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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

It's easy to get stuck creating the same container gardens year after year, especially if you overwinter plants like I do. I usually overwinter several non-hardy plants in my attached garage without any problem. But this particularly frigid and snowy winter made even my garage too cold for a few of my favorite plants. So although I didn't plan it, this year is an opportunity to create an entirely new group of containers for my patio.

It's quite by accident that the demise of these plants coincides with new demonstrations of small space vegetable gardening that we have set up at the Piatt County Extension office. We have all sorts of container vegetable gardening represented—from purchased containers designed for vegetable production, to repurposed buckets, gutters and wooden pallets. There are more options than we have space. That's where our patio comes in, much to my husband's dismay.

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. I'm excited to expand my experience with containers this year.

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 1-2 gallons of soil. But using more than 1-2 gallons of soil will make it easier to keep up with water needs.
  • 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.

In order to avoid the same problems this year, our container vegetable gardening demonstration is watered via drip irrigation. 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.

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. For example, some of our container gardens have a 1 GPH emitter attached. If the water runs for one hour, each container will receive 1 gallon of water. If it ran for half an hour, each would get one 1/2 gallon.

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.

I will use the same drip irrigation system on my patio, but I am trying a few different containers and plants than what we have on display at the Extension office. I will be growing eggplant, tomatoes and peppers in standard containers as well as self-watering ones. I want to compare the yield from these plants with those planted in raised beds in my garden, which is also under drip irrigation.

I'm also growing a couple of plants that are unusual for this area, no matter where you plant them: peanuts and figs. I know it is possible to grow peanuts in central Illinois, as I have eaten some grown in Decatur in past years. Whether they will produce anything in a container remains to be seen. I also have a 'Petite Negra' fig that I know will produce many delicious figs in a container, though it is not winter hardy and must be brought inside. I have a winter hardy fig that while beautiful, has only produced a handful of edible figs in nearly 10 years. My hardy fig tends to die back to the ground each winter and spends most of the summer re-growing leaves and stems rather than figs each year.

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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