DIY Container Gardening Ideas for Growing Vegetables
Container gardening is a highly effective way to grow your vegetables. And it's growing in popularity. This is especially the case in urban areas where space is at a premium. It's a perfect option for tenants who don't own their own land but want to grow food. As a renter, you can't take an in-ground garden with you when you move. In fact, you may not even have a single square foot of yard. But with containers, people are using decks, patios, walkways or even rooftops!
- Container Gardening for Beginners:
- Benefits of Container Gardening
- DIY Container Gardening Ideas
- How to Grow Vegetables in Containers
- Tips for Growing Plants in Containers
Benefits of Container Gardening:
PORTABILITY: Container gardens are perfect options for renters since they don't have to relinquish their garden if they move. In fact, even homeowners stand to benefit from the mobility offered by a potted garden. What if you find that sunlight levels are too intense or too shaded? You can easily move your plants to a more suited location. If your plants get too crowded, you can space the containers further apart for optimal lighting. This is great when you're first starting out and you're not experienced with ideal plant spacing.
SOIL CONSERVATION: A plant with an 18" canopy might be grown in an 8" pot. Compared to a raised bed, you can cover a larger area with plants while requiring much less growing medium. It's relatively easy to throw some bags of potting mix into the trunk of a car and you're quickly under way. An easy way to start out small.
FLEXIBILITY: No soil? No problem! You can place pots on decks, driveways or patios. In fact, pots can allow temperate growers to enjoy tropical trees or cold sensitive herbs. Rosemary and lemon trees can be brought in during the winter, and thereby maintained for years! Annual vegetables like peppers can be brought inside for a night to avoid damage from a late Spring frost or an early Autumn freeze.
DISEASE CONTROL: If the native soil on your lot is harboring pathogens, plants can be protected by being grown in containers. If a soil borne infection happens to infect a potted plant, it is limited to a single container, rather than an entire plot. With multiple containers, you can alternate the plants grown in each container from season to season. This makes crop rotation easy to do on a small scale.
PEST CONTROL: Pots discourage snails and borrowing pests like voles or other rodents. Also, since they are up off of the ground it is easy to keep rabbits away!
PLANT CONTROL: Growing plants in containers can be an effective strategy for plant control. Some plants can spread aggressively through underground stems or rhizomes. Raspberries and blackberries can quickly colonize an area and might extend further than desired. But there are containers varieties that can be more easily managed in large pots. Fruiting shrubs and even some fruit trees can be further controlled within the confines of a container. A container grown tree can be dwarfed in this way, allowing them to fit in tight spaces.
Video: Urban Gardening Tips for Renters:
Self-Watering Containers / Rooftop Terraces / Community Gardens
DIY Container Gardening Ideas:
There is a nearly endless amount of ideas for the types of containers that you can use for growing. That includes both retail plant pots in addition to DIY gardening containers. NOTE: These ideas pertain to general outdoor container gardening. For ideas about seed starting containers, be sure to read this page!
WOODEN GARDEN PLANTERS: Probably the most iconic of any wooden planter design is the classic wine barrel style. Oak wood barrel planters may be appealing as they are made from genuine used wine or whiskey barrels. They add a rugged, rustic look to the landscape. Oak is a hard wood and you can expect it to last a reasonably long time.
TERRACOTTA / CERAMIC PLANTERS: Terracotta or ceramic planters are similar in some ways, but they do have a few distinctions. Terracotta is a porous material. Plants grown in terracotta will get better root aeration as the pots inherently offer good drainage. These are great for succulents or Mediterranean herbs. Ceramic pots typically have a glazed coating. Such coatings may be quite decorative, but they also reduce water permeability. Both pot materials come at a premium price as the pot sizes increase. The weight goes up as well. But they still have an element of fragility. For this reason, I prefer to use them indoors only. All it takes is one severe weather event and your outdoor terracotta or ceramic pot might need replaced.
RETAIL PLASTIC POTS: Plastic containers are much lighter than terracotta or ceramic pots. They also tend to cost less money making them more affordable. At the same time, consumer grade plastic garden pots are typically made from UV resistant materials. That means they can hold up for many years in direct sunlight without disintegrating. And you may find pots that have attractive designs or patterns that beautify your landscape. If you're growing food in a plastic container and you want to use food safe plastics,
RESIN vs PLASTIC POTS: Resin planters have many similarities to plain old plastic ones. They are lightweight and available in a variety of styles. The UV inhibitors create a colorfast finish that resists fading. Resin pots will likely cost more than traditional plastics, but they hold up even better under extreme temperature shifts, making them a great option for an outdoor garden.
Some manufacturers brag that their "resin" planters are totally different from plastic ones. They falsely claim that linear low-density polyethylene (their resin material) is not plastic in any way. LLDPE is plastic. It's a very specific formulation, but it's still plastic. LLDPE has higher tensile strength, impact and puncture resistance than other plastics. Plastic resins can also be made from high-density polyethylene.
HANGING POTS: Hanging pots and containers are solid options for both ornamental plants as well as some vegetables. Because hanging pots are suspended high off of the ground, they are completely untouched by pests like slugs, snails, groundhogs, rabbits and other small vermin. One thing to bear in mind is that hanging plants may need watered fairly frequently. And watering rate will only increase as plants get larger. Some hanging container designs may have built in water reservoirs which will help a little.
WINDOW BOX PLANTERS: Window boxes are a perfect way to grow a few plants in tight spaces such as up against the window of your house. Cascading crops or flowers can add a beautiful splash of color. Some window boxes are much deeper than others. The deeper the box, the larger then plants it will support. They will not need watered as often. And the potting mix will not run out of nutrients as quickly.
REPURPOSED GARDEN CONTAINERS: Repurposed or upcycled planters are a fun and easy way to container garden. Probably the only major caution is to make sure that you don't use old containers that were used to store hazardous or toxic chemicals, especially when growing vegetables. But as long as the container is set up to allow drainage from excess rainfall, there's not much else to worry about. These are free, so they're a great way to get started on a budget. Just be aware that many plastics will eventually get brittle and crack after years of sunlight exposure.
SELF-WATERING GARDEN CONTAINERS: Regardless of the form they take, self-watering containers are excellent upgrades to standard container gardens. You can buy retail self-watering containers or planter kits. But it's pretty easy to just make your own DIY wicking buckets or totes. Either way, the plants will thank you for ensuring that they don't dry out during hot summer days.
How to Grow Vegetables in Containers:
CONTAINER MATERIAL: A porous material like terracotta or ceramic is going to dry out quicker than a plastic pot. If you like the look of a terracotta, you could always place a plastic pot inside of it.
CONTAINER SIZE: A larger container will increase your potting mix requirements & costs. But the benefit is the ability to support more or larger plants. Nutrients will not be depleted as quickly. Moisture levels will not fluctuate as much and you won't have to water as often. Larger containers with wider bases are more stable and less likely to get blown over in a windstorm.
POTTING MIX: Note: we are talking about potting mix. Do not use garden soil or top soil. You do not want the soil to quickly compact. Instead, look for a mix that is light, porous & water retentive. It may contain peat moss, wood bark and/or coir (coco). It will have perlite in it too. This pages talks even more about potting materials.
Avoid using clay, sand or compost (vermi-compost is ok). Some people have successfully grown in compost / sand mixes. But a sand based mix makes for a heavier container. And compost itself comes with a broad range of components and physical characteristics. I don't suggest taking such an approach until you've gained some experience and you are generating your own personal supply of compost.
DO POTS NEED DRAIN HOLES? Your container is going to be outside. You cannot control how much rain falls. So you MUST have drain holes in your container. Add them if they aren't there. No drainage, means no air. If roots get water logged then they soon die. That will be the end of your glorious container vegetable garden.
SHOULD YOU USE DRIP TRAYS? With indoor potted plants, drip trays protect your floors or counter tops from water puddles after watering. But in the outdoors, drip trays are purely optional. Sometimes I'll use them. Often times I just toss them aside. Drip trays can help slightly to reduce run off from over-watering potted plants. They're especially useful for rehydrating potting mix which was allowed to get too dry.
However, depending our the overall container design, drip trays might prevent your pots from freely draining. If the potting mix is constantly sopping wet, then this can stress and even kill many plants. If you observe excess moisture levels, then I advise tossing the drip tray aside and inspecting the drain holes to ensure they're not plugged up. From my experience, the taller the container, the more useful drip trays seem to be. But shallow pots will have a high perched water table. If they sit in a waterlogged drip tray, you can expect most plants to fair badly.
Tips for Growing Plants in Containers:
#1 TIP: DON'T LET THEM DRY OUT! My number one most important tip for container gardening is that you should not let the potting soil get bone dry. Yes, it might happen. And you might be able to rejuvenate the planter. But if you can avoid it at any cost, please do so. Once the potting mix gets that dry, most plants will be wilting and experiencing quite a bit of stress. But the problem doesn't stop there.
After finally hitting them with water, you might find that the water simply runs out through the sides of the planter. That's because the soil shrinks in volume as it dries out. This leaves gaps inside the sidewalls, making it harder to rehydrate the mix. And if you have a peat moss based potting mix, things will be even worse. Peat moss is notorious for becoming hydrophobic once it gets dry. As a result, it tends to repel water, rather than absorbing it. So boost the rehydration properties of your potting mix, adding coir or coco to the mix can be very helpful. Vermiculite is also very good at sucking up water.
ROOT CIRCLING CAN IMPACT PLANT HEALTH: Root circling is viewed as an inevitability for container-grown plants. For annual vegetables, the problem might not be an issue. For long-lived potted plants, some plants may eventually get root bound as plant health starts to decline. Misshapen roots are particularly concerning for perennial plants like trees. Eventually the roots can start to girdle and choke the plant at its root collar. For plants that will be grown long term in pots, you might need to refurbish the root ball every few years by trimming off externally circling roots. But for plants that are intended for inground planting, air pots are a great way to ensure healthy root structure. Read more about how air pots work here.
DORMANCY REQUIREMENTS (TROPICAL vs TEMPERATE PLANTS): With annual vegetable crops grown in containers, things are simple. You plant them at the start of the growing season. Then once the season ends, you rip them out and start all over again. But if you are growing long lived perennial potted plants, you need to understand their dormancy requirements. Tropical plants do not have genetic requirements for dormancy. They adapted to growing in a warm climate year round. That's something that makes many tropical plants ideal for growing indoors where the temperature is always kept constant
Many temperate plants are genetically programmed to undergo a dormancy period. As Autumn approaches and temperatures cool down such plants undergo physiological changes that prepare them for the freezing Winter temperatures. Trees losing their leaves is a prime example. Some plants absolutely require a sustain period of cold dormancy. That's why plants like Japanese maples cannot be grown indoors year round. So whether it's a little bonsai or some large potted fruit tree, you'll need to know its dormancy requirements and who you'll accommodate them if needed.
HEELING IN POTTED PLANTS: Potted plants are more susceptible to temperature swings. Because they are elevated above the soil surface, potted plant roots will freeze faster than in-ground plants. This can reduce the zone hardiness rating for a plant. How many zones are reduced for potted pots? You should plan for zone hardiness to be reduced by two full zones. So in growing zone 5b, don't expect potted plants to survive the winter unless they are zone 3b hardy or colder.
Of course, there are ways to improve potted plant survival outdoors. Select a somewhat sheltered location near a wind break. Don't pick low-lying area where water tends to collect or pool up. Next to the foundation of your house or garage is a great idea. Then, at the end of Autumn, you can dig down into the soil an partially bury the base of your potted plant. Or alternately, you could stack the potted on the ground, packing them between wood mulch to form a continuous mound.
SHALLOW CONTAINERS CAN BE GOOD: Although there are many advantages to larger, deeper containers, shallow pots can be good too. When propagating plants, pots with low side walls might be perfectly adequate. They can help to conserve potting mix, reducing input costs. Shallow bulb pans are ideal for dividing and propagating ground covers which don't have deep root systems. Sometimes the plants simply need surface area to spread out. A shallow pot can get the job done.
Although container gardening offers a lot of flexibility, it has its drawbacks. The biggest downfall is the increased need for watering. In your pot, you need good drainage, but you also need to have good moisture retention. Creating a sub-irrigated, self-watering system is really the best option you could hope for. See the Self-watering Garden Planters page for ideas!