How to Grow Food in Containers and Small Spaces
Whether you live in an apartment or have a very small yard , you can still increase your food security and do a little homesteading of your own . A kitchen garden ( growing the food you eat ) is completely attainable in containers .
What Should I Grow ?
Think about what you and your family regularly enjoy and choose those veggies and herbs that are prolific or more expensive at the grocery store . Some vegetables offer one harvest from one sowing , like beets , carrots , and corn , and others produce until the weather isn ’ t favorable anymore , like peppers , cucumbers , and kale . Don ’ t be afraid to mix in some flowers to attract pollinators , too ! They will “ bee ” especially helpful if you grow fruiting crops like squash or tomatoes .
Tips to make the most of a small space
Grow up ! Growing vertical is an efficient use of space for vines like tomatoes , beans , squash , melons , cucumbers , and peas . Using trellises , cages , and fencing also saves your knees , puts harvest within arm ’ s reach , and increases airflow to plants , which reduces the risk of fungal diseases . See our DIY Tomato Supports blog for a low-cost , easy , way to construct a sturdy trellis .
Smart spacing Sow crops in successions . For crops that offer a one-time harvest , like carrots or radishes , thin seedlings to half the suggested spacing . Harvest every other plant when they are half grown for baby carrots and beets . In the spaces between , sow radishes or cilantro between the rows . Quick to sprout , radishes not only mark where you ’ ve planted and where you need to water but will also be harvested before the other crop is large enough to feel crowded . One more tip :
Planting in a staggered triangular pattern is more space efficient than rows or squares .
Start indoors Many crops can be started by seed indoors and transplanted out shortly after . This can save time in the garden bed , leaving room for something else to grow .
Sunlight Full sun ( over 6 hours a day ) allows you to grow any vegetable your heart desires , as long as the container is big enough .
Partial shade ( 4 to 6 hours a day ) to shade ( no direct sun ) will still work for leafy vegetables ( e . g . kale , lettuce , Swiss chard , spinach ) or any herbs . With less light , you can expect crops to take a little longer , and any vibrant reds may fade a bit as plants adapt their leaves to photosynthesize in lower light .
Planting Medium A professionally-made planting mix or potting soil that holds both moisture and air space for healthy roots is preferred to outdoor soil that may contain pests and diseases . Read the bag instructions carefully ; if there is a big price difference between brands , there is probably a reason . Some contain nutrients that will save you some time and money in fertilizer , and some may be certified organic , which may be important to you . If you know an experienced gardener , ask them what their favorite is and why . Gardeners love sharing tips !
Container Size and Material In this case , the old adage , “ bigger is better ”, is almost always correct . Similar to goldfish , plants can grow only as big as their container allows , and the bigger the plant , the more the potential harvest . Also , bigger containers require less frequent watering and insulate the roots against temperature fluctuations . How big is big enough ? Here are some general ideas on how big a container should be : Root crops need a minimum depth of 12 ” but at least 18 ” for long carrots ; tomatoes need the space of about a 5-gallon bucket ; peppers need 3 to 4 gallons ; lettuce ’ s roots are shallow and grow in just 4 ” of soil , but 6 ” is better ; squash also need about 5 gallons of soil . We ’ ve seen a lot of items reused as planters — cowboy boots , rusty wheelbarrows , broken pots — gardeners are a thrifty and creative bunch .
Want to use a really big container but worry about being able to move it or about the cost of all the soil to fill it ? You can place a turned over plastic pot or recycle some packing peanuts in the bottom to displace some of the soil . You ’ ll save on potting soil and water , and your container will weigh less , too . Clay pots tend to dry out faster and are heavier than resin or plastic pots , but that can be an advantage if you live in a wet climate , or have plants like rosemary that does best
when it dries out between waterings . Dark colored pots will collect more heat which can cause the potting medium to dry more quickly but is also an advantage in a climate with cool nights — just something to keep in mind when choosing your color palette . One key element all containers should have though , is drainage .
Watering Keep the soil in your containers consistently moist to the surface when plants are young , and let them dry to the depth of your first knuckle as plants get established ( unless pots are small ; keep them moist to the top ). Apply water until you see excess water flushing out of the bottom of the container to make sure there are no dry spots . When plants get larger , if you notice your pots need water daily , they could be rootbound and need a larger container .
Containers that are really full , very small , or in sunny and windy places will need water more often , maybe twice a day ! Watering in the morning or evening is ideal . Plants that have consistent moisture , instead of periods of drought , will stay pretty healthy , and productive longer .
Maintenance Remember the potting medium you chose ? Does it have fertilizer in it ? If not , you should add some granular fertilizer or plan on feeding plants with a liquid fertilizer when they have a few sets of leaves . Even if it does have
fertilizer , it is a good idea to start using a liquid fertilizer after a couple of months when nutrients have likely been used or washed out . Granular fertilizers generally last longer ; however , liquid fertilizers have a more immediate impact and you can change them more easily throughout the season . For instance , a tomato plant at first needs a good amount of nitrogen to get big and strong but then we switch to a phosphorous-rich fertilizer to boost flower and fruit production . We ’ ve got a whole article on which fertilizer to choose that can help guide you .
Harvest frequently and scout for any damage or pests regularly . Also , remove yellow and dying leaves to expose plants to more sunshine in .
Great container varieties Don ’ t rule out crops you thought were too big for containers .
Summer squash , bush-type winter squashes ( acorn types ), “ Spacemaster ” or lemon cucumber , beets , carrots , kohlrabi . Add alyssum or borage , too , for color and fragrance while attracting beneficial insects and pollinators . Swiss chard , “ Redbor kale ,” or “ Red Giant ” mustard will add beautiful , edible color and texture to make your container plantings decorative .
Article by Botanical Interests . Printed with permission . For more tips or to find select raised beds for 20 % off , visit our Steve ’ s Ace locations on JFK or in Peosta . •