Pot Up Fruits and Vegetables Now, Feast All Summer
No garden? No problem. Try growing your food in containers. Just follow our tips for a plentiful harvest
Even where outdoor space is severely limited—just a small deck or patio, a bright front stoop, or a patch of concrete along the drive—you can grow your own fruits and veggies. Just choose wisely and plant them in pots. Growing in containers makes some crops, such as strawberries and spinach, less vulnerable to snails and other ground-cruising predators. Others, including peppers, seem to relish confinement and produce more abundantly. Blueberries like more-acidic soil than other edibles, so they are easier to accommodate in pots. And container crops have fewer problems with weeds because they're raised off the ground and grown in weed-free potting mix.
Shown: Container-grown lemons, mustard greens, and lettuce rub shoulders with pots of flowering plants.
There's the beauty bonus, too, of course. A gathering of rustic troughs and wood half-barrels filled with rainbow chard and jeweled tomatoes add life to paved places—not to mention convenient harvests for your table. Even if you have a garden, a pot of herbs outside the kitchen makes them a cinch to snip for dinner.
Shown: Colorful chard, peppers, and rosemary share a terra-cotta pot.
'Bright Lights' Chard: A mix of seeds that produce up to 16-inch-tall stalks of chard on stems in gold, pink, dark red, white, and yellow. Harvested young, chard can be eaten like spinach or other greens and picked from late spring until winter. Grows up to 30 inches wide; requires up to 60 days to mature.
Most edibles want lots of light, so choose a sunny spot and well-draining containers that are deep enough for what you grow. Long-rooted tomatoes require pots 24 inches tall, lettuce and peppers only 16-inch ones. Wide pots give plants room to sprawl and might allow you to fit two or three in one container, if you pay attention to their spacing needs. Broccoli, for instance, wants 18 inches of elbow room, lettuce about half as much. So follow instructions for garden spacing when you plant pots. The type of container you choose depends largely on taste and practicality. Terra-cotta can be prettier than plastic, but it's also heavier, a consideration if you plan to place plants on a deck or move them indoors for winter.
Shown: Purple-veined cabbage mixes with chartreuse parsley.
'Gonzales' Cabbage: You can pack a lot of these compact, sweet cabbages into a small space, so they're perfect for containers. 'Gonzales' is an early, medium-green baby cabbage with a round, tight head that can get slightly larger than a softball when mature. Grows up to 12 inches tall and 9 inches wide; requires up to 55 days to mature.
If you've never raised food before, start small, with just a few containers of your favorites. Or fill window boxes with herbs and lettuce, fast and willing growers.
Shown: 'Lolla Rossa' lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty.
'Lolla Rossa' Lettuce: Planted tightly, this cut-and-come-again lettuce will keep producing until frost. The tightly crinkled rose-colored leaves of this Italian heirloom can pull double duty as an ornamental in a planting bed. Grows up to 15 inches tall and 6 inches wide; requires about 55 days to mature.
Since some varieties of edibles get cramped in pots, making them less productive, choose compact selections like 'Little Marvel' peas, 'Bambino' eggplant, 'Gonzales' cabbage, 'Stupice' tomatoes, and bush varieties, such as yellow crookneck squash, 'Romano' beans, and 'Bush Slicer' cucumbers.
Shown: 'Bambino' Eggplant. Perfect for containers, this 12-inch-tall plant yields fruit that is a scant 3 inches long. It doesn't have the bitter flavor of its bigger cousins and makes great shish-kebab fodder. Grows up to 15 inches wide; requires up to 45 days to mature.
For a lush, garden-like effect, arrange pots in a group, following the same guidelines that apply to flower beds: Place taller growers toward the back of the pack and shorter ones toward the front, with an eye for contrasting foliages and forms. You can tuck in ornamental bloomers, too, such as marigolds and nasturtiums, that may discourage pests, draw pollinators, and add pops of color amid the greens. One more plus: Grouped plants create their own humid little microclimate and need a bit less water.
Shown: Bulbous kohlrabi, mulched here with gravel, is a good candidate for containers, as seeds mature in about 50 days.
Before planting, set pots on saucers to protect paving from water stains, and fill them with top-quality organic potting soil that contains boosters and conditioners, such as mushroom compost, worm castings, and oyster-shell lime. For acid lovers, like blueberries, try an organic azalea-and-camellia mix.
Shown: 'Sunshine Blue' Blueberries. This cold-hardy variety has a compact, upright habit with blue-green foliage that turns burgundy. The medium-size fruit is sweet and ready to harvest from June onward. Grows up to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide; requires full sun.
If you're growing from seed—a snap with quick-sprouting carrots, radishes, and lettuce—choose selections appropriate for your climate, which is especially important if you live where summers are short and you don't have 85 days for your tomatoes to produce.
Shown: A galvanized container with drainage holes drilled in the bottom makes a fine home for a crop of spinach.
Wait until after frost danger has passed, and follow packet directions for spacing and depth. If you opt for seedlings to get a jump on food production you will find varieties suited to your region at farmers' markets and local nurseries.
Shown: 'Little Marvel' Peas. Compact and very productive, each 3-inch-long pod is filled with six to eight sugary peas. A consistent performer since it was brought to the U.S. from England in 1908. Grows up to 30 inches tall and 5 inches wide; requires up to 62 days to mature.
For plants such as cucumbers and tomatoes, which need vertical support, add poles or tepees at planting time (pounding supports at least a foot into the soil) to avoid disturbing roots later. When stems get tall enough to start leaning, tie them loosely to the supports with twine or twist ties, and continue tying at progressively higher points as they grow. Prune off lower growth to keep leaves and fruit from touching the soil, which invites fungus.
Shown: Red alpine strawberries are perennial plants that bear fruits similar to wild strawberries.
'Mignonette' Strawberries: This popular heirloom alpine strawberry is an improved version of the wild fruit with a neat, busy appearance and few runners, so it's ideal for larger containers. The smaller, succulent berries on this ever-bearing variety produce two or three harvests from spring through fall. Grows up to 8 inches tall; requires up to 28 days to mature.
For root crops, like beets, work a handful of bonemeal into the soil before you tuck them in. Plant seedlings at the same depth they occupied in starter pots. When you use top-quality potting soil, you can skip the fertilizer at planting time, except around tomatoes.
Shown: 'Romano' Beans. Planted with the proper support, this pole bean variety will flourish in a larger container. Produces right up until frost with full flavor and very heavy yields. Grows up to 9 feet tall and 18 inches wide; requires up to 60 days to mature.
Water pots well and continue watering as the weather warms, as often as daily during summer. Check plants in the morning, and if they're drooping or the soil feels dry to a finger poked down an inch, hit them with a hose fitted with a spray nozzle. Avoid watering at noon, when sun dissipates moisture, or at night, which can encourage fungal disease. Feed plants monthly with a dose of granular organic fertilizer, applied according to package directions, or choose a liquid—sea kelp, say, or fish emulsion—diluted with water, again following directions. Inspect regularly for pests, applying organic controls, such as Sluggo Plus, which contains a natural insecticide produced by soil microbes, and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring soil bacterium, to combat any slugs and chewing worms that show up.
Shown: Yellow crookneck squash. This plant produces a high yield of bright yellow squash that have graceful, curved necks and are at their peak when picked at about 6 inches long. The flesh is tender and flavorful, and the squash keeps coming all summer long. Grows up to 36 inches tall and 4 feet wide; requires up to 58 days to mature.
A head of loose-leaf lettuce can be snipped off completely a few inches above its base and will regrow.
Shown: 'Red Salad Bowl' Lettuce. Fine, maroon-colored leaves form around a large rosette from which you can harvest repeatedly throughout the season. The sweet and tender leaves look as good in containers as they do on a dinner plate. Grows up to 15 inches tall and 6 inches wide; requires up to 50 days to mature.
Regular checks will also tell you when harvest time is approaching. In the case of herbs such as basil, oregano, and sage, you can start picking them right after planting seedlings, with pinching stems doubling as maintenance; the more you harvest the leaves, the more the plants will grow. Most lettuces, which develop from the center, can be picked gradually, outer leaves first, when they reach the desired size. Loose-leaf varieties can be cut completely a few inches above the base, and they'll grow back for more picking. String beans can fool you; the slender new ones resemble stems, so you can miss them at their sweetest if you're not paying attention.
In fact, the productivity of your little potted farm may surprise you. Which is precisely how many gardeners, starting small, wind up with a growing habit.
Shown: Easy-to-grow peppers are a good crop for beginners. Some varieties, such as this 'Spanish Spice' type, turn red when they are ripe.
'Spanish Spice' Peppers: This thin-walled, mildly hot, 7-inch long European pepper looks a lot like a green chili but it's spicier. The plant grows up to 2 feet tall and needs a cage or trellis for support; requires up to 65 days to mature.
'Chinese Giant': First introduced by the Burpee seed company in 1900, this was the first giant bell pepper. The heirloom grows just as well today, with fruit 4 inches tall and 4 inches wide, and thick, sweet walls perfect for stuffing. Grows up to 24 inches tall and 12 inches wide; requires up to 80 days to mature.
Choose wisely. Plants with smaller fruit produce more in pots than larger varieties. Varieties labeled "determinate" are shorter and bushier, and don't require staking, but they only fruit for a short time, while those labeled "indeterminate" keep bearing until frost. Good container picks include the determinate heirlooms 'Sophie's Choice' and 'Martino's Roma'; indeterminate heirlooms, like 'Black Prince,' 'Stupice,' and 'Green Zebra'; and the indeterminate hybrids 'Sweet Baby Girl' and 'Sweet 100' (shown).
To promote the growth of a strong root system, plant tomato seedlings deep enough to bury the stem up to the first set of serrated leaves.
Top-dress the soil around each new plant with a handful of low-nitrogen organic fertilizer; water well.
Shown: 'Stupice' Tomato. This heirloom from the Czech Republic has a rich, tangy flavor with 2-inch-diameter fruit. A compact grower, this variety will produce until frost. Grows up to 48 inches tall and 18 inches wide; requires about 55 days to mature.
Top-dress again when tiny fruit appears, and spread a couple of inches of organic compost on the soil's surface to hold in moisture and boost minerals.
Shown: 'Martino's Roma'. The fruit of this Italian heirloom weighs up to 3 ounces and is ideal for sauces and salsas. The intermediate grower can drop fruit when it becomes very ripe. Grows up to 48 inches tall and 36 inches wide; requires up to 85 days to mature.
Spray tomato leaves biweekly with a solution of 1 part compost tea diluted with 5 parts water to make the fruit sweeter.
Water only when the potting soil feels dry 2 inches down, then, as tomatoes ripen, 3 inches. This prevents cracking and concentrates the fruit's flavor.
Shown: 'Green Zebra' Tomato. This flavorful, emerald-green tomato is striped with darker green and is a favorite at farmers' markets. Eat the fruit fresh—it can grow to 2½ inches in diameter and weigh 3 to 4 ounces—or can it to be enjoyed beyond harvest. Grows up to 6 feet tall and 36 inches wide; requires up to 90 days to mature.