How does your garden grow?
March 18, 2013 6:59 AM   Subscribe

For the past two summers we've tried porch/container gardening without much success. I think our total take last summer was four tiny carrots and about a half-dozen beans, along with some chives/green onions that stayed alive most of the summer. This summer I'd like to do better with the very limited space and time I have. Please share your favorite tips and links for growing veggies in pots inside.

My front porch is entirely south facing, so gets really good sun for the entire day. It is not enclosed.

I'm willing to do some very large containers, if necessary. I'd really like to try and find a way to do carrots in particular, but despite planting a full tub of them last year we only got about five tiny carrots out of the entire large bin. I tend to think we have a problem with squirrels, although I've never actually seen them snacking on the plants.

I've seen some pretty crazy YouTube videos of people growing fairly lush veggie gardens on their porches or patios. Have you done this? What are your tips? Best practices? Plants that grow better than others?
posted by anastasiav to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Is there an overhang on the porch? In my experience, vegetables and herbs need full sun (direct). The containers need to be out in the yard, so to speak and not under anything.
posted by Fairchild at 7:05 AM on March 18, 2013

I'd take a long, hard look at the size of your containers vs. the size of the plants you're trying to grow in them. The biggest problem I've had trying to do vegetables in containers were that all the vegetables I wanted to grow needed way bigger pots than I had, and while the plants grew in the containers I had, there was really nothing much in the way of output.

That said: take a look at this book, which offers both gardening advice and recipes. There's a small section devoted entirely to container gardening design and companion planting (some plants, if you plant them together, help repel pests away from each other), which may also help.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:07 AM on March 18, 2013

You need really, really full, direct sun for a good portion of the day, and it sounds like you have that. You need really good soil, too, not just that potting soil mix you get in a bag at Home Depot. Ideally, you'd mix the soil with some manure or compost. And, lastly, the containers need to be big. Really big. Those roots need to spread in order for you to get good production.
posted by cooker girl at 7:09 AM on March 18, 2013

Squirrels can be vicious--I've had to deal with them taking tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, among other things. They won't eat them, they'll take them and drop them somewhere. In dry weather, they might drink the liquid out of a tomato.

However, if squirrels are your problem, you'd see some production first, then the fruits would disappear before you're ready to pick them.
posted by gimonca at 7:56 AM on March 18, 2013

You may want to re-consider what you're trying to grow.

I've had great luck using drywall buckets (joint compound) and icing buckets. (Two "free" buckets you can find - ask at the bakery at the grocery store, or any hand-man type friends you know etc).

I've planted nightshade types (peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) with much success. I've bought a $3 plastic container (think 12 gallon container type) and grown zucchini very well in it. I've also had cantaloupe grow in buckets (don't get as many fruit as in-ground, but was successful)

I have had very POOR luck growing any of the supposed container varieties of winter-squash/cukes (bush varieties, or similar naming).

I don't know if beans and carrots are suited for containers. I grow my beans and peas in the garden, not containers. (And my parsnips didn't survive the moles/voles).
posted by k5.user at 8:04 AM on March 18, 2013

Thanks for the answers so far:
- There is an overhang on the porch (think big Victorian house) but we mostly put plants either on the ledge of the wall around the porch, on the front steps, or on the area around the front walk. I think they're getting full sun from sunrise until at least 4 pm, some later.
- I've been using a mix of commercial potting soil and bagged manure. I'd love to compost but I don't have the space to do it.
- I've been using very large, deep planters designed for trees (say 18" square x 24" high that we put the carrots and beans in) and some smaller-but-still-huge round plant pots designed for very large indoor plants. I can upgrade to 50 - 60 gallon rubbermaid containers if folks think that is the issue...
posted by anastasiav at 8:06 AM on March 18, 2013

One thing to consider is that in my experience carrots are very fussy. It's hard to get a good and big carrot. Any obstruction in the soil can stunt or bend a carrot. And an obstruction could just be a dirt clod. While carrots grown at home are often quite cute and delicious, I've found that they aren't worth my limited garden space and carrots tend to be cheap to buy. Things that grow well in pots -- herbs, peppers, tomatoes -- think pasta sauce! I feel like I had good luck with garlic in a pot, too. For full south exposure in a pot, you'll need frequent watering, too. And you may need some additional compost partway through the growth season. Have you looked at your library for container vegetable garden books?
posted by amanda at 8:14 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

We love using Earthboxes. They are fairly idiot proof, and you can grow a lot in a small container. I'm not sure about carrots since you're limited by the depth of the container, but there are some reports of success planting up to 40 carrot plants in one Earthbox.
posted by payoto at 8:16 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Big containers, good dirt, make sure you water regularly, don't let the containers dry out (you can mulch pots to help with this) or get too soggy so they need good drainage(so make sure the containers are lifted up a little so the water can drain out the holes and direct sunlight about 6 hours a day, oh and fertilizer and/or compost.

The main thing is to make sure you have plants suitable for container gardening, so for example with the carrots you'd want ones that don't grow very long. Beans are not easy to container grow in my experience so maybe avoid them.

Veggies that in my experience take to container growing are

Potatoes (you will need a huge planting bag and start with hardly any dirt in and add dirt as the plant grows partially burying it as it grows)
Tomatoes (you want determinate as they will grow to a fixed size), cherry tomatoes are usually good at growing in pots too.
Carrots if the right size as long carrots are super fussy about soil compactness.
mescalin lettuces
Summer or zucchini squash grown up a trellis.

Herbs are super easy to grow in pots and most love a nice sunny spot, maybe try some mint (keep well watered), basil, chives, thyme (you can't kill this I swear) or any of your favourites.

Rubber maid containers would make good beds, I've grown mescalin lettuces in one of those shallow but wide under bed storage containers with holes punched in in the bottom. The tree planters you mentioned are about the size I would use for one tomato plant, peppers or smaller cherry tomatoes can go in slightly smaller ones.

I suspect that your main problem might be water, as pots dry out very quickly if in full sun, and if against a wall or house don't get as much rain as you think. Though I am used to gardening in Australia, but it might be something you want to keep an eye on. Soaker hose on a timer run across all your pots if they are in a row are very helpful to keep water up to plants.

I could write for hours about gardening so if will stop now, but if you have any questions feel free to memail me.
posted by wwax at 8:23 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of great information at the Square Foot Gardening website- they have both a commercial site selling stuff and an educational site with information. The system lends itself very well to container gardening. There is also a book that is a handy reference and likely available at your local library.
posted by ambrosia at 8:24 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't have enough sun, your drainage isn't good enough, your pot is too small, or you chose plants that just don't like pots. Somewhere in there you have your answer... For details, there is an extremely active web forum just for container gardening. This website is what you want, trust me. You can grow ANYTHING in a container, but it's way more complicated than doing it in the ground.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 9:22 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you fertilizing? Vegetables need a lot of food. I had a very successful container garden and I fertilized the crap out of it. Miracle gro works fine and is cheap.
posted by fshgrl at 1:15 PM on March 18, 2013

Squirrels are indeed a pain. They really went after my containerized broccoli and collards this past fall. However, they ignored my chard, which did well, so I'd suggest that. I've also had good success with leafy lettuce mixes and eggplant (though I had to watch those closely so the squirrels didn't start nibbling.
posted by pappy at 1:27 PM on March 18, 2013

I've never had any luck to speak of with carrots in containers -- they do seem to be finicky. I've had a lot more luck with beets. One good thing about beets is that, unlike carrots, you can eat the root and the leaves, so even if you don't get very nice beet roots, you'll still wind up with a tasty salad (assuming you can keep the critters away).

Hot peppers do well in containers, in my experience, as do lettuce, sorrel and kale. Tomatoes will do all right in a container if and only if you select a container-friendly variety, use a large (like, preferably whisky-barrel sized) container, and really attend to their water needs. I grow tomatoes in the ground and in containers both, and I wind up watering my container plants about twice as often. If you have an Earthbox or some other self-watering container, that might not be as much of a problem. I've also successfully grown tomatillos in containers -- if you want to try that, though, make sure to get at least two, as they'll need to cross-pollinate in order to fruit.

If you want to keep squirrels from eating all of your hard work, you're going to have to get ugly. By which I mean: you need to erect some sort of barrier around your plants to make it more difficult for the squirrels to get at them, and it may not be the most attractive solution. Cute little decorative garden fencing won't work to keep anything more inventive than a rabbit out. But I have had some success protecting my own container vegetable plants by wrapping 4 foot tall chicken wire around the pots, and securing the wire to the pot with bamboo stakes.

It's nearly impossible to fully squirrel-proof a container, because squirrels are pretty smart. But you can make it annoying enough for them to access the plants in it that they give up and go somewhere else for their food; in my experience, squirrels are pretty lazy unless they are after something they really love (like birdseed).
posted by BlueJae at 2:25 PM on March 18, 2013

fshgrl: "Miracle gro works fine and is cheap."

I would recommend staying away from stuff like that and sticking with organic composts and fertilizers. The problem with MiracleGro etc is that it will kill your soil bacteria by increasing the soil's salt content with each application. Soil bacteria are essential for nutrient uptake and help plants fend off root diseases. In fact you can buy soil conditioners that will inoculate your soil with good bacteria if it's dead to start with. If you've been using stuff like MiracleGro for a while and you decide to go organic and start adding compost to the mix... nothing will happen because there's no bacteria breaking down the stuff in the compost so the plant can absorb it. And you'll have to replace the potting soil every year because of the salt.
If you use organic compost etc you can keep the soil for many years and just top of with layers of compost and fresh potting soil as needed. In fact you shouldn't even "till" the soil in your pots before replanting. Fungi and bacteria in healthy soil penetrate the volume with a web of growths that carry nutrients around. Digging up the soil in your pot to loosen it or mix in compost and fresh soil does more damage than good. Just top off and water. Carefully remove old plants and plant new ones in the hole left behind. Don't worry about roots being left behind... these will begin to disintegrate within days. We're not talking tree roots here after all.

Things that can stunt growth:
too small container (inhibits root growth)
too much water (suffocates the plant, often you'll get yellowing leaves from the bottom up)
not enough nutrients (you have to replenish by fertilizing)
too much nutrients (read up on how often you should fertilize what you're planting)

Plants usually tell you when they need water. Look at the leaves in the morning when its still cool and moist. If the leaves look good at that time then the plant needs no water. Some plants' leaves can look wilted in the heat of the day (e.g.: tomatoes) but they're actually still ok. We have potted tomatoes in SoCal in full sun in 15 gallon containers. Now during spring we water them thoroughly but no more often than every 11-14 days or so. During the heat of the summer this can go down all the way to 1 or 2 days. When we water them we soak each pot 3 times, each time until water runs out the bottom. This ensures that the water penetrates into the center of the pot and doesn't just percolate down the insides of the pots. We do this more or less the same way with most of our plants.

Someone once told me the main driving factor for people watering plants is... guilt. So people tend to water too much in general.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 6:07 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Garden is location-specific. Call your local Cooperative Extension office. They'll help you find a local gardening expert. I've successfully grown cherry tomatoes and basil in containers; for carrots I'd consider the soil mix, soil density, nutrients, water, and variety of plant. Containers get a lot warmer than the ground, so timing of planting is a lot different, and they often need a lot more water. It's almost gardening time - Yay!
posted by theora55 at 12:02 PM on March 20, 2013

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