Container Gardening Advice
June 3, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Container gardening: looking for your wisdom, tips & tricks...

Last year, I took my first real foray into container gardening and was pleasantly surprised by how successful it turned out - many of the vegetable plants produced quite a lot more than I expected they would.

So, I'm looking for even more success! Tell me what you know about making container gardens produce as much as possible.

I've been gardening for a few years and so have a pretty basic knowledge kit as far as the general growing of things goes. But I know there are many imaginative & creative ways people have engaged with container gardening, not to mention issues specific to container veggies. That's the kind of advice I'm looking for...

I've got a smallish back yard (10x20) that faces north - it gets relatively good light during the summer.

What I'm growing:

- hot peppers (habaneros, jalapenos, cherrybombs, hungarian hot wax, super chilis)
- tomatoes (cherry)
- basil
- onions
- cucumbers
- general salad greens

Also interested if anyone has had luck with growing the following in containers:

- beans (turtle beans)
- corn
- eggplant
- pumpkin
- watermelon
- garlic

posted by jammy to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
It's worth taking a look at the EarthBox. It's a self-contained, sub-irrigated container that produces like a mo-fo*. The instructions tell you exactly what and how much you can plant in each box.

* This is my first year using them. I've got 4 going with tomatoes, cucumbers and beans and my plants are shooting up like crazy after a couple weeks... much faster than the same ones in my raised bed. They've got an active forum with plenty of testimony and pictures saying how well they work, and the reviews around the web tend to corroborate.
posted by csimpkins at 9:34 AM on June 3, 2010

Corn probably will NOT work ... you need a matrix of corn plants for them to all be able to pollinate each other, and the ones on the edges will be much smaller from less pollination. We grow a 4x4 corn bed some years, with 16 plants (spaced a foot apart), and the four in the middle are "good" corn; then the edge that most often downwind has decent corn, and the other edges have crap corn. I'm okay with this because I like watching corn grow -- it is a nifty plant -- but I'm aware I'm not going to get a corn crop for the ages.

If there are ways around this, I don't know them. :)

On the flip side, if you grow corn and pole beans in the same container, your beans will use the corn to climb up. You still might not get any corn out of the deal, but it LOOKS cool and you can explain to people how awesome you are for using the traditional method. (The VERY traditional method is corn with beans climbing up and squash crawling out ... the squash leaves help cool the roots of the other two and slow water evaporation from the soil ... this is called the "Three Sisters" method.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:57 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Garlic works fine in a container - unlike tomatoes, it doesn't have to be a super-deep box, either. For a big planter, you can use an under-bed storage bin (with drainage holes) as an herb, scallion, and garlic planter, about 7" of soil depth in a 1.5'x2.5' box; on the smaller end, windowboxes (7" deep and 8"x2-3') work well, too.

You don't mention potatoes, but I hear you can grow them in bags, starting at the bottom of a rolled-down bag, then adding soil and unfolding the bag taller as the plant grows.
posted by aimedwander at 10:10 AM on June 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I haven't attempted to grow any of the plants on your wish list, and I'm not quite sure what exactly you're asking... but I can tell you what I'm growing!

Did you know you can grow full-size tomatoes in containers? You can. (Same goes for bell peppers.) You just need to get really BIG pots. I measured mine recently for a friend - they're about 18" in diameter and 24" tall. Sure, you can grow them in something slightly smaller, but if you live in a place that has hot, nearly rainless summers like I do, you'll find yourself watering them 3-4 times a day. Bigger pots = less watering. Also, the bush varieties of tomatoes tend to need less staking for support and look nicer in containers. I've grown Better Bush (the bush variety of Better Boys) in containers the past 2 years with good success. If you pinch off the little shoots that sprout up in the 'Y' between branches, you should get the plant to waste less energy on making more branches and spend more energy making tomatoes.

Also, why not grow more herbs? Most are practically idiot proof - if I'm growing them, they have to be! I grow mint, basil, rosemary and thyme in their own medium sized pots. My dill and chives share a long narrow but shallow planter box. The chives and thyme weathered the winter in their pots just fine and are flourishing. The rosemary survived the winter fine only to die on me once the weather warmed up. Everything else I replant every Spring.

Oh, and one more you can try: strawberries. I had good luck with one strawberry plant in a medium sized container last year. It made at least a dozen strawberries, maybe more, but I didn't get to eat many of them myself thanks to the birds / squirrels / chipmunk.
posted by geeky at 10:53 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming that you're aware that successfully growing melons and hot peppers depends less on what they're planted in, and more on where you live? Here in the Pacific Northwest every year stores sell melon and pepper starts (and tomatoes, oh, the varieties of tomatoes) -- a tribute to the persistence of hope in the human heart. Of course, if you want to start fooling around with cloches and covers and greenhouses ... but still, you need that summer heat to grow a lot of things. And if you have summer heat, it's going to be a lot harder to grow things like salad greens and spinach.

I'm growing potatoes in a progressive bin this year. They're growing like crazy, but I won't know the yield until Fall. (Here's an article about it:

And along with virtually every second household in our town, we're trying upside down tomatoes this year for the first time. (Did I mention hope?)

All the varieties of summer squash have worked wonderfully in containers. They sprawl a lot, and need regular water, but they grow like crazy. Patty pan and yellow crook neck are particularly yummy freshly picked. And have you tried green onions? Nothing like what you can buy -- the biggest surprise of my gardening career so far. And you can put them in anything from beds to large pots.
posted by kestralwing at 10:59 AM on June 3, 2010

The biggest problem with container gardenign is the limited life of the soil and the lack of depth to the growing area. If you don't have access to a yard or traditional soil to grow in it beats nothing but you will not get the repeatable large yields you can with proper methods on open ground. You will need to keep much larger inputs of fertilzer and composts than you need in open ground and water much more often. Some smaller shallow rooted plants do quite good in a container-most greens, and bulbs (onions and such) do ok and potatoes can do really good with the right container, actually most of your first list is pretty good container plants. But the larger deep rooted plants not so much, corn isn't great nor will watermelon or squash or similair vines. I would have my doubts about pole beans and most brassicas(cauliflower, broccoli, etc). I also wouldn't try any tubers besides potatoes and them only in a special dedicated container (stacks of tires works well). The most important thing for containers is maintaining the soil health since you have so little soil to work with compared to open ground. I have found suburban lawns to be actually really good top soil and able to get great yields within 1 year of turning over to garden use.
posted by bartonlong at 11:02 AM on June 3, 2010

Container gardening requires some different techniques than in-ground gardening and has some limitations, but also has some big advantages. (Almost no weeding!!) It can be tough to find advice that doesn't have a bit of a sniffy attitude toward mere containers. Do yourself a huge favor and pick up McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container.

Some varieties of some veggies are better suited to container gardening than perhaps the varieties that you are used to seeing in grocery stores. The nice thing about that book I recommended is that it gives a lot of good, sound advice and examples regarding this. I have wonderful success with ichiban eggplants -- I get three a week or so at the height of the season, but if I were trying to grow those big eggplants you see in the stores, it would be very frustrating.

Pumpkin, corn, and watermelon are pretty much just ill-suited to containers. But yes, garlic is easy. And you have no cooking greens on your list! Kale and mustard greens and chard are really, really easy to grow in containers, and chard is even heat-tolerant.

I grow full-size tomatoes, too. I use 18 gallon storage containers with drainage holes drilled in the sides. Last year, when the tomatoes perished of blight, mine were absolutely beautiful -- instead of rotting in the clammy ground that helped the blight proliferate, all that extra rain just drained right out the bottom of my containers, and the sun kept the roots warm. (And I bought my starts from a local nursery so that I could grow neato heirloom varieties.)
posted by desuetude at 11:25 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

On reflection, you might try blueberries ... since they require pretty specific soil (sandy and acidic, I believe), home gardeners can mostly only grow them in containers. Ditto lingonberries. Neither is on your wish list, but both would be well-suited to containers since most home gardeners can ONLY do them in containers!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in my second year of vegetable container gardening (love gardening, still don't own a house, don't want to spend too much time improving the landlord's soil). For your beans, I would try bush beans rather than pole. I had a bountiful crop of bush beans even with four plants per pot (these were pots about 12" in diameter). Get several pots on the smaller side and sow one pot or two pots with bush beans every couple of weeks in order to get a staggered harvest (bush beans produce more or less all at once).

I found that my container veggies which need a long growing period (e.g. fennel) were much less healthy and happy than the same plants in the soil. Fast growing leafy greens, bush snow peas, and bush beans did just as well as their in ground counterparts. I would expand on your collection of quick growing vegetables (try some Asian greens to mix it up! maybe put them in a partially shaded or screened location during the summer), and scale back on your melon ambitions.

Oh, also try some green onions/ about fast growing and invulnerable!
posted by Wavelet at 12:25 PM on June 3, 2010

We have a raised garden bed (basically a wooden box with soil we purchased) and grew pumpkins out of each corner of the box. Our yard guy kept moving hte vines around (grr) so we only got one pumpkin. They take a LOT of room, so if you do plant a seed you'll need plenty of room for the vine to meander.

We plant marigolds to keep pests away and petunias for fun since they spill over the box and prettify the veggies, too.
posted by mdiskin at 7:22 PM on June 3, 2010

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