Container gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of growing their own food and enhance their connection with the natural world. You don’t need a large plot of land or fancy planters to grow your own vegetables. Many types of containers can be used to grow a bounty of veggies, herbs and flowers, and having them right by the door provides a wonderful sense of immediate gratification. I appreciate having them close at hand when I’m throwing together a quick salad and my kids love popping juicy cherry tomatoes into their mouths as they come in and out of the house. And perhaps the best part of container gardening: no weeds!
Container gardens can thrive anywhere the sun shines. Most fruiting types of plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers or zucchini require at least eight hours of sunshine per day to thrive, but there are still delicious and beautiful plants that grow well in shadier spots. Most herbs will grow in part shade, meaning they need between four and six hours of sun exposure each day. Other plants that grow well in part shade include kale, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, nasturtiums, blueberries and black raspberries.
Choose the right container and dirt
Almost any plant will grow well in a container as long as it drains and is the appropriate size for that variety. Ideas for up-cycling containers for plants include five-gallon buckets, used drink cups, yogurt cups, aluminum cans, salad containers and hollow logs. Drill holes in the bottom to allow for drainage, then place a layer of rock, pot shards or even used coffee filters over the hole to prevent the soil from washing out. Potting mix is the ideal, thanks to its balanced mixture of nutrients, organic matter like peat to hold moisture, and ingredients like pearlite and vermiculite to provide drainage. Plants will still grow in containers filled with regular garden soil, but they likely won’t get as much aeration to the roots as they would with potting mix, resulting in smaller, less vigorous plants.
Avoid the temptation to over-water your plants. The best way to tell when plants need a drink is to stick a finger in the dirt: If the top two inches of the soil are dry, it’s time for more water.
What to grow
There are so many plants that grow well in containers that it’s easier to list what doesn’t grow well. Sweet corn is the only home garden crop that I wouldn’t recommend growing in containers; it takes a lot of space to grow and pollinate properly, so planting it in small spaces isn’t really practical. Most other vegetables, however, do exceptionally well. Favorite vegetables to grow in containers include, but are not limited to:
Beans: Bush-type bread beans do well in containers as small as 8″ wide and 8″ deep per plant, or three plants in a five-gallon bucket. Varieties to try include Contender, Jade and Burgundy Bush Bean.
Beets: In addition to the sweet roots, beet greens are also delicious and versatile in the kitchen and grow well in combination with other greens. Space seeds 2″ apart in a two-gallon container. Bulls Blood, Early Wonder and stripy Chioggia are fun varieties to grow with kids. Try adding beets to your favorite mashed potato recipe to make what my grandma calls “red flannel hash.”
Carrots: Make sure the container is at least 3″ deeper than the estimated length of the carrot variety you are planting and space seeds 2″ apart. Little Finger, Thumbelina and Short ‘n’ Sweet are smaller, fast-maturing types, ideal for containers.
Cucumber: Look for more compact bush-type varieties as opposed to the sprawling vine-types. One cucumber plant will grow successfully in a one-gallon container, or you can fit as many as three plants in a five-gallon bucket. Plant a small tomato cage or some sturdy sticks to provide extra support. Check out varieties like Lemon Cucumber (a small, round variety that looks just like a lemon), Spacemaster 80 and Lunchbox.
Lettuce and spinach: These easy-to-grow plants have relatively shallow roots, but still need a gallon-sized container that’s about 6″ deep. Enjoy lettuce and spinach in the cooler weather in early summer – it tends to get bitter in extreme heat. Plant another round in late summer for harvest in early fall. Some of my favorite varieties include Flashy Butter Gem and Red Romaine lettuce and Bloomsdale spinach.
Peppers: Two plants will fit in a two-gallon container. Kids love the sweet mini varieties like Lunchbox, Cupid and Hungarian Cherry peppers.
Tomatoes: Use at least a five-gallon sized container per plant, and make sure to provide support with a stake or a cage. Cherry and grape tomatoes are great for kids because they are heavy producers and fast to ripen. Favorite varieties include Sweet 100, Chocolate Cherry and Pink Bumblebee.
Ashley Meyer is a Springfield mom of two whose kids enjoy planting cherry tomatoes and mini cucumbers.
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