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How to Grow Food in Containers and Small Spaces

Whether you're living in an apartment or have a tiny yard, you can still boost your food security and enjoy a bit of homesteading. A kitchen garden, where you grow your own food, is entirely achievable using containers, and we're here to support you every step of the way!





Container Garden


What Should I Grow?

Consider what your family enjoys most and choose veggies and herbs that are either highly productive or costly at the store. Some vegetables like beets, carrots, and corn offer a single harvest per planting, while others like peppers, cucumbers, and kale produce continuously until the weather changes. For beginners, try these simple crops that can be directly sown into containers. Feel free to mix in some flowers to attract pollinators, which are especially beneficial for fruiting crops like squash and tomatoes.


Maximizing Small Spaces


Grow Up!

Vertical gardening is a space-efficient way to grow vining plants like tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, and peas. Using trellises, cages, and fencing not only saves space but also makes harvesting easier and improves air circulation, reducing the risk of fungal diseases. Check out our DIY Tomato Supports blog for a cost-effective and easy way to build a sturdy trellis.


Smart Spacing

Plant crops in succession. For single-harvest crops like carrots or radishes, thin seedlings to half the recommended spacing and harvest every other plant when they're half-grown for baby carrots and beets. In between, sow quick-growing radishes or cilantro. The radishes will mark where you've planted and will be harvested before the other crops need more space. Also, planting in a staggered triangular pattern is more space-efficient than rows or squares.


Start Indoors

Many crops can be started indoors and transplanted outside later. This saves time in the garden bed, allowing space for additional crops.



Container Growing


Sunlight

Full sun (over 6 hours a day) is ideal for any vegetable as long as the container is large enough. Partial shade (4 to 6 hours a day) or full shade will still work for leafy vegetables like kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, and spinach, or herbs. With less light, crops may take longer to mature, and vibrant colors might fade as plants adapt to lower light levels.


Planting Medium

A high-quality planting mix or potting soil that retains both moisture and air for healthy roots is preferable to outdoor soil, which might contain pests and diseases. Read the bag instructions carefully; if there’s a significant price difference between brands, there's likely a reason. Some mixes contain nutrients that can save you time and money on fertilizer, and some might be certified organic if that’s important to you. Ask experienced gardeners for their recommendations—gardeners love sharing tips!


Container Size and Material

In this case, "bigger is better" is generally true. Like goldfish, plants can only grow as large as their container allows. Larger containers mean bigger plants and potentially more harvest. They also require less frequent watering and better insulate roots from temperature fluctuations.


How Big is Big Enough?

Root crops need at least 12″ of depth, but 18″ for long carrots. Tomatoes need the space of about a 5-gallon bucket; peppers need 3 to 4 gallons; lettuce has shallow roots and can grow in 4″ of soil, though 6″ is better. Squash also needs about 5 gallons of soil. Gardeners are often creative and thrifty, reusing items like cowboy boots, rusty wheelbarrows, and broken pots as planters.

If using a large container worries you due to weight or cost, place a turned-over plastic pot or packing peanuts in the bottom to displace some soil, saving on potting soil and making the container lighter.

Clay pots dry out faster and are heavier than resin or plastic pots, which can be advantageous in wet climates or for plants like rosemary that prefer drying out between waterings. Dark-colored pots collect more heat, which can dry the potting medium faster but is beneficial in cool climates—just something to consider when choosing colors. Regardless of material, all containers need drainage.


Watering Keep your container soil consistently moist to the surface when plants are young, then let it dry to the depth of your first knuckle as plants establish (unless pots are small; keep them moist to the top). Water until excess water drains from the bottom to ensure no dry spots. If pots need daily watering, they might be root-bound and need larger containers.


Containers that are very full, small, or in sunny and windy areas will need water more often, possibly twice a day! Watering in the morning or evening is ideal. Consistent moisture helps plants stay healthy and productive longer.


Maintenance Check if your potting medium has fertilizer. If not, add granular fertilizer or feed plants with liquid fertilizer once they have a few sets of leaves. Even if the mix has fertilizer, using liquid fertilizer after a couple of months is a good idea as nutrients may be depleted. Granular fertilizers last longer, while liquid fertilizers have an immediate impact and can be adjusted throughout the season. For example, tomato plants initially need nitrogen to grow big and strong but benefit from phosphorus-rich fertilizer for flower and fruit production. Our article on choosing the right fertilizer can guide you.


Harvest frequently and check for damage or pests regularly. Remove yellowing leaves to give plants more sun exposure.


Great Container Varieties Don’t rule out crops that seem too large for containers. Summer squash, bush-type winter squashes, 'Spacemaster' or lemon cucumber, beets, carrots, and kohlrabi are all great choices. Add alyssum or borage for color, fragrance, and to attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Swiss chard, 'Redbor' kale, and 'Red Giant' mustard add beautiful, edible color and texture to your container plantings.

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