Container Gardening: How to Grow Food With Limited Space

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Container gardening is ideal for those with little to no garden space. Even if you live in a condo or apartment and are limited to your patio, you can still produce many different vegetables

Anything that can be grown in-ground can be grown in a container garden. This writer has grown potatoes, squashes, greens & herbs, pumpkins, cucumbers, and even tomatoes in containers. In this article, I’ll discuss the different types of containers I’ve used, what I like & don’t like about each, and what’s best suited to grow in each type. 

Cloth bags

Cloth bags for container gardening come in various sizes, from 10 to 45 gallons. They are marketed as potato bags, smart pots, and some garden walls.

Smart pots are often made of stiff felt and used to give trees a home until conditions are right to plant them. I.e., warmer weather and soil temperatures.

Potato bags can be made of medium plastic or fabric. I use both for growing potatoes, although the larger bags are suitable for many things. Potato bags drain well, and my potatoes produce. But the plastic bags don’t last more than a season or two. Also, bags are more suited to indeterminate potatoes than determinants, but we work with what we have. 

Garden walls are hanging pockets made of thick felt. The felt can better retain water and release it slowly to achieve ideal soil conditions.

Self-Watering containers

Self-watering containers, or SWCs, have a reservoir in the bottom that holds water. The water wicks up through the soil, keeping the plants from drying out and sparing the gardener having to water every day. The reservoir is filled via a small tube on the side. There’s usually an overflow option, allowing the container to be drained. Most that I’ve seen are made of heavy plastic, which I like. I’ve had my Earth Boxes for more than five years, and they survived a Wisconsin winter outside. That’s sturdy! 

While I love the size and mobility of my Earth Boxes, I am not a huge fan overall. If I have a rainy summer, the soil never has a chance to dry, leaving my plants with wet feet. That, of course, leads to root rot, stunted growth, and low productivity. Gardeners in drier climates may have more use for these when container gardening. I drilled holes in the bottom to improve drainage. As of this writing, that’s an experiment in progress.

Stackable containers

Stackable containers tend to be smaller and allow for the use of vertical space. They’re more suited to greens and herbs in my experience. However they are a very viable option for container gardening in small spaces. There are many great options available—like this Happy Place Products garden tower or this self-watering one from Mr. Stacky

Elevated containers

This type of container has legs and tends to be waist-high. They can be made of wood or metal or a combination of those. They also come in many sizes; VegTrug ranges from one to two meters in length and has a triangular bottom for growing root crops. Wooden containers may need to be treated with a food-grade sealant. Metals should be kept away from the soil or be non-reactive to avoid heavy metals poisoning. 

The big advantage here is not having to bend over. I’ve grown various plants in my elevated bed, from potatoes, carrots, and radishes to broccoli and cauliflower. 

Green walls

Garden walls are made from a variety of materials and allow the gardener to grow vertically. I’ve seen everything from a sheet with pockets reminiscent of a shoe rack to stacked window boxes. You can repurpose pallets and two-liter soda bottles to make these. Several single pots inserted into a wireframe on a wall works great. There are many DIY tutorials out there you can check out. The only limit is your imagination! 

Soil best suited to container gardening

Containers have different needs than raised beds, so they need the appropriate soil. I find either potting mix or a mixture of that with garden soil works well. Containers tend to dry out quicker than either raised beds or in-ground gardens, but the medium mustn’t be so heavy that the plant’s roots can’t grow through it. Plants in containers will also use nutrients more quickly. Surprisingly enough, potting soil doesn’t have the nutrients one would expect.

My personal favorite, MiracleGro Potting Mix, is a mixture of sphagnum moss, bark fines, coconut coir, perlite, and plant food. Plant food tends to be NPK and ignores the micronutrients, all of which are as important as the Big Three. Good to know when choosing soil for your container garden. 

Lessons in Container Gardening: Potting Soil Nutrition 

I’ve used MiracleGro for many years with good results. Plant food added, right? That’s got to be good! It never occurred to me that the additive included only NPK. Surely soil has everything a plant needs to grow, right? Wrong!

A few weeks ago, I was puttering around in my garden, training my squash plants to grow up the trellis, when I noticed this very cool variegation on a few of the leaves. I enjoy variegated leaves in my house plants. But wait, this can’t be right! The leaves were losing pigment between the veins, classic leaf chlorosis. While the veins were still green, the rest of the leaf turned yellow—a sign of classic nutrient deficiency, either nitrogen or magnesium.

Since my potting soil has nitrogen added, I thought the culprit was likely magnesium. Magnesium is a critical nutrient to enzymes within the chlorophyll, so the deficiency results in leaf chlorosis. Thankfully I have a fertilizer containing magnesium, calcium, and iron. So, I mixed some in water and immediately applied it to the container. I applied another dose a few days later, including all of my containers for good measure. Doing so resolved the problem, and my squashes are producing! 

Are you ready to give container gardening a try?

With a little planning you can have your own vegetable garden right there on your balcony. And, once you have your first harvest, Daisy’s pdf book “The Seasonal Kitchen Companion” can help you store, prepare and preserve those goodies!

What would you like to plant? Have you already grown an amazing garden in that little strip of sunshine? Share your success with other readers! Let’s get growing!

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Amy Allen

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  • Its hard to grow a garden here in Florida, we have had raised beds for a while, but I found it hard to keep the soil nourished. So we started growing in containers and buckets. We have so far had pretty good luck, but it gets so hot and humid, plants will struggle but we found a solution!! Just move your buckets around to prevent that leaf burn, only water in the morning, and keep an eye on pests, right now we have an invasion of giant grasshoppers, they will eat your garden overnight, have to stay on top of that. Herbs do really great, and pests don’t seem interested in them. Gardening is good for the soul.

    • I’m glad you’ve found a solution that works for you! Have you considered shade cloth for the leaf burn? High tunnels or row covers might also help keep the insects out. Those grasshoppers sound pretty scary though! Giant, huh? Wow!

      Gardening is good for the soul 😀 It was my rock during last year’s lockdowns and no less so this year. Soil has antidepressant microbes, which helps. Happy gardening!

    • We have a division of the Toad Army. Cockroaches, crickets, and all sort of similar pests have no business in our patio. My mom never liked them (she has some sort of phobia to frogs, indeed) but they´ve proven themselves really useful. Toads rule!

      • The toads eat the other pests? That rocks! Few things are better than a biological control. I use my carnivorous plants to eat my house flies and that works really well too. There is, in fact, a technical term: Integrated Pest Management. This is better than pesticides 😀

        • Dear Jayne,

          Sure they work! I´m in touch with an specialist on Achiote production, he knows even what tree and bush species to plant nearby to attract insects that predate on the Achiote trees natural enemies. Awesome!

      • Aren’t toads great? This is the first year in a long time we haven’t had a resident toad. Likely because I didn’t do an inground garden this year.

    • I also live in FL and the lubbers have been bad! We are coming out of the usual growing season now. Sweet potatoes do well in the heat as do several varieties of greens. Many people start preparing their Fall gardens now.

      If you live in Central FL, there is a very active Facebook gardening group with tons of helpful suggestions! Also, I keep window box style planters on my patio with green onions. Just use store bought green onions and plant the remaining bulb. I can usually get about 5 or so in one planter. They will produce for a very long time!

      • Karen, are you speaking about the “Grow Gainesville site”?

        We are in North Central Florida. We have semi-tropical summers but a few frosty winter nights. So we grow our citrus trees in large pots and bring them into the barn when the temp falls below 32 degrees. Lime, lemon, and Tangerine.

        • Actually it is the Central FL Fruit and Vegetable Gardening group. Not sure what zone Gainesville is in but we are ,9B. So much information on this group!

  • I have been trying gardening for the first time in containers on the terrace of my condo. Can you please help me with the name of the cherry tomatoes in the pictures? They are just hanging off the pots and have lots of beautiful cherry tomatoes on them. No trellis needed!
    My cherry tomatoe seeds needs a trellis and is really a big problem and expense. The name of the seeds in your pictures with this article would be a HUGE HELP to me.
    Thank you and love your articles. I Just discovered you this month.

    • Sandy,

      Thank you for your kindness! Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of that particular variety of cherry tomato. However, I would think that just about any cherry that will grow in your area can be grown in a hanging basket. Have you tried your favorite in a basket? If you have and that doesn’t work, I’d speak with greenhouse growers in your area and possibly your local Extension office. Hanging down should generally serve the same function as a trellis, which is to keep the fruits off of the ground. I don’t see why you can’t grow a variety of cherry tomatoes that way.

  • I’ve grown in containers off and on for years. This year I am only doing containers, no in ground garden. Yes to Miracle Grow potting soil, it is all I will use after less than good results with other stuff. Two things to add: Mulch your containers. It helps hold moisture in and keep weeds out, just like in your garden. You still need to water more frequently. Secondly, you need to fertilize more often/regularly. While I amend at planting time, I still fertilize weekly early on, biweekly once production begins. I have used Miracle Grow fertilizer in the past. This year I am using a liquid fish emulsion. Seems to be doing the job. Another trick, I make sure to put a few earthworms in each bucket. Not sure how much difference it makes but it sure can’t hurt! They help aerate the soil. I recently read you can bury some food scraps in your buckets to help feed the worms.

    • Thank you for the helpful hints! While I’ve never had a huge problem with weeds in my containers, I have noticed the need for fertilizer more this year. I use standard 10:10:10, worm castings, and the micronutrient fertilizer with magnesium, iron, and calcium. Many plants are heavy feeders. So why not feed them, right?

      I saw a video of a guy who puts earth worms in his containers. He swore by it. Again, why not? Garden and learn!

  • The Amazon links in the article are to Spanish pages, and reset my site settings to Spanish every time I click on them.

  • Another bonus to container planting is that you can take them with you of you bug out – if you have the room that is.

  • I am in north Florida and have been growing in the felt grow bags for 3 years. Deer will get anything out in the yard so I grow in bags right beside my porch. I had 74 bags this year. I use Miracle Grow potting mix too. This was my first year trying to grow broccoli and cabbage from seed and I mastered it. I had cabbage to give away, and none of my neighbors wanted it. They dont like cabbage. I am drowning in tomatoes right now and giving them away. I grew peas, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, celery, bell peppers and strawberries. If you have not tried Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, please do. They turn orange, not red, and they have a tangy taste. I stand in the yard and pop them in my mouth hot off the vine. And their plants do vine. Two of them have outgrown their cages, and I swear they are trying to come in the kitchen window. Tomato pie is on the menu for tomorrow. My garden is done except for the peppers and tomatoes. Stink bugs are my #1 pest.

    • 74 bags is huge! How do you water them? And have you considered giving some of your extra to a food bank? That’s what I do with mine; lots of people in need these days. Your garden sounds awesome! Thanks for sharing.

      • I watered my 74 bags with a hose-end spray nozzle stuck right down in the bag. It was back breaking to do but it’s better than pulling weeds, which I don’t have in bags. I live too far away from a food bank to drive there and donate a dozen cabbages. I just cut them up and added to the compost heap so they can benefit me in another way. Next year, I will stagger my seed sowing so they aren’t all ready at the same time. I don’t have any trouble giving away tomatoes in my local area. Frost nipped my first tomatoes, so I bought more plants. Then the frost-bitten ones recovered and actually made bigger, more bunched plants than the newly bought ones by having been “pruned” by frost. If I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. I am not growing for the food. I am growing to learn one or two new things a year. Last year, I learned how to grow my own sweet potato slips. The year before, I learned to grow early peas. We mostly eat field peas here in the south, so that was new to me. I learned they take up too much room for the amount of peas gleaned and I would do better to grow field peas. In a SHTF scenario, I would want to grow what gives me the best output for the space and energy I am using.

  • Hi ,

    You have written such a unique article on container gardening. The idea of using cloth bags is amazing, I will definitely going to try this. Truly said, that to grow vegetables someone doesn’t need a bigger space. Instead of that we can also grow our vegetables in the container which is a good option for small spaces. Second part which i like most in your article is self watering containers.I think this is good idea for watering our container plants when you are away from home for holidays. Your article is very informative for all gardeners. I love gardening and want to share some information with you and other readers regarding if you are growing tomatoes in container than how to get rid of black worms on tomatoes plant. you can read here It will help you to get rid of worm on tomatoes.

    Looking forward for more blogs like this from your side. I think we all gardeners should exchange information with each other to get more and vast knowledge in gardening.

    Ben Martin

  • I have used Grow Tower Project for container growing. It works very well. The spin option really helps with equalizing sun exposure. The earthworm composting center tube helps with aerating and fertilizing too.

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