Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Are you not growing vegetables because you don’t have a yard to plant them in? Perhaps you live in an apartment. Or is the only sunny area of your landscape covered in concrete? The satisfaction of growing fresh vegetables is undeniable, yet many gardeners don’t have a suitable in-ground location to grow them.
Well, container vegetable gardening is an excellent way to produce quality, home-grown vegetables. Many cool-season vegetables suitable for planting now can be grown successfully in containers if they are given proper care. Vegetables grown during the winter are quite hardy and can generally withstand normal winter temperatures once they’re established.
Vegetables grown in containers need more frequent attention (such as watering) than those grown in the ground, but the work is easier physically. That makes this technique good for older vegetable gardeners and children who may find cultivating in-ground beds too physically demanding. One of the biggest labor-saving advantages to vegetable gardening in containers is that weeding is far, far less of a chore.
Select a sunny location outdoors for your container vegetable garden. All vegetables grow best where the sun shines directly on the plants at least six to eight hours a day. A location that also allows drainage water to run freely from containers is also needed. It is a good idea to use small bricks or other “feet” to raise larger containers off of wood porches or decks to prevent damaging the wood.
The larger the containers you use, the more choices you have of vegetables to grow; production is generally higher, and you don’t have to water as often. Plastic or clay pots, tubs, half whisky barrels or other containers may be purchased, but virtually any container you can cut or punch drainage holes into may be used (inexpensive plastic foam ice chests work well, for instance). If the container has been used for other purposes, wash it with warm soapy water and rinse it thoroughly before using it.
Fill the container with a commercial potting mix that drains well. The level of soil should be somewhat below the rim of the container after planting. This is called head space and helps facilitate proper watering.
Select and plant vegetable seeds or transplants. Following are some of the vegetables that can be planted in the next few weeks from seed (root crops such as beets, carrots, radish and turnips must be direct seeded into the pot) or transplants, and the minimum size pot to plant them in. The number of plants that can be planted in the container is shown in parentheses.
— One-gallon container: beets (2 to 3), carrots (3), celery (1), Chinese cabbage (1), collards (1), garlic (2), kohlrabi (1), leeks (1), lettuce (1 or 2), mustard greens (2), bunching onion (2 or 3), parsley (1), radish (3 or 4), shallots (2 or 3), spinach (2), Swiss chard (1), turnips (2).
— Two-gallon container: broccoli (1), cabbage (1), kale (1).
— Three-gallon container: Brussels sprouts (1), cauliflower (1).
These are minimum container sizes for various vegetables that will allow them to mature and produce properly. You can certainly plant a greater number of any of these vegetables into containers larger than listed. For instance, while one or two lettuce plants can be grown in a 1‑gallon container, you can grow three to five in a 3-gallon container. Using larger containers means they don’t need to be watered as often and offer more cold protection to the roots.
Check the soil daily and water often enough to keep the soil evenly moist. Do not allow the vegetable plants to wilt before watering. Always water gently until water runs out of the drainage holes of the container. To minimize disease problems, try to water without wetting the foliage, if possible.
A soluble fertilizer (the kind you dissolve in water to apply) applied about every two weeks works well for container vegetables. Slow-release fertilizers can also be used, and they reduce the need to repeatedly apply soluble fertilizer. Follow label directions. Without adequate fertilizer, vegetables take longer to develop and will produce a smaller harvest.
Weeds will occasionally appear in container plantings and should be removed promptly when you see them. You don’t need to apply mulch to cover the soil surface and prevent weeds the way we do in traditional garden beds, but you may. The problem with doing this is that it is harder to tell when plants need water because you can no longer see the soil surface.
Check plants daily to control insects and diseases when they appear. Fortunately, insect and disease problems occur far less often in the winter than in the summer growing season. If problems do occur, contact your parish LSU AgCenter office for help in diagnosis and control.
Harvest your vegetables regularly, promptly and at the proper stage for maximum quality. After all, this is the reward for the effort.
If you have given up growing vegetables due to physical limitations, give container vegetable gardening a try. And if you live in an apartment or condo and only have a sunny patio or balcony, container vegetable gardening will allow you to experience the rewards of growing your own fresh vegetables.
Lettuce is an excellent cool-season vegetable for growing in containers. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter
Vegetables can be grown in an assortment of containers if other options are unavailable. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter
5-gallon buckets and larger planters can provide convenient containers for growing vegetables instead of in the soil. Photo by Dan Gill/LSU AgCenter