Fresh At Your Fingertips: Container Gardening

You don’t need a green thumb or even a garden to grow your own great-tasting vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Here are the secrets to success.

The shelves at supermarkets today are overflowing with produce from all over the globe. But the flavor can’t compete with that of vegetables, fruits, and herbs grown right in your backyard. That level of freshness can easily be yours. 

You don’t need a large plot or any land at all to enjoy the taste and satisfaction of eating your own garden-fresh food. The secret: containers. Most vegetables and herbs, and many fruits, thrive in containers on a sunny patio and produce a healthy harvest for you to enjoy. Here are the tips you need to get started. 

What to Grow in Containers

Entry-level: If you have time or room to grow just one food, choose cherry tomatoes, says Scott Meyer, author of “The City Homesteader.” Plants pump out dozens of sweet little fruits week after week from early summer to fall. Look for container varieties with vines that stay small yet productive in a confined space; Tiny Tim is one good example. The best slicing or paste tomatoes for containers are “determinate” types because they tend to be compact. Peppers (sweet or hot) and lettuce (choose looseleaf rather than head varieties) are reliable options for containers, too.

Herbs of all kinds are exceptionally easy to grow in pots, even if all you have is a sunny windowsill, suggests Cathy Garagozlo, a landscape designer and MyPanera member from Gaithersburg, Maryland. “Herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage need very little attention or even water, so they’re perfect for novices.” Basil needs steadier moisture but is very pot-friendly. 

Intermediate: From late spring into summer, you can pick handfuls of strawberries from a simple pot or, even better, an attractive, multitiered container designed just for them. Choose a “day-neutral” variety, such as Tristar, for a long, steady harvest. 

Advanced: Even if you live in a temperate climate, you can pick your own Meyer lemons or Kaffir limes, extra-flavorful gourmet varieties, from dwarf trees growing in pots. When the weather is too cold for them, you just bring them indoors. 

How to Grow in Containers

Container choices: Herbs fit into small pots, especially on a windowsill. Vegetable plants’ roots need room to support a sturdy, productive top, so their containers should hold at least 10 gallons of soil, and containers for fruit trees should hold 20, says Chris McLaughlin, author of “Vertical Vegetable Gardening.” You can choose from terra-cotta, ceramic, stone, galvanized metal, or plastic pots, but they must have drainage holes on the bottom so that the plants don’t drown. 

Soil: Fill your pots with a blend of equal parts peat and compost (you can buy both at home centers). Potting soil works, too, but don’t try ordinary soil you’ve dug up yourself. Avoid bagged soil that comes with fertilizer included—those synthetic plant foods (usually blue or green crystals) stimulate too rapid, unhealthy growth for the limited space. 

Sun: Vegetables that bear fruits you pick—like tomatoes and peppers—produce best when they get 10 hours of direct sun each day. Lettuce and other salad greens, along with herbs, need just six hours of daily sun. 

Start: Little seedlings you buy at your local garden center are the easiest way to begin.  (Lettuce and other greens are started from seeds.) Moisten the soil before planting. 

Water: Check the soil daily by pushing your finger, two knuckles deep, into the soil. If it’s dry at your fingertip, slowly wet the soil until water runs out the drainage holes. Wait until the soil is dry before you water again—plants that stay constantly wet are unhealthy. 

Feed: The compost in your soil mix will give your plants a healthy dose of nutrients, so don’t fertilize them until after you notice that they’ve begun growing. Every seven to 10 days, feed vegetables and strawberries with natural fish-and-seaweed fertilizer (sold in home centers and nurseries), a liquid concentrate you dilute and sprinkle on the plants. Stop feeding when the first fruits appear. Don’t bother to fertilize herbs except basil.  

Renew: You can clean out and reuse the same pots from season to season, but refresh the soil by mixing it with new peat and compost.