Getting Into Edible Container Growing - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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Getting Into Edible Container Growing

I discovered my love for growing food while living in gardenless apartments in busy cities. When I was working as a grower cultivating crops to supply restaurants and other sites around East London, it was container gardening that allowed me to finally grow some plants for myself.

Small, rounded carrot varieties, like this ‘Paris Market’ carrot, are a great option for containers. Photo via Claire Ratinon / Instagram.

Even if your outdoor space is paved over, rented, limited in size, or not suited to your access needs, it’s often still possible for you to grow delicious crops in containers—as long as you’ve got some sun shining down on your space.

Assessing Your Site

If you’re getting into growing for the first time, it’s worth taking some time to really get acquainted with the space you’ll be growing in (even if you think you already know it well).

Vegetables growing in a rooftop container garden. Photo by Laura Berman.

The following questions will help you imagine what kind of edible garden you could create.

  1. How much space do you have for your pots? If you’re growing in a small area, like on a front stoop or a small balcony, you might choose to focus on modestly sized crops like lettuces or kohlrabi.
  2. How many hours of sunshine does it get? A very sunny sheltered garden provides the ideal conditions for most crops, including fruiting ones such as eggplants and tomatoes. A partially shady plot might be better off filled with leafy greens and herbs.
  3. Is it sheltered from the elements or exposed to a prevailing wind? Excessive exposure to inclement weather is too much for certain crops, like climbing beans and other plants that don’t produce sturdy stems. If your space is windy, you might consider putting up a fence as a windbreak, or growing plants that are robust and not especially tall, like parsley, mint, or beets.
  4. What are your access needs? If kneeling or bending down isn’t possible, or if you use a wheelchair, you can arrange pots on a table or another surface to bring them to an accessible height. You can also use plant caddies to move containers around without lifting.
  5. If your garden is on a rooftop or balcony, is there a limit to how much weight it can hold? A large pot full of recently watered compost and a thriving summer squash can be surprisingly heavy! Also, ensuring your potted plants are light enough for you to move means you can change your mind about their position at different points in the growing season.

    Picking Your Plants

    Now, for the best part: choosing which edible plants you want to grow! There are a few rules I follow when deciding which crops to grow in limited space.

    First, I’m looking for plants that offer abundance. By this I mean that they either grow and provide a harvest swiftly, and so can be sown every few weeks for a continual supply—radishes are a good example of this—or they offer up a prolonged harvest from one plant, like tomatoes or cucumbers do. Conversely, I’d never try to grow cauliflower in a container, as they take months to develop a head to pick, only produce a few harvests, and take up a lot of space.

    Several leaves of a feathery green kale with a pink spine next to rounder green arugula leaves.
    Red Russian kale and arugula are good candidates for container growing. Photo via Claire Ratinon / Instagram.
    Eight round bright red cherry tomatoes on a vine next to several green cherry tomatoes.
    Cherry tomatoes do well in containers, especially if you try a compact variety. Photo by Claire Ratinon.

    Dwarf varieties of your favorite crops are ideal for small space growing. It’s also worth considering growing something that’s hard to find or expensive to buy—and of course, that you’re excited to eat. If you’re desperate to grow carrots, why not try a fun variety like ‘Cosmic Purple’? Or if you like making summer rolls, perhaps grow your own Thai basil.

    Below are a few other container crops and varieties I like to grow:

    Cherry tomatoes. Compact cherry tomato varieties are great for growing in hanging baskets, window boxes, and on front stoops. The Tiny Tim tomato is a tasty option.

    Dwarf French beans. French Mascotte’ is a sturdy variety that can be planted in large containers.

    Red Russian kale. My favorite kale, modest in size and tender when picked early.

    Miniature white cucumbers. This popular variety is a short yellowish white cucumber that grows on compact vines. It produces many sweet, crisp fruits.

    Cherry belle radishes. Crisp, bright pink spicy radishes that can be grown in small containers or alongside a larger plant. 

    Finding the Right Container

    Once you’ve got a sense of your space and you’ve decided what to grow, the next thing to figure out is what containers you want to use. Each material will suit different situations.

    A medium-sized khaki-colored fabric container holds three small green plants surrounded by two other small terra-cotta containers a long wooden container with purple flowers.
    Fennel plants in a fabric grow bag. Photo by Ellie Shechet.

    I use a lot of recycled plastic pots because they’re lightweight and reusable, but I’d never buy new plastic. I like the look of terra-cotta but would only use it for growing Mediterranean herbs like thyme and rosemary, as terra-cotta pots wick away moisture on warm days and would cause a thirsty plant to become dehydrated faster. Some metal containers look great, but they can heat up quickly in the sun, so avoid growing plants that are vulnerable to heat stress in them (like arugula or lettuce).

    My absolute favorite go-to container is a fabric grow bag. They’re lightweight, reusable, easy to store, and promote strong root growth. I’m on my fourth season of using the same felt grow bags and they’re still going strong (despite looking a bit shabby!).

    Maintenance & Care

    Whether you’ve got a knack for growing your plants from seed or bought plug plants from a nursery, your container-dwelling crops will need you to help meet some of their needs.

    Generally, expect to be watering your plants more frequently than if they were growing in the ground, as a pot limits the amount of space a plant can spread its roots in search of water. Multipurpose compost tends to contain four to eight weeks’ worth of the nutrients that plants need to grow, so if you’re growing crops that flower and fruit—like a tomatillo—pouring in some additional liquid seaweed or homemade comfrey tea every few weeks will provide a balanced feed to your hungry crops.

    Even your less demanding crops can develop nutrient deficiencies, so keep an eye on them and send a splash of feed their way if you suspect they could use a boost.

    These days, despite having a veg patch of my own, I still grow crops in containers every season. It enables me to make the most of the sunny, gravel-covered corners of my garden, and to grow all the extra plants I don’t have space for in the ground. Enjoy the journey—and your produce!

    Claire Ratinon is an organic food grower and writer based in East Sussex, UK. She is the author of How to Grow Your Dinner Without Leaving the House and Unearthed: On Race and Roots, and How the Soil Taught Me I Belong.

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    Image, top of page: Rebecca Bullene