Container gardening for the space-impaired — it’s so simple, you’ll cry over your first tomato

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Just because you don’t have a backyard or community garden plot or a whit of a clue about growing things doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the gardening fun of warm weather months. So, apartment-dwellers: let’s talk container gardening.

Now, I’m a DIY evangelist. I love nothing more than to yell from the mountaintops that projects are often WAY easier than they seem. They aren’t scary at all. And here’s the secret to gardening: Many, many plants are super-duper easy to grow. Just about any vegetable can be grown in a container, as long as you provide it with the proper nourishment, light conditions, and space.

The hardest part is getting started. Many of these plants have born fruit under the care of generations of people less smart than you. The truth is: basic veggies are dead fucking easy. If you can be a bit empathetic to them, you’ll go far.

Let’s get started.

Choose your plants

Start now! If you want to grow things like tomatoes and bell peppers from seeds, you’ll need to start them soon. Many seed packets instruct growers to “start indoors _____ weeks before last frost.” Here’s info on last frost dates in the US — I’m unable to find info on frost dates in the UK and Europe, but your local garden center should be able to help.

Start with these plants, and add other species as you see fit.

  • Herbs like basil, thyme, catnip, mint, rosemary, oregano and coriander are easy to sprout and maintain and are delicious additions to your diet — and they are SO MUCH CHEAPER to grow than to buy. In my neck of the woods, sprigs of cilantro sell at market for $3-$4 and only last a few days in my fridge. A packet of seeds can be as little as a buck. AND come early fall, you can dry and save them for winter use.
  • Tomatoes do well in containers, and often produce enough to share with friends. I prefer growing them from seedlings, not seeds — they’re a bit more expensive but worth the savings in time. You can buy seedlings in any nursery from about the end of March through the end of April. My friend recommends the Topsy Turvy planter — I’ll either buy or make one to save space this summer.
  • Bell and hot pepper plants are similarly easy to grow, tasty, and useful (and have you SEEN the price of bell peppers lately?!) Save time by purchasing these as seedlings as well.
  • RADISHES. So easy, so tasty, and so quick to mature. Start from seeds and rejoice in their speedy spicy goodness. You can even just pick the sprouts and use them on salads.

Gather the right supplies

To start you’ll need:

  • containers
  • potting soil
  • a watering can/container
  • a small spade
  • seeds/plants

Your potting soil should be a good mix containing peat, perlite or vermiculite for better drainage.

When buying containers, consider the following:

  • Choose a high-quality container over a cheap one — clay over plastic, for example. Crappier containers will break more easily, and you’ll soon spend more money to replace them.
  • A larger container will give the plant ample space and require less watering overall — great because over-watering drains away nutrients from your soil. When possible, go larger.
  • CHOOSE CONTAINERS WITH GOOD DRAINAGE. Holes in the bottom are a must.

Growing your vegetables

After you’ve planted according to packet instructions, you need to do just a little upkeep.

  • Most potting soils will keep your plants happy for 8-10 weeks. After that, use a water-soluble fertilizer as directed. I suck at this too. This is why my indoor plants never live past 8-10 weeks.
  • Mind your watering. I still suck at this. As my green-thumbed mother tells me over and over, you’re more likely to to kill a plant by over- or under-watering (watering often enough, but not with enough volume) than by exposing your plants to drought. The best way to water is to wait until your soil is barely moist about an inch below the surface, then pour water over the pot until it runs out the drainage holes.
  • Most veggies want full sun. HOWEVER: container gardening is a bit different, as containers heat up faster than the ground and this can damage the plants. Either arrange for your plants to have some shade, or arrange for them to be in a place out of direct sunlight, but where they still benefit from light reflecting from surfaces around them.
Late Spring / Early Summer 2007

Good luck, and good eating! You will have failures, but you should also have the giddy success of eating your own awesome food.

PLEASE share your expertise in the comments. I’ve only had the benefit of learning to garden in extremely fertile Iowa soil; I’m looking forward to learning more from you!

Comments on Container gardening for the space-impaired — it’s so simple, you’ll cry over your first tomato

  1. I’ve made attempts at container gardening over the past couple of years and have managed to kill pretty much everything. In year one, it was not watering (which is a wholly different problem than under-watering) and then, in year two, it was the soil. I bought Miracle Grow Moisture Control soil, which was a bad, bad idea. All of my plants got a fungus and died, and my iris AND my aloe both rotted out from the roots up.

    I’m still going to do another try this year and hopefully learn from some of my mistakes. If anything, homegrown catnip is easy-peasy, hard to kill, and (from watching my mom’s cats) much more potent than dried-from-the-store. The hilarity is totally worth it. XD

      • I always try to do a combination of both flowers and herbs. The iris was a spur of the moment buy at a farmer’s market. They had a really awesome deal on all of the irises that had lost their little identifying sticks, haha!

        I’m going to maybe consider possibly doing vegetables this year. I did them the first year and ended up with nothing to show for it, since I know so, so little about growing vegetables. There’s few that my boyfriend will eat, like lettuces and broccoli and I have a hard time telling when their ready to eat (especially lettuces, like butter lettuce).

    • It’s really important to build a drainage system in your containers to prevent things like fungus and rot. Start by covering the hole(s) with bits of screen or a convex rock/piece of something, put down a layer of gravel, and then do the soil. If you do soil first you risk the hole getting clogged.

      Try growing carrots – they’re ready when they’re big enough (so is lettuce). I would start with a plant native to your area or one that grows like a weed. Borage is really easy to grow (you can eat the flowers and leaves), so are nasturtiums. Strawberries are pretty simple as long as they get enough water.

      If you have trouble remembering to water, you can get something like this:

      • Yes, when using big containers, start with gravel on the bottom to aid in drainage, for sure. Also, I have a penchant for unglazed Terra Cotta but I live in a very dry climate so I line the inside of the container with old newspaper to help prevent moisture loss through the porous clay sides.

    • I think the vast majority of the time, that those potting soils (particularly the moisture retaining ones) *are* the problem–they come from the store with the mold already in the bag with them. If you find yourself with a moisture-run-amok problem again, try putting in an inch or even up to four inches if the container’s deep enough of rocks/glass beads/some type of moisture impermeable filler in the bottom of the container. I’ve done fine with rocks in the bottom, even with no other drainage holes…you just need something to lift the roots and soil up enough so that it’s not actually sitting in the water. If you’re worried about retaining moisture, you can also use packing peanuts or a diaper to help with that.

  2. If you do decide to have a go at seeds be patient with some. While peas will pop up in a matter of days, carrots, peppers and tomatoes can take quite a bit of time. Peppers are definitely the most difficult, but you can get so many more varieties by doing seed (tomato seeds are also much more varied than seedlings you can buy). The trick to pepper seeds is threefold. Lots of patience, a seedling heat mat, and a peat-less soil mix (terrestrial orchid mixes are good for this – not the same as the bark orchid mix).

    Amazingly, there are tons of veggies out there that you can now be grown in small spaces, including pumpkins and zucchini! Stick with bush varieties of these large plants and you’ll wow your friends.

    Go vertical! Besides the obvious peas and pole beans, you can save space by letting melons, cucumbers and squash climb up rather than spread out. Go for smaller varieties.

    Beware of the big-but-low-yield-for-their-size-stuff. IMHO brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc) are a waste of space if you’re short on it. A plant can easily take up 4sf but will not give you all that much.

    And never, ever skimp on the potting soil! With potting soil you get exactly what you pay for. If you get the cheap stuff you’ll have to fertilize a lot more – thus negating any upfront savings.

  3. Any advice for gardening in high heat areas for us desert dwellers who are already seeing 90 degrees? I have an east-facing apartment porch in Arizona and I don’t ever seem to have enough time to reap the benefits of my gardening before they’re fried

    • I wonder if you could grow dwarf orange trees? The heat is actually necessary to help the fruit sweeten. You’d need to offer them some good, solid humidity, though.

      • Yes! You need at least a half wine barrel size container, a very sunny spot, regular watering and about monthly feeding with a citrus fertilizer. Also, pruning is your bestest friend. The “dwarf” refers to the rootstock, not the tree that has been grafted on, so even dwarf citrus can get 15-20+ feet if not pruned.

        Other kinds of citrus will often work well in containers (lemons, for example) and if you live in the right climate, avocados! I work in a nursery, can you tell?

    • Certain plants like strawberries seem to love heat and full broiling sun. In areas that are hot and dry, water your plants in the early morning, before the sun is fully up, so they have an opportunity to suck the moisture in before the sun burns it off. You can also water in the evening, but if you do it too late moist soil at night might attract slugs.

    • 3 ideas come to mind:

      1) Shade cloth. Cheap stuff available at home improvement stores.

      2)You could try planting shrubs or dwarf trees (something tall) on the south side of your area that can handle the heat and would give your veggies some filtered light.

      3) Try to reduce the amount of reflected light. If there’s a light colored wall nearby or if the veggies are sitting on flat stone, cover the surface somehow. My roof garden sits on a bright white roof that was way too much for the plants, so I covered it with astroturf. It’s kinda awesome in that funky, funny way.

  4. I’d love to do container gardening, but every last window in my apartment has a (frequently blasting, as the landlord controls the heat) radiator right next to it, so every time I try to have plants, they bake within a couple days. Has anyone gotten around this? Thanks!

    • Low shade plants! There are a bunch out there that actually don’t really like light, and your artificial lighting is enough to do it for them.

    • How about those hanging containers for tomatoes and strawberries? (You can make your own, too.)
      That way, at least the plant is suspended above the radiator.

  5. I have really good luck with self watering containers. They have a small reservoir in the bottom that the soil wicks moisture out of (moisture control soil is a really bad idea for these too!). It helps to combat the water too much/not frequently enough problem I have.

    I agree with purchasing veggie seedlings instead of starting seeds. Mine all did really well last year on my patio, but they all succumbed to the local squirrels. This year we bought squirrel food along with a bird feeder (greatest cat entertainment ever!). Hopefully they’ll eat that and not the veggies. 🙂

      • A dog 🙂 When we got a puppy, my vegetable production quadrupled! She thinks chasing squirrels away from the garden is the best game ever. She also helps with birds.

      • Have a boy in your life pee in the watering can. My Aunt lives in an area with a ton of wildlife and her daisies never made it up… til my boys peed in her watering can. Then they got 4 feet high!

      • My mother was having a lot of trouble with the squirrels getting to her potted veggies and lettuces. She finally just bought some chicken wire from the hardware store and made little cages for all of her pots. It’s not as pretty to look at but worked against the little furry thieves!

  6. My herbs last approximately as long as it takes to use them twice. Then they basically just shrink up to a useless, scraggly little imitation of a sage or rosemary plant. So sad.

    • Try starting with a cutting, at least for the rosemary – you take a branch of rosemary (at least 6 in but too big is going to be awkward), stick it in some water, and plant it gently once roots have grown. Give it about 6 months to a year before you start stealing its leaves.

      You might need to add some fertilizer to your soil.

    • Maybe check what kind of soil they need too – like Rosemary for example needs really different soil from, say, basil. Then you can group them better by soil. My mom claims rosemary is hard, though, so maybe just drop it and feel better. 😉

  7. Hint for making cilantro last longer in the fridge (works for celery too – cut the butt end off of it first) – put in a glass of water like you would flowers!

  8. Wow! your patio is beautiful! I have never had luck with container plants (veggie, flower or herbs). I gave up and joined a CSA instead. I am much better at the cooking and eating part.

  9. I’m working on courgette (zucchini), tomatoes, strawberries, parsley, thyme, basil and chives and rocket/argula. It is the first time I have a balcony, although all the seedlings still live in my windowsills, except for the strawberries.

    Re: frost dates: Guaranteed no frost in North-Western Europe (Belgium, UK, the Netherlands, Germany) after ‘ice saint days’, which is 11-15 May.

    For now, I’m keeping an eye on my little strawberry plants. They are supposed to be frost-proof, but I lay a blanket over them when the weather forecast says it’ll freeze that night. Keeps them from freezing. This trick also works for potatoes and onions, which I keep on the balcony, because it’s cooler there.

  10. A word of warning about strawberries – they’re viney, and they’ll travel. Keep and eye on them to make sure their tendrils aren’t colonizing surrounding pots full of other things!

  11. You can also make a very inexpensive cold box with a length of lumber, an old window and hinges.

    We used a nifty attachment for the shower (can be used with the sink as well, I believe) that allowed us to connect the hose, turn on the water and flip a switch. It’s a ton more convenient than running back and forth to the kitchen or tub to fill up buckets.

    Thanks for using my photo!♥

    • Oooooh! I need one of those! Were you able to find it at Home Depot/Lowe’s Hardware or someplace like that? We have an awesome deck, so I’m able to have a pretty decent sized container garden, but watering them every morning before work is such a pain in the ass, having to go back and forth from the kitchen sink with 2 or 3 pitchers full of water!

  12. Any tips out there for those of us who have NO outdoor space? The closest thing we have to outdoor space is a fire escape that the landlord has very explicitly told us we’re not allowed to put anything on. I’d love to try my hand at growing things, but between the lack of outdoor space and the indoor cats, I’m at a bit of a loss! Surely someone out there has found a way?

    • Try some hanging pots. Boston fern, pothos, spider plant, and swedish ivy are all good indoor plants that don’t need much light. As an added bonus, pothos, spider plant, and swedish ivy can be rooted really easily from clippings, so you can propagate them quite easily.

    • Ugh, indoor cats and plants. This is the bane of my gardening existence. I have various plants scattered all over my house in hard-to-access places, but I also love to keep cut flowers every where, and one of my cats in convinced that her sole purpose in life is to eat flower petals. Not that she won’t eat leaves, too, if that’s all there is to be had. I’ve really tried every suggestion to get her to stop – none of them work. I’ve had a little success with Bitter Yuck (a rosemary bitter spray that’s safe for plants) but you have to reapply daily and the spray gets everywhere… and it tastes AWFUL. The hassle wasn’t worth it.

      Basically I’ve ended up keeping all the plants in certain rooms which are shut off if we’re not using them, keeping the cats out, and stowing all the vases in one of these rooms when we’re not home. We also have squirt bottles in every room.

      So, the long-winded answer to cats and plants is: hanging/hard-to-reach plants, constant vigilance and an unreasonable amount of tenacity. If you’re limited on space and growing in windowsills, you can also line the edges with sticky tape or some other adhesive to keep the cats off. Crowd the sill so it’s totally full and they’ll be less likely to jump up in the first place. Or, if you’re using large floor pots, crumble eggshells in the soil. It’s good for the plant and the cats hate the texture on their paws, so (hopefully) they won’t dig and/or turn your plant into their litterbox.

  13. I collect the paper towel and toilet paper rolls and use them to start my seedlings in. You can plant them and the tube will break down, plus they’re awesome for protecting the seedlings from cutworm until they get bigger.
    I love growing tomatoes upside down, I just used a bucket and then planted basil in the top(Mr. Bear loves tomato basil soup, I’m actually indifferent to tomatoes). The little cherry tomatoes look like jewels.

  14. I personally would recommend for anyone afraid of garden to start with Aloe Vera. It’s more or less impossible to kill. If you keep it on a sunny windowsill in the kitchen it’ll get a lot of moisture from the air and any time it looks a bit brown drop some water on it from the sink. I started off with one medium sized one and ended up with 28 small ones. Now all my friends have been gifted a few.

    Chillis are also pretty easy to grow once you get them started, and you can dry them to eat later

    • My husband actually killed one. But he stuck it on top of the fridge (where only he could see) when we moved and then forgot about it for about 3 months. So don’t do that.

    • Hah! Mine looks horrible… It’s outside on the balcony, but it has been attacked by some kind of tiny insect and hasn’t recovered ever since. It looks so bad, poor thing. But it wasn’t wuite healthy before the insect thing, the leaves were kind of “consumed”, like, there was/is hardly any gel inside them. Hum.

      Our balcony is just not really good for plants I think, almost all of them die sooner or later. Too much wind, I guess. 🙁

    • I’m going to try to grow aloe vera and small /mini cactus in my window sill garden this year.

      A couple months ago, I was able to grow parsley without any issues! Thing is, I was worried that it might have been getting too much sun so I placed the plants on the ground for a while. My adorable guinea pig discovered the parsley on the ground and basically attacked it during his daily playtime in the living room. >.< Thinking back, it probably looked like an all you can eat buffet to him! LoLz.

      Anyways, hopefully the aloe vera and cactus can survive past the ever hungry guinea pig. =P

  15. I live in PA (west of Philly) and we do pretty well with growing. Tomatoes, poblanos, tomatillos, basil, mint (EVERYWHERE!), green beans(big failure, bought the wrong seeds), lavender, rosemary.

    However, we’re moving to a wee flat and I don’t think we’ll be able to have any pots outside, so any tips on growing even just herbs indoors??? Halp!

    • Find the window with the most sun/light exposure in the place and extend the windowsill by putting a little shelf on it (or just below it), and keep the plants there. If you have cats or curious dogs, this may not work though. Also, your local hardware store or nursery may have window boxes.

    • You can also use a grow light. We got the bulb for $15 from an Indoor Gardening store, and the fixture for $6 from Home Depot. My herbs are doing great so far!

  16. You can also grow potatoes in containers! Fairly large containers (half wine barrels) would work, but if you don’t have to worry about the aesthetics, see if you can find four or five old tires. Pile the tires up maybe two or three high to start with, fill with potting soil and plant potatoes. Your friendly local garden center or nursery should either have potatoes started or seed potatoes. I prefer starts rather than seeds with just about anything. When the potato plant has reached a bit longer than the depth of a tire, put another tire on top and fell with more soil, making sure to leave the top of the plant (four inches?) exposed. Continue building until you run out of tires (I really wouldn’t go above eight). When it’s harvest time, knock over tire tower and dig out potatoes. Many, many potatoes.

    This method has the advantage of going up rather than out, so it takes up less patio space. Also, tires make great containers for growing almost any annual food.

    • Actually, you have to be careful when using tires, as they tend to hold water around the edges and then you have to deal with root rot and rotten potatoes!

  17. LOVE this post. I’ve been a container gardener for years, and every year we get an “exotic” plant to add to our collection. This year, I think we may try seedlings of the herbs we use the most of, like basil, oregano and sage, and a few heirloom veggies I’ve been lusting over since last fall. I also have a 5 gallon container I am going to use to make this tomato planter:

  18. I have unfortunately killed every type of plant life possible. We used to laugh when I would buy a new plant and take bets on its lifespan. I have knocked off aloe and cacti, ferns, ivy, roses, grasses and herbs. Anything you can think of.

    However, with perserverence I have managed to take my hit rate from 99 kill / 1 survival, all the way down to a 50/50. This includes both outdoor pots and inground.

    I am now experimenting on indoor planting, and have had one successfully stay alive for a few months now, even if it looks quite sickly. If it makes it to six months I’m allowed to get another one!! Very exciting.

    I love greenery and flowers and plantlife in general, so I’m gonna keep going til I get it right!

  19. I would love to see more about inside gardening. How to make the upside down plant containers, what kind of containers you can turn into plant containers, good ways to use what little space you have for a garden, ect.

    Gotta love those DIY projects!

  20. This is so inspiring. I seem to doom any plant in my care. But I think now that I was probably always under-watering them. My issue is that I live in a basement apartment so none of my windows get more than a few hours of direct sunlight. It’s also fairly cold here, even in the sun, so that worries me too.

    Out of curiosity, would it be possible to make a miniature compost bin for an indoor container garden? Or is that a ridiculous idea? Haha I really haven’t got a clue but it sounds like a great idea to me in theory!

    • I think it will STINK! All the lovely fungus and bacteria that are at work will be noticeable. No big deal in your backyard, but in your kitchen? So be warned…
      And getting good compost takes a long time (longer than a year); are you willing to put up with a stinking, moist and damp pile of rotting leaves etc in your house?

      In my student house we first separated biodegradable waste from the rest and involuntarily (no one ever took out the trash) started composting. Let’s say we made a cleaning schedule and went back to no-waste separation… 😉

      • agreed about the redworms. I just have a small stacked bin of them, and they’re happily eating all of my kitchen scraps. I also haven’t noticed any “stink” yet…

  21. I totally suggest using old paint tubs, the heavy duty plastic ones. They are dirt cheap and you can always find free used ones to wash out. Drill a couple holes and let your tomatoes live in those. I swear they go crazy for them. And deep trash cans are great for potatoes.

  22. I would so love to grow stuff. I have a sunken in (about 6.5 feet) porch-area that’s west facing, and I live in a desert. Any suggestions on what I might successfully grow outside? I’m also wondering about the melons. What are some of the smaller varieties that can grow upwards? My Sweets and I love melons, but he’s convinced they’ll get way to heavy and fall off and shatter.

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