Looking for an easy way to get started growing food at home as a beginner? Don’t have much space or time? Start a container food garden today!
Container food gardens are becoming quite popular as not everyone has the space, time or money to build, plant and care for a large raised bed or traditional in-ground beds.
And if you rent you really don’t have a choice if you can’t use the backyard or you live in an apartment.
Containers are very versatile, can be matched to your existing outdoors decor and are easy to manage for a beginner.
This article breaks down the steps to create your first container food garden. And there are lots of tips to save money and make taking care of the garden easier.
The supplies you need for a container food garden
The first step is to pick out the container you will grow in.
Almost anything that can hold soil can be used as a container, so long as you can drill some drainage holes in the bottom.
Free is good and you can find all kinds of free or relatively inexpensive containers.
- 5-gallon plastic buckets which you can get from a restaurant (they receive various food staples in these)
- Plastic storage bins such as what you use for storing clothes, Xmas decorations, etc.
- Wooden crates
Or you can buy planters and containers at a nursery, garden centre or even your home centre.
- Plastic: these come in all shapes and sizes, generally inexpensive, ligthweight but do break down over time from UV rays in the sun, you also have the option of buying hanging baskets
- Terracotta: these are the classic brown-coloured planters (although some now come in different earthy colours or can be painted), tend to be heavy, can dry out quickly and will break if dropped
- Ceramic: these are the best-looking generally but can break if exposed to freezing temperatures
- Metal: very durable if stainless steel or galvanized, can heat up too fast in the sun, metal also includes wire hanging baskets but these require a special liner (often made either of moss or coconut husks)
- Stone, cement: match well if your house has a stone foundation or you just want that rugged, natural look, they retain heat from the sun into the night, but very heavy, prone to breaking
- Resin: this is an alternative to plastic that generally looks better, these can be heavy and more expensive
- Wood: a more natural, rustic look, can be durable if a rot-resistant wood is used such as cedar, redwood, teak, oak is used.
Have enough room for a 2’x3′ planter or two? Consider building the Children’s Garden Planter Box by purchasing the eBook of the same name. Not just for kids, for adults too. And it’s perfect for a patio!
Next is soil. Here you want to avoid using regular garden soil as it will tend to be heavy and not drain well.
Instead use a good potting or container soil that you can get in bags. You can also use a good compost so long as it has a fine texture.
To determine how much soil you need, measure your containers’ length, width and height on the inside. Multiply those three numbers together to get cubic inches or centimeters. Then you can convert to quarts/gallons or litres (which is how most bagged soil is sold) by typing in “1000 inches to quarts” in Google search. It’s a bit more tricky with round or oval containers. Just go with the length and width as a rectangle that encompasses the circle. You will have some extra soil, but that’s handy as the soil in the container will sink a bit when you water it.
As for plants, it will depend on the size of your containers. Large containers can grow almost any food crop. Smaller containers are more suited to small veggies such as radishes, lettuce, green onions, etc., most herbs and strawberries if you want fruit.
Use square foot gardening spacing as described in this guide to figure out how many plants can go in each container. You also can mix and match, even creating what I call a salad container garden which I covered how to create in this video.
If you want to grow root vegetables such as beets, carrots or parsnips, or a staple crop such as potatoes or sweet potatoes, make sure to have a deep enough container. 12” is a good depth for most, but you may want to go to 16” if you want to grow regular sized carrots or a decent amount of potatoes.
For beginners I would recommend buying seedlings at your local nursery or garden centre. You might also be able to get some from friends who have a large garden – usually they’ll have seeded too many! You can also start seeds in containers but it does take longer and baby seedlings need a bit more care.
Seeds you can again find at your local nursery, garden centre, even your grocery store or you can order them by mail order.
How to pick the right location for a container food garden
There are a few factors to consider when looking for a spot to put your containers. The good news is that most containers except very large ones can easily be moved if at first you pick the wrong location.
Convenience is key to caring for and harvesting your food crops. If you have a deck or balcony or patio close to the kitchen, this may be the most convenient spot. You can just nip out to grab a few tomatoes and lettuce for a fresh salad or some berries for breakfast.
However keep in mind sunlight exposure. Except for greens such as lettuce and mustards, most plants require 6-8 hours of sunlight at a minimum per day. Here is a handy graphic that show the minimums. Obviously if your plants can get more all the better.
You mainly will need to look out for trees and buildings that block the sun. And you can of course have some containers in full sunlight while others are shaded a bit, again depending on what is planted in each.
And you want your containers to be located where you also have easy access to water. More on that in the Caring section below, including some tips on how to make watering easier.
How to plant up the container
- Make sure your container has holes. If not, choose a 3/8” drill bit and a drill to drill holes. Be sure to use appropriate safety equipment such as safety glasses or goggles, a face mask as some materials are quite dusty and hearing protection. Drilling in wood and plastic is easy, but in ceramic, metal and stone you need special drill bits and a powerful drill. If possible buy these containers with holes already. I recommend drilling holes about 2-3” apart, the number depending on the size of the pot.
- If the container holes are quite big, you can cover them with coffee filter paper, fibreglass mesh screening or cotton cloth or cheesecloth to stop the soil from falling out but still allowing water to drain out.
- Place a drip tray or saucer underneath. If the container is large, you may want to place it in it’s final location as it will get quite heavy once you add soil, plants and water it. If placing on a wooden surface, elevate the saucer and container on small pieces of wood or you can get special “pot feet”, so that you don’t rot out the surface prematurely.
- Fill in the soil to about 1 inch/2.5 cm from the top rim.
- Plant your seedlings or direct seed. Keep in mind the plant spacing for square foot gardening. Also put plants that are taller towards the back so they don’t shade the shorter plants if you’re planting multiple types of plants in one container. Usually you want to plant seedlings at the same depth they were in the container you bought them in. However tomatoes can be buried with only their top truss of leaves showing – strip off the rest of the trusses below that.
- Water in your plants well. If seeding, use a very fine spray to moisten the top of the soil. You don’t want to have your seeds swim away!
- You can also mulch your containers with a fine mulch, such as bark mulch or compost.
Caring for your container food garden
There are a few things you need to do on a regular basis to ensure your garden does well and you get decent harvests.
Containers will dry out faster than an in-ground or large raised bed garden. While you might be able to count on regular rain showers to keep your plants wet enough, you might also have containers under an overhang that keeps the rain off.
So the most important care routine is regular watering of your containers. Frequency will depend on the size and type of container, but mainly dependent on how hot and dry the weather is. Warm breezes tend to dry out containers faster as well. In hot, dry weather you’ll need to water at least once a day but in some cases twice a day.
Time of day doesn’t matter too much. Some say to water in the morning to prepare the plants for the hot day, others say to water at the end of the day so that the water doesn’t evaporate that quickly. However if you have cool nights, you may find some disease problems such as mildew or mold forming as the plants sit in damp soil all night.
For a few containers you can water them with a watering can or even a bucket of water with a small yoghurt container as a dipper. Water until you see some water coming out of the drain holes. Lifting small containers or hanging baskets will also tell you if they’re well watered as they’ll be quite heavy.
For a larger container garden, using a hose with a fine spray nozzle will save you some time. Or automate watering with a drip irrigation system. Some are made especially for container gardens with clips and such for anchoring the feeder hoses to a wood deck. Here is a great kit I recommend from Amazon:
The other important care routine is to fertilize your containers regularly. Over time when watering your containers every day, nutrients in the soil will be washed away.
Fertilize at least monthly, if not biweekly. If using organic fertilizers there is a low risk of over fertilizing, but fertilizer costs money so you don’t want to fertilize if you don’t have to.
I prefer using liquid emulsions for containers. There are lots of options and here are some with links to buying them online through Amazon if you can’t find them locally:
Follow the directions on the bottle to make sure you’re mixing at the right proportions. I use a measuring cup (from cough syrup bottles) and mix the fertilizer and water in a watering can. You can also spray these fertilizers, getting them on the leaves for what is called foliar feeding. But your main goal is to ensure the roots of your plants have food to take up, so replacing your normal watering with fertilizing is crucial.
You can also buy organic granular fertilizers that you spread on top of the soil and work in lightly with a garden cultivator, your hands or even just a regular fork. These are less instantaneous than the liquid fertilizers in that they slowly break down in the soil each time you water. So they do last longer. Follow the recommendations to add the right amount based on the surface area of your containers. If you can’t find a good organic granular fertilizer, you can always order from Amazon:
If you do decide to use non-organic fertilizers it’s crucial that you don’t over fertilize as you can burn the foliage or the roots of your plants and they will die.
Getting rid of the occasional weed is relatively easy in a container garden. The soil typically is more loose than in a traditional garden so weeds should pull out easy. And if you used a sterilized potting mix, you’ll find the only weed seeds you’ll get are from birds or seedlings that you bought.
Keep on it though. If you let weeds take over your food plants will suffer from competition for nutrients.
Mulch will also help suppress any weeds and makes it easier to pull them out.
Pests can be a problem, although certain crawling pests may have a harder time getting to your plants as they have to crawl into the container.
Flying pests are the main issue. You want to encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs, spiders, lacewings, etc. that eat the “bad” bugs that eat your plants.
There are also certain flowers you can plant in containers either with your food crops or in separate containers close by. Plants such as marigolds and nasturtiums help and also add some colour to your container garden.
The good thing about containers is that you can find pests more easily plus they are less likely to spread to other containers if the containers are a bit further apart.
To control pests, sometimes just a gentle blast from a garden hose will dislodge them. Or for bigger bugs, hand-picking is the easiest way.
There are also soap solutions you can make that suffocates the insect pests. But you do have to be careful you’re not killing the beneficial insects too.
You also need to be on the lookout for diseases. These can spread quickly to neighbouring plants in the same container as usually there is less space between plants. Plus soil-borne diseases can wipe out a whole container.
Pruning dead plant material and diseased plant material is the key way to reduce diseases spreading. If you see any browning leaves or leaves that are moldy or mildewy (a mottled white appearance) you can safely remove them, either with clean pruners or snapping them off with your fingers. Often a plant can have up to 1/2 of it’s leaves pruned off if needed.
Also for fruiting plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, be sure to remove fruit as it ripens (more on that below) and don’t let it rot on the plant.
Finally you may have to simply toss a plant that is overtaken by some sort of disease. Otherwise it will infect everything else in the same container or in neighbouring containers. In some cases you may have to toss the soil as well and sterilize the pot and start over again.
Harvesting from your container food garden
Harvesting of course is the reward for taking care of your plants over the course of several weeks and months!
And it’s so convenient from containers. You’ll find the veggies and fruit are much cleaner and generally easier to pick. Plus if you literally have the container right outside your kitchen door, you have such easy access to fresh produce.
It’s important to keep up with harvesting as mentioned earlier. Check daily or every second day for what can be harvested.
For detailed harvesting info here are two articles:
The harvesting techniques and advice in these two articles apply just as well to container grown food crops as to raised or in-ground beds.
So there you have it. That’s how easy it is to grow food in containers. Starting and caring for a container food garden is a great way for a beginner to start.
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Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC
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