This ‘vegetable container gardens for beginners guide’ came about because I wanted to learn how to grow my own food but lived in an apartment. I thought I needed a small garden plot or else was limited to growing mushrooms in containers under the sink.
Not only can you grow flowers and decorative plants, but ‘useful’ plants like vegetables and fruit.
This guide will teach you all about growing vegetables in containers. We cover everything from container sizes, material types and alternative-style containers, to what vegetables go well with which containers.
You’ll be playing a vegetable and container mix and match game, and it’s sort of fun. As well as learning how to start, nurture, and take care of your new container vegetable, of course!
- Why Grow Vegetables in Containers?
- How to Choose a Container
- Easiest Vegetables to Grow in Containers
- Vegetables by Container Size
- Vegetables by Alphabet
- Companion Vegetables
- Container Material
- Types of Containers
- Potting Soil
- Fertilizer and Nutrients
- Watering Frequency
- Where to Place Your Container
- Plant Supports
- Closing Thoughts
Why Grow Vegetables in Containers?
Here are all the advantages of growing vegetables in containers rather than traditionally, in the ground.
- Doesn’t need much space – grow vegetables in pots in your apartment or on the balcony, rooftop or patio. You could have one pot or a whole container garden on your balcony.
- Don’t need much money – container gardening is cheap. A seed packet, a container, some potting mix and a bit of water is basically all you need to start.
- Easiest way for beginner gardeners to start – container gardening is the easiest way to learn gardening. You only have a tiny plot (in other words, your pot), to manage.
- Good for mobility issues – if you can’t bend to tend the garden, containers are perfect. You can put them somewhere easy to reach. Gardening will be fun and painless.
- Don’t worry about soil – the quality of your garden soil doesn’t matter a single bit! You’ll be using potting mix.
- Goodbye, weeds – okay, almost goodbye. Weeds can still get into your pot if you place them outside, but they’re much easier to handle than weeds in your garden.
- Saves water – container gardening doesn’t need much water unlike a garden.
- Lots of vegetables to choose from – many vegetables can be grown in containers. We will go into a lot of detail on what vegetables to pick very soon.
How to Choose a Container
In general, there are only two main things you need to consider when choosing a container.
- Container size
The perfect container size is simple to work out. Once you’ve decided on the vegetable you’re going to grow, you need to look at its adult or mature size, including the root system. Don’t forget about your plant’s roots!
Some vegetables have deep roots, which means your container will have to be very deep.
You want to pick a larger container, rather than smaller, but not too large. A larger container that comfortably fits the adult vegetable inside once it grows is the perfect container.
Why a larger container? Because small containers dry out quickly and you’ll have to water extremely often. Pick a larger container and the soil will retain water for longer.
In the vegetable section, we’ll tell you what size container to use for what vegetable. Seed packets will often state this too. A good guide is to pick a container with a diameter 1.5 times the diameter of the plant’s adult roots.
Any container you choose must have a drainage hole at the bottom. It’s a common problem to overwater your plant when container gardening, so this is especially important. If the soil gets too soggy, the plant’s roots will rot.
Check that your container has holes. If it doesn’t, drill some at the bottom. It can either be one large hole or many small holes.
Also place a plate or saucer underneath the container to collect the excess water. Otherwise it will make a mess of your balcony, or your carpet if you have your plant indoors!
Easiest Vegetables to Grow in Containers
When deciding which vegetables to grow, always go for what you will eat. Not only will it be more exciting to look after, but you’ll get a tasty vegetable at the end of it.
For beginners, the easiest edibles to grow in containers are herbs such as thyme, basil and parsley. You don’t even have to start with seeds, as you can easily buy these in pots all ready to go.
Lettuce, spinach, arugula and salad greens are also easy to grow in containers.
Vegetables that are great for containers include tomatoes, carrots, beets, peppers, beans and radishes. Here’s a top ten list on the easiest vegetables to grow in containers.
Vegetables by Container Size
Now we’ll list all the vegetables you can grow in containers, according to container size. Some vegetables appear twice – that is because they can be grown in different sized containers.
You can also go directly to the vegetable you want here.
In case you need it, here is a helpful reference table to convert between pot sizes in inches, gallons and liters.
1 Gallon Container (Small)
Diameter: 6-7.5”, equivalent to 4.6L
The 1 gallon container is not the smallest you can go, but is the perfect container size for beginner container gardeners. It’s not too small where you have to worry about it drying out or running out of growing space. And not too large so you can easily move it around.
One gallon also fits many vegetables comfortably and you can start from seeds. Any of these will do well in a 1 gallon pot. Only plant one plant per pot.
- Green onions
- Swiss chard
- Tomatoes – Dwarf varieties
5 Gallon Container (Medium)
Diameter: 10.5-12”, equivalent to 22.7L
This container size is still easy enough to move around, and you can grow medium-sized vegetables. Generally only plant one plant per this container size unless otherwise stated.
- Beets (4 plants)
- Bush beans
- Carrots (10 plants max)
- Onions (4 plants)
- Peppers (2 plants max)
- Radishes (10 plants max)
- Tomatoes – cherry and determinate bush tomato (don’t grow indeterminate varieties as this container is not big enough for the full tomato plant)
20 Gallon Container (Large)
Diameter 17-21”, Equivalent to 90.9L
This is a small to medium trash-can sized container suitable for slightly larger vegetables.
- Broccoli (2 plants max)
- Bush beans
- Cauliflower (2 plants max)
- Pole beans
- String beans
- Zucchini (summer squash)
Vegetables by Alphabet
- Arugula – 6” diameter, 8” depth (1 gallon container)
- Beets – diameter as wide as you want for more plants, 12” depth (2 gallon)
- Blueberries – 25” diameter, 24” depth (20 gallon)
- Broccoli – 12” depth (5 gallons per plant)
- Bush beans – 15” diameter, 6” depth (2 gallon)
- Cabbage – 18” diameter, 12” depth (5 gallon)
- Carrots – 12” depth (2 plants per gallon)
- Cauliflower – 15” diameter, 12” depth (3-5 gallon)
- Celery – 10” diameter, 8” depth (5 gallon)
- Cucumbers – 12” diameter, 8” depth (5 gallon)
- Eggplant – 12” diameter, 12” depth (5 gallon)
- Green onions – 8” diameter, 6” depth (1 gallon)
- Herbs – 6-10” diameter, 5-12” depth (depending on the individual herb’s root depth)
- Lettuce – 10” diameter, 6” depth (1 gallon)
- Melon – 14” diameter, 16” depth (5 gallon)
- Okra – 10” diameter, 10” depth (5 gallon)
- Onions – 8” diameter, 10” depth (5 gallon)
- Peas – 12” diameter, 8” depth (3-5 gallon)
- Peppers – 12” diameter, 10” depth (3-5 gallon)
- Pole beans – 18” diameter, 8” depth (18 gallon)
- Potatoes – 16” diameter, 15” depth (3 gallons per plant)
- Radishes – 6” depth (1-2 gallon)
- Spinach – 14” diameter, 6” depth (1-2 gallon)
- Strawberries – 8” diameter, 6” depth (1 gallon)
- Swiss chard – 6” depth (1-2 gallon)
- Tomatillos – (5 gallon)
- Tomatoes (full size) – 18” diameter (determinate varieties), 24” diameter (indeterminate varieties), 12” depth (20 gallon)
- Zucchini or Summer squash – 24” diameter, 12” depth (5 gallons per plant)
You can plant different vegetables together in the same pot. Here is a full guide on which vegetables go well together, and which don’t.
Apart from size, the material your container is made out of can have an impact on plant growth.
The most traditional-looking plant pot. It’s a red-brown color and heavy. Terracotta is porous which means it absorbs water. This is good if you overwater, but it also means your plant could dry out faster than if you used another material. This is easily fixed by using a pot liner.
The material is porous which means air and water can flow through the pot’s material. Depending on the plant, this could be exactly what you want. There is also a large drainage hole at the bottom. Another con is that terracotta is hard to move around because it’s heavy. And if it’s cold, it can get brittle and break.
Ceramic is like terracotta, but glazed with lacquer. The lacquer makes the material essentially waterproof, so there isn’t the problem of soil drying out like unglazed clay or terracotta. But, just like the opposite, there is the problem of overwatering and water getting stagnant.
Make sure to get a pot with drainage holes, because some don’t come with one. Also, ceramic is very pretty because it’s painted. You can pick a design you fancy!
Wooden pots or planters look natural and work well, the only problem is that they rot after a few seasons.
Concrete lasts forever, still looks good and retains heat very well – it has good insulation. Its main disadvantage is that it’s not environmentally friendly to produce. It also leeches lime which could affect plant health, making soil more alkaline.
Cheap and light but plastic production is bad for the environment. It also takes a very long time to break down. In terms of your plants, plastic can also release chemicals that may harm the plant. Be sure to choose a safe, food-grade plastic.
Strong, high quality, lightweight and flexible, fiberglass is made by spinning glass into a resin. It’s a new kind of material that is still cheap and helps plant health. For example, it can block UV rays.
Both terracotta and ceramic come from clay, which is the raw material. A glazed clay pot is basically ceramic, and unglazed clay behaves like terracotta.
Metal is strong and can look good, but production is not environmentally friendly and metal gets very hot. This could dry out the soil or damage plant roots.
Types of Containers
Now that you know all about container materials, let’s see what types of containers are available.
Also called sub-irrigation containers.
Self-watering containers make gardening very easy. There is a reservoir at the bottom of the pot, which you keep filled with water. A wick is placed inside that sucks up water from this reservoir and delivers it to the potting soil, right at the plant roots.
With this system, the soil never dries out as the ‘wick’ does the job of soaking up water when the soil needs it. This is also more efficient as water goes to the plant’s roots directly rather than having to filter down from the top of the soil.
Here’s more on how self-watering containers work.
DIY or Cheap Containers
You can grab any old container lying around and start growing vegetables in it. But do cut some drainage holes in the bottom. And if it’s plastic, make sure it’s food-grade or safe to use.
Some items to get creative with include toy bins, baskets, food containers, old pots and pans, buckets and wheelbarrows.
Hanging Baskets and Window Boxes
When there’s no space on the ground, or if you want some beautiful greens up at eye level, try either hanging baskets or window boxes. Window boxes are typically placed outside windows, but don’t have to be. You can hang these planters on rails, on the staircase, anywhere you like.
Any plant that doesn’t have deep roots and isn’t too large will work.
Some vegetables and fruit to try include: strawberries, herbs, lettuce, salad greens, green onions, and spinach.
Fill your pots with high quality potting mix or potting soil. Definitely do not use soil from your garden. Soil from the garden has pests, diseases, sticks and rocks that you can conveniently avoid with container gardening. Why take away one of container gardening’s biggest advantages?
Because pots and containers are tiny compared to a garden, you need to pack nutrients and high quality soil into the tiny pot. There is nowhere else that plant can get what it needs to thrive and bear fruit!
High quality potting soil is light and fluffy, not compact like garden soil. This helps to aerate the soil so the plant can get oxygen. For vegetables, fill the entire pot with potting soil or potting mix. Do not use stones or anything else to fill the bottom.
Fertilizer and Nutrients
Along with quality soil, you will need to feed additional nutrients to the plant. This is because every time you water the soil, you wash some of the soil’s nutrients away. You need to make up for this loss by consistently adding nutrients.
This could be compost that you buy or make yourself, or liquid fertilizer. You can buy liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion fertilizer. This smells horrible but is one of the best things you can feed your plants. The instructions should tell you how often to use the fertilizer. Generally this is every few weeks.
Many container plants must be watered twice a day. In a traditional garden roots can reach deep into the ground to gain access to water, but in a pot, what the plant gets is what you feed it. The soil must be moist, and overwatering and underwatering is always a problem.
The best way to give the correct amount of water to your plant is by using a self-watering container or drip irrigation system. These don’t cost too much to set up but will save you much time while ensuring the plant thrives. The plant will receive water only when it needs it. Just remember to keep the reservoir topped up.
Where to Place Your Container
Three things to keep in mind:
- Sun – most vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun per day. Salad greens and herbs, less. Remember you can move the pots around to more sunny spots as the day progresses.
- Not windy – container plants, especially seedlings can die from too much wind. Keep the container in a sheltered location. Some wind is okay, but don’t let it get battered.
- Easy access – put the pot somewhere easy for you, so you don’t forget about it.
Big containers, once filled with soil, are difficult to move around. For these containers, place them in the best location right away as they aren’t as portable.
Don’t forget about using a plant support for vegetables that need it. You can use a trellis, stakes, nets or twine for climbing plants or ones that need more support. Examples are peas, beans, tomato plants, and vine plants like cucumbers and melons.
Planting vegetables in a container is easy. These are the steps:
- Decide on vegetable and buy seeds (or transplants)
- Find a suitable container according to the vegetable. Make sure there’s drainage holes.
- Put the container in a good location if it can’t easily be moved later
- Fill the container with high quality potting soil. Pat down but not too tight.
- Place seed
- Cover seed with the soil (look on the seed packet for depth)
- Water the container daily (or twice daily) so soil remains moist. Note that after sprouting plants may not need as much water. Always check soil moisture by placing a finger in the soil about an inch in.
- Add fertilizer every few weeks
That’s it for vegetable container gardens for beginners! It’s really that simple.
If you’d like to learn more about traditional gardening, in the ground or in raised containers, we’ve written a how to begin gardening for beginners guide.
Want to grow edible flowers? Here’s our what flowers are edible guide.
And if you want to eventually make money from the vegetables you grow, we cover that in small farm income ideas.