JUNE 2003
Texas Cooperative Extension, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas



Veggies in Containers

From the National Garden Bureau

A Crop of Containers. Gardening in a container is much like gardening in the ground; think of it as simply using a smaller "plot." No need for a large yard to enjoy your own garden of edible delights. Use space on your deck, patio, or windowsill to display pots, hanging baskets and window boxes of vegetables and herbs. Start a garden in a pot anytime during the gardening season from early spring (for cool weather crops, such as peas and lettuce) to late spring (for warm-weather vegetables and herbs, such as beans, tomatoes and basil) through midsummer (resowing peas and lettuce for fall harvests). Planting and care require a minimum of time and effort.

Follow these guidelines to help you select the best pots and plants for your needs, whether you are a first-time gardener or an experienced pro.

From the Bottom Up. Drainage is essential when you garden in containers. Few conditions will harm plants faster than soggy soil. Select pots with holes in the bottom or sides, so excess water can escape. If a pot lacks holes, drill three or four in the bottom. Raise containers without saucers off the surface of a deck or patio by placing them on decorative "feet" or pieces of wood. If you place saucers under containers be sure to empty water from them.

Choose large pots, such as half-barrels and 12-24-inch-diameter planters, and deep window boxes to provide sufficient space for plants' roots and to cut down on your watering chores. The soil in large planters dries more slowly in hot weather than soil in small containers. The latter can lose moisture so quickly in the heat of midsummer, you need to water daily, sometimes twice a day. Opt for plastic or composition planters instead of clay; even though terra cotta pots look very decorative, their porous nature allows water to evaporate from the soil fast.

Use a potting mix that drains well, such as a soilless medium. Soilless mediums are lightweight, an important consideration if you want to move your containers around after planting. To help the mix retain moisture you may want to add water-holding polymer crystals to the soil before planting. That may sound contradictory, but it is not. The polymers absorb moisture and release it as the soil dries; they do not waterlog the soil. Add a time-release fertilizer, which will feed plants throughout the growing season.

Planting Time. Many vegetables and some herbs grow best when you start them from seeds you sow directly in the container such as beans, carrots, peas, radishes, turnips, cilantro, and dill. Warm-season plants, such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and basil, get a headstart if you sow them indoors and transplant the seedlings into a larger container after 6 to 8 weeks. Of course, you can purchase bedding plants at a garden center. Still others thrive with either method: spinach, lettuce, cucumber, and basil, for example.

When you combine bedding plants and seeds set the plants in the container first; then sow seeds around the edge or in empty spaces among the plants. Seed packets tell you the correct spacing and whether or not you need to cover the seeds with soil. (Some seeds need light to germinate.) With the exception of tomatoes, set plants in the container at the same depth or just slightly deeper than they were growing in their pots. You can bury tomato plants up to the top two or three pairs of leaves; roots will form along the entire length of the buried stem.

Provide support for vining plants, such as tomatoes, pole beans, and cucumbers. Stake or cage tomatoes when you put them in the container. For pole beans and cucumbers, erect wooden trellises, trellises covered with netting, or build tepees with 3 to 4 bamboo poles tied together at the top.

Water the containers thoroughly when you finish planting. Keep the soil where you sowed seeds evenly moist until seeds germinate. Thin seedlings if necessary to the correct spacing for mature plants by cutting off the weakest looking ones at the soil surface.

Spread a 2-inch-deep layer of mulch over the soil surface, after germination if you start with seeds. Mulch, which provides a decorative, finished appearance to any planting, helps the soil conserve moisture and prevents rain or hose water from splashing soil up onto the plants' leaves. Choose any mulch that is readily available or that looks particularly attractive with your container such as shredded bark.

Container Garden Care

  • Water planters as needed, which may mean daily in midsummer. To test soil for dryness, poke your finger into the soil; if it feels dry to a depth of two inches, water. Save time and effort by hooking up a drip irrigation system designed for containers; most garden centers carry them.

  • Fertilize every two to three weeks, unless you added a time-release plant food to the soil. Food is especially important when plants such as tomatoes and peppers begin to flower.

  • Harvest ripe fruits promptly so plants continue to produce new growth.

  • Near the end of the season, protect your contained crops from sudden frosty nights by covering them with burlap or light blankets. If you tend only a few pots, bring them indoors when low night temperatures are forecast. Most vegetables slow their growth and fruit production as the heat and duration of sunlight subside going into fall; many herbs, however, grow well and continue to form new leaves on a very sunny windowsill indoors.

    (Reprinted from National Garden Bureau 'Today's Garden.' Eleanore Lewis, author)

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