing through it actually reaches the plants. The rest is lost to evaporation.

We use drip irrigation in our raised bed vegetable garden at home, and hopefully we will add drip irrigation to our patio containers this year. Our system is very simple and was fairly easy to set up. There is 1/2" plastic tubing that attaches to our garden hose, and 1/4" tubing that feeds off that tubing. At the end of the 1/4" tubing, emitters are attached. Emitters allow water to flow at different gallons per hour (GPH), depending on the ones chosen.

Drip irrigation parts can be found at various area stores. A starter kit with enough tubing and emitters for an "average" garden bed (coverage depends on how many plants you are trying to water) costs about $25-$30. Adding a timer to the system ($20-$40) will eliminate the need to remember to water your garden. Using drip irrigation on a timer for our raised bed vegetable garden was really the only reason we were able to harvest any vegetables during the drought of 2012 at our house.

If you have never grown edible crops, or even if you have, consider planting at least one container this year. Nothing says you have to plant an entire patio full of edibles, but you might be surprised at how satisfying growing your own food can be, and how much you can harvest in a small space. Grow along with us by reading the "Buckets, Bales and Bushels" blog at


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