What to Know About Container Vegetable Gardening

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on June 16, 2022
5 min read

Growing vegetables in containers allows you to grow your own food, even if you only have a small space available. Container vegetable gardening also gives you freedom to move your plants around with the seasons and can even brighten up a room.

A container garden is when you grow plants in a pot or planter, or anything that can hold soil and a plant, instead of growing it in the ground.

Almost any vegetable that grows in a backyard bed can be grown in a container. You may want to look for specific varieties that are best suited for container vegetable gardening. Some of these include:

  • Green onions, like Beltsville Bunching and Evergreen Bunching
  • Lettuce, like Bibb, Dark Green Boston, Buttercrunch, and Romaine
  • Eggplant, like Long Tom, Florida Market, and Black Beauty
  • Tomatoes, like Tiny Tim, Tumbling Tom, Pixie, and Saladette
  • Squashes, like Diplomat, Dixie, Gold Neck, Early Prolific Straightneck, and Senator
  • Peppers, like Canape, Jalapeno, Keystone Resistant Giant, and Red Cherry (Hot)
  • Radishes, like Scarlet Globe, Cherry Belle, Icicle
  • Carrots, like Thumbelina, Gold Nugget, Scarlet Nantes, Little Finger

You can even grow different plants together. This saves space and creates a beautiful container assortment. Some plants you can try growing together include tomatoes, basil, and onions, lettuces, and herbs. Some plants that don’t grow well together are tomatoes with potatoes and dill with carrots.

Type of container. Almost any container can be used for vegetable container gardening. For example, you can use cut-off milk jugs, barrels, or even pieces of drainage pipe. 

Pots made of clay are porous, which means that the potting soil dries out more quickly. Plastic pots tend to hold on to more water. This could be a good choice for plants that love moist soil or if you tend to forget to water your plants regularly.

Whatever container you grow vegetables in, make sure that it drains well. Add drain holes at the sides of the container, about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch from the bottom.

Size of container. The size of your container determines the space available and type of vegetable you can plant in it. It’s best to choose a container that’s as large as possible. Small containers tend to dry out more easily, so they need to be watered nearly every day.

Here are recommendations for container soil depths for some vegetables:

  • Shallow-rooted vegetables like lettuces, radishes, and green onions: 6 inches to 9 inches
  • Moderate-depth vegetables like peppers, broccoli, chard, and kale: 12 inches to 18 inches
  • Deep-rooted vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and squashes: 18 inches to 24 inches 

Soil mix. It’s best not to use soil straight from your garden, as this may have too much clay. Clay holds moisture when wet, which means that it doesn’t drain well and the plant roots won’t get enough air.

The best soil mix for vegetable container gardening is a good-quality planting mix from a garden store. These are often made specifically for container gardens. Some potting mixes may have fertilizer premixed in. In this case, make sure not to overfertilize.

Fertilizer. When you water your container vegetables, the nutrients leach out of the soil and need to be replaced. So container vegetables need some light fertilizer to grow well. There are two ways to fertilize container vegetables. You can add a slow-release dry fertilizer to the soil, or you can use a water-soluble fertilizer every time you water.

If your potting mix has premixed fertilizer, your plants should have enough nutrients for 8 to 10 weeks. If your plants grow for longer than 10 weeks, feed them with a water-soluble fertilizer at the recommended rate.

Follow the recommended amount and rate of fertilizer. If you add more, this may kill the plants or cause fertilizer burn. Container plants don’t have large amounts of soil to protect from overfertilizing. 

Sunlight. Pick a sunny spot for your vegetable containers. Most vegetables grow better in full sunlight. Plants that bear fruit, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, love sunlight and need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. They do better if they have 8 hours to 10 hours of sunlight.

One advantage to container vegetable gardening is that you can move your containers to places where they can get the best possible growing conditions.

Watering. Plants in containers can dry out quickly, as the amount of soil is relatively small. Check the containers daily by sticking your finger into the top inch of soil. If it feels damp, you don’t need to water. If it feels dry, water until some of it runs out of the drainage holes at the bottom.

Putting mulch on top of the potting mix can help reduce water loss. Some examples of mulches are:

  • Straw
  • Grass clippings
  • Moss
  • Compost
  • Shredded bark 

A drip irrigation system on a timer may be a good solution if you’re away often or forget to water plants regularly.

If your plants are located on a hot patio, you may want to put the containers on pallets or structures that allow air movement underneath the pots. This means they won't have direct contact with the hot concrete floor.

Things to watch out for. Container grown vegetables can be attacked by the diseases and insects that are found in vegetable gardens. Check your plants periodically for insects and diseases.  

During severe weather like storms, hail, or heavy wind, move your plants to shelter.  

If you don't have outdoor space for containers but have a bright sunny window, you can try indoor container gardening. Herbs are often a good choice for indoor gardening, as they’re less demanding than other vegetables. Try chives, parsley, and cilantro.

Some small-fruited varieties of tomatoes and peppers can also be grown indoors. They need bright and warm conditions. If you want to plant fruiting vegetables indoors, you’ll need additional light, like fluorescent lights. If these plants don't have enough light, they may fail to flower and fruit.

Some other indoor container vegetable gardening ideas are radishes and small-rooted varieties of carrots. You can also experiment with different types of lettuces, like Tom Thumb butterhead and leaf lettuce.