How to grow vegetables in containers

Last year I did an experiment in container gardening. I had planted 4 varieties of tomato plants, 2 of each plant. One of each variety was planted in the garden and the other in a container. We all know that you can grow certain vegetables in containers, but I intended to discover if container grown tomatoes produced as much fruit, less or even more than the same plants grown in the ground.

pepper plants growing in containers

The experiment was going better than I expected all through summer. Most of the plants were producing equal to or better than the ones in the garden, with the exception of 1 variety. I had been weighing each fruit I harvested and had a running total going for every plant. Then I moved them off the patio for my sons going away party and forgot to move them back that night. 

The deer had destroyed them by morning. *face palm*

Thankfully I had plenty of data collected already to call this experiment a success! When planted in a similar location and cared for properly, container plants can produce the same or even better than ones in the ground. There are a few differences in caring for container gardens though, and not knowing these differences can be the reason container grown plants do not thrive.

How to care for a container garden


When choosing containers to grow in, make sure they are big enough. The larger the pot, the larger the root system can grow. It's better to use a pot too big than a pot too small. I bought the biggest pots they sell at dollar tree for my vegetable plants. They were perfect! 

There is also a difference in watering, feeding and general care of plants growing in pots versus plants growing in the ground. 

Container garden soil

It's very important to use a lighter, fluffier soil in pots than in the ground. A commercial potting soil or compost, peatmoss and pearlite mixture seems to work best for me. You want a soil that will not compact over the summer, but rather one that will stay loose.

Regular garden dirt compacts and turns hard under the pressure of regular watering. When it does this, plant roots stop growing because they require open spaces to move into and absorb nutrients. Hard, compacted soils do not grow large, healthy plants since the roots have a hard time growing through them. 

You can re-use the soil in the pots from year to year.  I dump it out of the pot and break it up with a shovel to cut up all last year’s roots. Toss the big dense clumps of roots into the compost pile to give them time to break down. Add about 10 % more compost to the pots, mix in and plant your seedlings. 

I always use compost because it increases air spaces and gives plants a boost in healthy nutrition. Plus it's cheaper than buying fertilizer for your plants.

Tomato plants growing in containers.

Staking container plants

One of the best things about container plants is that they can be moved if their location isn't ideal for growth. If they end up getting too much rain, not enough sun etc. Wire tomato cages are great for this as they can be placed in the pot as the pot is filled and planted. 

Also the thin wires of tomato cages are easy to zip tie to stronger structures to keep the whole system securely in place. I use wooden stakes for plants that don't spread as much and find them to be pretty sturdy as long as they go all the way to the bottom of the pot.

For plants that grow up a trellis like cucumber or cucamelons, the plant will not be able to be moved as easily.


Fertilizing container plants

Feed your plants weekly. Plants need nitrogen to grow but it is water soluble and as you water your containers from the top, the dissolved nitrogen is leaving from the bottom. Compost tea is the best organic liquid plant food and by making your own compost tea, your plants will respond with bigger and better blooms and vegetables. 

If you do not have a compost pile you can use a fish-emulsion liquid feed with seaweed to provide all the nutrients the plants require. If you're not concerned about feeding your plants organically you can use liquid plant food like Miracle Grow to promote growth.  


How to water a container garden


Plants growing in containers will need watered more frequently than gardens. Make sure any pot you use has good drainage, as a sudden downpour can waterlog a plant if the excess water can't drain out quickly.

No matter the size of the container, it is important to soak the soil all the way to the bottom at each watering.  Continue watering until water emerges from the pot bottom.  This ensures the roots can reach all parts of the container and grow properly.

How frequently you water your container growing vegetables will depend a lot on your weather as high heat can cause them to dry out more quickly. Check them daily, especially when experiencing high temperatures. 

Not watering tomatoes, cucumber and some squash enough can cause them to suffer from blossom end rot, so you'll want to watch out for that.


The reason I decided to do this experiment is because hot peppers never seem to do very well in my garden. I grow them in containers on another property and they are amazing! (the ones pictured) For the last 5 years I have been buying or starting from seed 4 pepper plants. 2 go in the pots in Michigan and 2 go in the ground in Pennsylvania.

The ones in the ground produced much less, but those are different climates, weather patterns etc. I wanted to see if the same thing would happen when the plants were on the same property. In this case, about 150 feet apart. I was pretty excited to see that my garden plants and container plants were producing similar amounts. 

Now to figure out why hot peppers never grow well in my garden! I'm leaning towards too much sun, but I love garden experiments so this will be fun to figure out! 

Want to learn more about growing your own food? Click here for my other posts on growing your own food, herbs and flowers.

~L


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