The Joys of the Container, or Why Lack of Soil Is No Barrier

Sharon February 5th, 2009

I’m an avid container gardener.  This may seem weird, given that I have literally acres of dirt on my farm, and yet, there are simply things that do better in containers for me than they do in the ground.  Containers provide a way of dealing with a host of garden problems, and, IMHO, are useful to all gardeners, whether you’ve got a balcony and stone stoop or a vast farm. 

Among the reasons I use containers:

1. To mimic soil conditions I don’t have – for example, I have a tough time growing any long carrots in my heavy soil – so I grow my carrots in containers which have just the perfect carrot soil.  This would also work for those who don’t have acidic enough soil to grow blueberries or who need other specific conditions.

2.  To heat up my plants more.  Where I live, in upstate NY in the hills, overnight temperatures often fall into the 50s (and sometimes 40s) in the summer. Peppers, eggplant and melons just plain don’t like cool nights.  Since containers heat up more in general, I find that I get better production from these plants.  The heat stress also gives me hotter peppers.  For those who don’t need more heat may not find this useful – at least in the summer.  On the other hand, a sunny, warm spot might be just what you need to overwinter an especially tender plant.

3. Beause I can put plants in places I couldn’t.  That means I can have morning glories twining up my mailbox (surrounded on three sides by concrete) and can pretty up my water barrels with snapdragons.  You can take advantage of your best sun exposure, even if there’s no dirt there, or make a place that would be unproductive fertile.  I also use containers to bring plants to my kids – putting cherry tomatoes and lambs ears where they play so they can nibble or pet.  And scent – well that’s still another reason – really fragrant plants deserve to be where we’re most likely to get the benefit from them.  And think about what could be done with all those city rooftops using containers?

4. To extend my season.  In pots on a glassed in porch, parsley, arugula, winter lettuce, scallions and bok choy will begin producing in March.  Nasturtiums seeded now on a sunny windowsill will start blooming by May, feeding both my need for color and my desire for peppery salads.  On the other end, the potted peppers, cherry tomatoes and eggplants I bring in will produce into December.  Sage, thyme, basil and mint will last all winter.  For those in hot climates, greens can be moved from warm spots to shadier and cooler ones, making the salad season longer.

5. To allow me to plant tender plants.  I have figs, bay and citrus trees and am mulling over a dwarf banana.  Lemon Verbena, scented geraniums, aloe, gotu kola, bacopa, zaatar, and Vietnamese coriander fill my windowsills.  And right now, my albutilon and begonias are flowering, brightening winter gloriously.   I’ve promised the boys a garden of carnivorous plants to be overwintered indoors as well.

I also find container gardening psychologically so *manageable* – that is, when the garden is full of weeds and merely facing it seems overwhelming, well, there’s no reason you can’t attend to one pot.  Deadheading one pot of flowers or planting herbs in a pot is a garden chore most of us can face, even on the hottest day.

Now what kills a lot of container gardening attempts is the problem of water – and on hot days, a plant might well need to be watered several times.  The best solution to this is the self-watering container, also known as an “earthbox.”  You can buy them or make them.  The definitive book on the subject is Ed Smith’s _Incredible Vegetables From Self-Watering Containers_.  It is worth looking at, because there are some specific strategies to be used.

Self-watering containers are essentially a pot within a reservoir pot, arranged so that nothing sits in water.  They can be made or purchased, but since my friend Pat Meadows has written a very clear and useful post on the subject here: #2008/02/growing-vegetables-in-self-watering.html I won’t duplicate the information.  The pots are not difficult to make at all, and you can play with the techniques a little.

Pat is one of the most knowledgeable people out there on the subject of container gardening – she used to sell seeds for container gardens, and she now moderates the Edible Container Gardening list, which has almost 2000 people on it.  If you are interested in subscribing, you can do so by sending an email to:[email protected]  The group is an amazing resource.

If you live in a cooler place, or are prepared to water often, regular containers are great – in fact, some things do better in regular containers than the SWCs - herbs like thyme and oregano, nasturtiums and hot peppers (Smith says hot peppers do fine, but he doesn’t actually seem to like to eat them – since water stress makes peppers hotter, if you are an actual chile head, you won’t want to use SWCs).  You can use anything that hasn’t been used for something toxic as a container – we grow plants in old boots, in cooking pots with holes – after a while, everything is a potential garden pot.   

Here are some recipes for potting mixes:  If you buy peat, make sure it is harvested from an area that is not under ecological stress.  I don’t recommend vermiculite at all – breathing it in isn’t good for you.

For fertility, if you are using regular containers, you should remember that you’ll be washing out a lot more fertility than you would be with other plants, and fertilize often.  My own personal fertility plan is to add plenty of worm compost, greensand and a good organic fertilizer mix (make your own or purchase – more on fertilizers later in the class), and to fertilize alternately with compost tea, and human urine diluted 1/10.  To be safe, I don’t use urine within a week of harvest – although there’s very little risk unless you have leptospriosis (at which point you’ve got other problems: see my post “Free Nitrogen – Comes With Handy Dispenser!).

What can you grow in containers?  Almost anything, if you have a big enough container, up to and including small trees.  Realistically, smaller varieties are generally easier to grow.  I’m a big fan of “Red Robin” tomatoes, “Fish” hot peppers and “Little Fingers” Eggplant in containers, but really you’d be stunned at what you can grow in a pot.  I love to mix herbs and flowers and vegetables together – there is nothing like “bright lights” chard mixed with parsley and dianthus, or an artichoke underplanted with purple vining petunias spilling over the sides.  The art of edible container gardening makes it a delight.

I’d encourage everyone to expand their growing space with containers whenever possible.  It is easy to think that pots can only grow a little – but that little bit adds up.


10 Responses to “The Joys of the Container, or Why Lack of Soil Is No Barrier”

  1. KFon 05 Feb 2009 at 12:10 pm

    The best source I’ve found for potted indoor citrus trees is Four Winds Growers, based in CA ( They have dwarf citrus only, and a HUGE selection of different plants. I’ve ordered a half dozen trees from them to be grown in containers indoors and the plants are always large, healthy, and beautiful. Several of them have arrived with bud fruit or flowers. They also have the best prices on types like Kaffir limes and yuzu, which are hard to find.

  2. Greenpaon 05 Feb 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I’ve got a whole greenhouse business – full of containers! So obviously I agree they’ve got big advantages.

    Just one “but” – you do need to have the right kind of personality for good success here.

    Containers require regular attention. No matter how “self” watering. And they’re quite inflexible about it. When it’s time to provide them with water- they’ve GOT to have water- or, all your work will be wilted and dead by tomorrow.

    If you have only one garden person- and that person gets sick, or is called away for a week- you can lose everything; where if your plants are in a regular garden, they will likely survive, even if slowed down by weeds and other problems.

    Done well, the results are well worth it. I think there’s a substantial personality aspect to it though; some folks are just not going to really be able to make it work for them. One “oops” is one too many.

  3. Paulon 05 Feb 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I just have to comment on this line:

    “You can use anything that hasn’t been used for something toxic as a container – we grow plants in old boots, in cooking pots with holes – after a while, everything is a potential garden pot.”

    N.B. – old boots may have been used for something toxic, or at least toxic smelling. PU!

  4. Pat Meadowson 05 Feb 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for the kind words, Sharon.

    But here’s a more up-to-date, and more informative, article I wrote on SWCs (Self-Watering Containers).

    It’s considerably better to use this URL.


    I have just resigned as ListOwner of the Edible Container Gardening List, by the way, although I’m still a moderator there. The new owner is named Kelly and she is doing a very fine job with the list.

    It has developed into a very informative and useful list. Even if people don’t want email from a busy list (and it is a busy list), there’s considerable information in the Files Section of the list, and they could join on a no-mail basis. It’s valuable info, especially for beginners.


  5. Sarahon 05 Feb 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I’m thinking of getting a kaffir lime tree, since I wouldn’t need to give it enough sun to fruit. And maybe some aloe.

    Are there any other useful/edible plants that don’t need much sun?

  6. [...] the rest here: Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » The Joys of the Container, or Why … Share and [...]

  7. Claireon 05 Feb 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I am keeping bananas in containers. I don’t know the variety, probably a dwarf, maybe Dwarf Cavendish. I was given the start and it didn’t come with a variety name. Here in Missouri, we drag the containers out of the basement sometime in April and drag them back into the basement sometime in October. We’ve gotten a few small fruits. Not really worth it from a food standpoint, but kind of fun anyway. It’s not uncommon to see bananas planted in front yards out here, but they have to be planted in April and dug up in October, to be kept in the basement, dormant, over winter. Keeping them in containers is less work.

    I have plenty of containers but they are mostly for pretty flowers. The exceptions are a few non-hardy herbs (bay, rosemary, scented geranium), the bananas, and four citrus trees (Bearss lime, kumquat, Meyer lemon, and navel orange). The navel orange refuses to flower and fruit though it seems healthy. I’ve been nursing the lemon along; it still seems too small to fruit. The kumquat and lime fruit reliably. The citrus plants are so big they have to spend the cold months in the basement, which is too cold and dark for growth and may be why the orange doesn’t fruit. The other containers are crowded around four different windows in the house. When we glass in the south facing porch, I’ll be able to keep the herbs, citrus, and bananas there, and they should be happier.

  8. knutty knitteron 06 Feb 2009 at 5:54 am

    Came across an interesting article in the local paper about a week back. It was mostly concerned with alternate power but it also had a photo of a vege garden grown entirely in old bathtubs. There were over twenty of them – I’ve forgotten the exact number but they looked very interesting. Apparently they keep the rabbits out amongst other things and rabbits are a bit of a problem round here. They would be easy to cover with netting or glass too I’m thinking.

    I made our new window boxes out of old kitchen drawers. The handles are at the back and are hooked onto nails (large) so they are secure but lift off when necessary. They have been very successful so far.

    viv in nz

  9. WNC Observeron 06 Feb 2009 at 11:05 am

    I actually have 3 gardens: an increasing number of raised beds in my yard, a plot at our community garden, and an increasing number of containers on our deck. I grow all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, summer squash, and cukes in containers on the deck, for two reasons: 1) that is the sunniest place on our property, sunnier than any of the raised beds; and 2) I can conveniently water them twice a day (vs. often only once/week at the community garden). Thus, containers on the deck are the best place for me to grow these fruiting vegetables that require lots of sunlight and water.

    For the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants I have fabricated my own self-watering containers, using pairs of 5 gal barrels. The bottom barrel is the water reservoir, the top barrel holds the soil and plant. A length of PVC pipe runs through a hole in the lid and a hole in the bottom of the top barrel so that I can add water to the reservoir. A larger hole in the bottom of the top barrel has a smaller plastic tub or cup fitted in it, with slits all around the sides, and filled with rags; this is what wicks the water from the reservoir up into the growing medium. There is a large hole in the center of the lid ljust large enough for the plant to grow through; having the lid on serves the same function as mulch in minimizing evaporation and weeds. I also have a hole in the side of the lower reservoir barrel, with a plastic tube to provide drainage in case I overfill. These are pretty inexpensive to fabricate and work great.

    I also have a few self-watering hanging containers, where I grow cherry tomatoes.

    For my cukes, I am using those Earth Boxes with the trellis attachment. These are expensive but are well built and I expect to use them the rest of my life. I’ve been buying one per year and have two now, eventually I hope to have several.

    For the Zuchini and Yellow Squash I am using very large tub planters; these I got from a local garden club, they originally held shade trees that were planted for a community project. These are not self watering, but they are so large that I have found that they will hold plenty of moisture between daily waterings. I have gotten some more tubs this year, and I am going to try growing some Minnesota Midget melons in these as well.

    I also grow various annual and perennial herbs in containers on my deck, and have a couple of large-ish containers where I try to get an extra early and extra late crop of bush snap beans to extend my season.

    This year I have also invested in several self-watering windowboxes, which I am going to mount on the deck rail. I plan to grow some crops that are smallish and require a lot of work in these. For example, green onions and radishes; we only need a few at a time, which means that I need to be constantly planting on a succession schedule. It will be more convenient for me to tend to these in one of these window boxes, and they will also get the constant watering that they need.

    One more experiment I am going to try this year is potatoes in containers. I have several large containers which I am going to try. I won’t have enough space on my deck for these, so I’ll try these on the ground just below my deck rail. They will still get a lot of sun, and I can water them from the deck along with my other container plants.

    One experiment that has not worked out very well is strawberries. I have experimented with both regular and alpine strawberries, and with both strawberry pots and a newer pyramid planter. The yields have been pretty poor. If there is a secret to having abundant container strawberies, I haven’t found it yet.

  10. motheroftwoon 09 Feb 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Check out ollas. They are great and require so little water. Not a lot of information out there, but they have been showing up at a local Whole Foods. They were used in ancient civilizations. A group in New Mexico makes them in several different sizes.

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