By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 23 January 2016)
Overall, growing food in containers is relatively easy if you do some research first to provide the plants with optimal conditions. When most people think about container food plants, they picture herbs and possibly a cherry tomato plant or two, but it’s actually possible to grow a broad range of crops in containers. Some crops I’ve been able to grow successfully in containers include tomatoes, peppers (both hot and bell), green leafy vegetables of all types, radishes, herbs, various berries, sunflowers, carrots, peas, beans, onions, and many others. I’ve found that broccoli and Brussels sprouts seem less happy in the summer and more inclined to be attacked by aphids, though others have had success with these crops. Corn grew well in deep containers on my deck, but I didn’t have enough plants so only half of the kernels developed (apparently they need lots of surrounding plants for full fertilization, which I didn’t know at the time of planting – a failure that illustrates the need to research first). The grape vine did well until it was attacked by scale insects, and I now have a new one that’s growing happily in a large pot.
The biggest challenge is controlling pests using natural methods – aphids and slugs seem to have no trouble making it up to the roof. Fitness (or a helpful friend or family member) is also required if you’re hauling heavy bags of soil, compost, and planters around.
I have a lot of plants on a large roof deck and average about 20 minutes per day during peak seasons (more during planting and end-of-season cleanup). In practice, I spend 2-3 hours on the garden each week during peak season, often all at once, and about 10-15 minutes each day watering the plants during dry spells.
- Planters, ideally a foot and a half deep or more for many food crop plants, though onions, garlic, many leafy greens, radishes, strawberries, and most herbs can be grown in shallower containers)
- Potting soil (soil quality will have a huge impact on plant quality, so choose a premium soil or add good amendments)
- Seeds or started plants
- Organic fertilizer
- You can produce fresh, delicious, pesticide-free food right on your doorstep.
- Growing food is good for the environment because it cuts out the transportation and packaging.
- Learning new survival skills that aren’t dependent on modern technologies is very satisfying.
- Gardening reduces stress and helps you reconnect with nature.
- Taking care of a garden ensures that you get fresh air and exercise.
- If you’re setting up a big garden, it can be expensive to purchase all the planters, starter soil, and other supplies you’ll need.
- Some plants such as pumpkin, corn, and dwarf fruit trees need a lot of space, so they’re not feasible unless you have plenty of room and very large containers.
- Some things don’t grow well in certain climates.
- You need at least 6 hours of direct sun per day to grow many crops (though certain food plants such as lettuces and beets can tolerate some shade).
- You’ll probably have to battle various garden pests and lose a few of your plants to them.
- Gardening is time-consuming during peak seasons.
- Do some research on each of the plants you’d like to grow so that you can provide optimal conditions for them (soil type, container size, location, etc.) – healthy plants are less likely to fall prey to pests and diseases.
- To save money, use blue recycle bins as planters – they can be picked up cheaply, they’re a good size, and they usually come with drainage holes.
- Ants in the garden on their own aren’t usually a problem, but they farm aphids the way we farm cattle (they actually milk their aphid herds). If your garden is invaded by aphids on their own or an ant colony’s aphid herd, remove them by spraying the affected plants with water. If you have a really bad infestation, buy a package of ladybugs from a garden center – ladybugs are voracious consumers of aphids (they won’t stick around unless you have enough plants for them though – see the Ladybug page for plants that will attract and keep ladybugs in your garden).
- Make your own insecticides using natural ingredients (see Natural Garden Pest Control for homemade garden pest remedies).
- If your squash leaves get attacked by powdery mildew, try spraying a solution of 5 parts water, 1 part whole milk to kill it off (see Gardening Australia’s Fact Sheet: Milk Fungicide for information on this method).
- Stop watering your tomatoes once they ripen to reduce the likelihood of cracking.
- Remove dead, rotten, or diseased plant matter regularly, as it can become a haven for pests.
- Use worm compost – it boosts the yields on food plants and makes them healthier overall (you can purchase worm compost or a worm composting system, or make your own system). Bokashi compost (which is made by placing food scraps in a container with active microorganisms) also boosts yields.
- Rotate your crops to different containers each year. For example, if you’ve grown peas in one container, grow something else in it the following year and grow your peas in a container that previously housed a different crop. This reduces the likelihood of pest and disease problems.
- Replace a portion of your soil with fresh material such as compost or enriched soil each season, or at least dig in a bit of fresh compost, as the existing soil will have been depleted by last year’s crops (there’s no need to completely replace all the soil unless the container’s prior occupant was diseased).
- If it rains a lot during the late summer or early fall, pick any tomatoes that have started to change colour and let them ripen indoors. Heavy rains can cause cracking and create the conditions that make tomatoes vulnerable blight (a fungal infection).
- Grow a few plants that will encourage beneficial insects such as ladybugs and bees to visit (see the Ladybug Plant and Bee Plant galleries for photos of plants that attract pest eaters and pollinators).
- A lot of sites advise against saving hybrid tomato and pepper seeds for replanting because they won’t be exactly like their parents, but I’ve grown a lot of delicious produce with saved hybrid seeds. The results are more variable, but the plants are actually better than the original parents in some cases and well-adapted to the local climate.
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