City Dirt

Setting Up Your Container Garden: Tips for Apartment Dwellers and Small Spaces

By • March 5, 2012 • 29 Comments

This is the fifth in our biweekly series from Amy Pennington — urban farmer, founder of GoGo Green Garden, and author of Urban Pantry and Apartment Gardening — on how to start growing your own food, no matter how tiny your garden-to-be is.

Today: For those of us without garden space, Amy coaches us on the path to container gardening.

Setting Up Your Container Garden: Tips for Apartment Dwellers and Small Spaces

Amy

Many moons ago, I tried to convince a boyfriend to let me grow food in his yard, tearing out existing landscape. (He declined and now has a vegetable bed in the worst place, which I secretly love.) I have a habit of sizing up random yards searching for the perfect place to grow food because sadly, I don’t have a yard or garden of my own. I’m relegated to planting any food I want in pots. It's honestly not my preference, but still, I like to think that I’ve perfected the art of growing in my microclimate. I know I share circumstances with many of you: without some pots on a patio, balcony, or windowsill, we would be plant-less. No fun. So, for this installment of City Dirt, we’re covering container basics for the urbanite looking to supply their kitchen with some garden goodness.

You should know from the onset that not all vegetables grow well in containers. By planting in a contained environment, you are inhibiting the plant’s growth to some extent. Think about it — plants can send out roots and root hairs only as far as the walls of the pot allow. Restricted by the pot, not all plants will come to full maturity and produce food. This presents the biggest challenge of growing food in small spaces.

Deciding What to Grow
The ultimate goal is for your garden to be productive. I aim for a constant supply of ingredients for the kitchen, so I nurture plants that can be continually harvested. I suggest growing plants that will be used frequently, but in small amounts. This gives plants time to regrow between cuttings — no sense in planting a crop that you’ll wipe out in one go. (I figure it’s better to have something available over a long course of time.)

I rely heavily on herbs in my garden. Herbs will single-handedly change the flavor of most recipes and are often pricey at the grocery; many are not commercially available.

Plants that produce abundant quantities of ingredients that I know I’ll use often are also a favorite. Lettuces, for example: these are wonderful to grow at home. They take up little space, produce (and reproduce!) quickly, and offer fresh greens for salads, or for a nice leafy garnish. I use lettuce in large amounts, and their fast growing cycle makes them highly productive, economical, and worthwhile.

Plan on mixing it up to make sure there is always something new and different to harvest. Choose plants that will run through their life cycle in one season (annuals) as well as plants that continue to come back year after year in the same pot (perennials).

Make the most of what you grow by considering its uses beyond the kitchen. Lavender makes a subtle herb rub for seared duck breast and can also be used as a herbal stuffing for an eye pillow. Scented geranium leaves can be chopped and used in sweet recipes, infused into water for a facial toner, or steeped to make teas.

A container garden should ebb and flow, just like a large garden. Some plants are grown for their leaves, some for their seeds, and some for their fruits. I try to round out my garden plan so there is always something ready to harvest. Today, as I write this, I have marjoram, thyme, and scented geraniums that survived the winter. Arugula and mache are just popping up, too, having reseeded themselves from last year (at the end of the season I stopped harvesting their leaves and let them "go to seed" — the matured plant grows seed pods that fall into the soil and regrow). Within three weeks, the lovage should be starting to show (the same plants I’ve had for four years) and I’ll be planting a second crop of arugula.

Getting Started
To start a garden in containers, at a bare minimum you’ll need pots, soil, and a low-level organic fertilizer. A bag of compost is also a great addition. Access to water is an important consideration. In my own garden, I fill eight old water bottles and carry them back and forth from my kitchen sink. Just make sure you have some way to water your plants, as containers require a diligent watering schedule.

Most plants need a little legroom to stretch their roots. Try to plant in a pot that’s a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity.

Cleaning out an old pot and soil  a soil mix - fill pots ALL the way
a start gets planted  a start into pot

Materials
Plastic pots are the least expensive container option, so they’re great for anyone on a budget. It’s true that they are usually the least attractive option, but they hold their moisture longer than clay or ceramic pots and are lighter and easier to move around.

Clay pots are porous, so air moves easily through their walls. This is helpful in that it allows roots to breathe and keeps them out of direct water, but it’s not helpful in that the soil tends to dry out quickly. In hot weather you’ll need to closely monitor the moisture in your clay pots. They are a fairly inexpensive option for the home gardener after plastic, and they come in myriad shapes and sizes. If you choose clay pots, be sure to purchase a saucer or plate to sit under the pot. This works in two ways — to keep moisture off the surface of your deck or patio and to hold in moisture for the plant.

I won't be discussing it here, but making your own pots is super rewarding, too!

Soil
You must use potting soil in your containers — soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of lightness so that plants are able to breathe, drain well, and still hold in some moisture. (Air is right up there with sun and water in importance to healthy, thriving plants!) Look for organic potting soil mixes from smaller regional companies rather than the national brands you’ll find in big-box stores. Choose a potting soil that has no added fertilizer or nutrients. It is best to add those on your own as needed for the particular plants you will grow.

If you are adding new plants to previously used containers, do not rely on simply digging a small hole in the soil and stuffing in a plant start. Old soils often contain dead roots from previous plants (see above). These roots will impede the new plant’s roots and constrict air as the new plant tries to grow into the same small space. For that reason, just as you would in a garden bed, it’s best to rework your soil before planting. As on the farm, till your soil using a fork or your hands. Loosen it up, remove the root hairs, then gently work in some compost and a spoonful of a low-level organic fertilizer before adding a new plant start.

We will cover more container plant topics like feeding your plant, tending for plants, and more in upcoming articles, but for now these are the basics you need to get growing. As ever, I’m looking forward to all of your questions in the comments!

Up next, seed starting: big things come in tiny packages.

Photos by Della Chen

Tags: city dirt, garden, containers, pots, compost, gardening, urban gardening, urban, windowsill

Comments (29)

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over 1 year ago SkipStein

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Sincerely,
Skip Stein
FOODY Hydroponics Systems
SkipStein@foody-hydroponics...
407-683-6816

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over 2 years ago msitter

Great article. Came across it because of an amanda hesser twitter. I love growing herbs in my apartment, but have had marginal success. I used a bottom-watering troughs 7 x 6 x 18" and put three herbs in each. They sat in a sunny screened (and always open) window. They were watered from the bottom of the trough which we finally decided was bad. I used a good quality potted soil, but no peat moss, fertilizer, or compost. I had herbs for the season, but quite modest in volume and quality. The rosemary was especially weird-firm and not full-more like a bush. Want tto do better. Would appreciate a response for what to do, but also references for other articles that might help. Thanks. And, cheeers.

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over 2 years ago msitter

Great article. Came across it because of an amanda hesser twitter. I love growing herbs in my apartment, but have had marginal success. I used a bottom-watering troughs 7 x 6 x 18" and put three herbs in each. They sat in a sunny screened (and always open) window. They were watered from the bottom of the trough which we finally decided was bad. I used a good quality potted soil, but no peat moss, fertilizer, or compost. I had herbs for the season, but quite modest in volume and quality. The rosemary was especially weird-firm and not full-more like a bush. Want tto do better. Would appreciate a response for what to do, but also references for other articles that might help. Thanks. And, cheeers.

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over 2 years ago Mandilynn

In future posts, will you be talking about soil more? I'm not sure of the ratio of soil to fertilizer to compost I should be using. I have absolutely zero gardening experience but really want to try growing my own herbs. I'm also curious about safe pesticides. The one time I tried to grown basil, it got eaten by bugs instead of by me.

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

I covered basic soil prep in an earlier post. Check it out here: http://food52.com/blog..., or search my site www.gogogreengarden.com for some soil information. Let me know in a future post if you still have question.

As for pesticides, I don't use them. I use inter-cropping, crop rotation and decoy crops as strategic pest control. More on that on my site and in future posts here, for sure.

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over 2 years ago janelovestocook

what other plants besides herbs and lettuces do well in containers? Red/green peppers? tomatoes? Anything else? Thanks! jane

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Hi Jane, Anything shallow-rooted will do well. Check out my book for details: http://rcm.amazon.com/e...

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over 2 years ago Sistasheba

What are the effects on plants from urban pollution plus Metro North across the street? On the 2nd floor, we get soot and grime on balcony (vacuumed regularly so large furry pup can lounge there and not bring dirt inside). However, 12 hour sun exposure on same balcony is to die for!

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Oh, this is a hard one! Try protecting your plants this year with floating row cover. It will help keep environmental soot and residue off, while still letting light shine in on your plants. (And as an added benefit, it will help hold in moisture! Though, they'll look like cocoons.)

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over 2 years ago Renee Marchol

thanks for the watering tips. I wondered why my urban garden hyacinths died but my basil survived.

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over 2 years ago PistachioDoughnut

I really love this column especially this week's article as I live in an apartment and I started growing herbs last year when I had a nice backyard. But , recently we shifted to an apartment with no porch and I have my plants inside the house on windowsill. Now, my question here is that I had four things going on in the container basil, fenugreek leaves, mint and Green bell pepper. Basil did really good and so also fenugreek . But, somehow I was't happy with mint because it was growing well but didn't really have fragrance or flavor the way mint should have and even the bell pepper did not do so well.I got only two bell pepper the whole summer. I am wondering should I try again the same by adding new seeds and removing the old leftover roots or particles. And, secondly, right now there is nothing going on in any of plants because they were out in snow before I moved them inside in my previous apartment. Should I seed them again or I am literally confused how to go about them with the same herbs or same stuff and increase my containers to something else cherry tomatoes and lettuce etc. Should I leave them outside (which is not so much possible on daily basis but can try ) or leaving them inside the house is OK with closed windows. If i leave them outside , I am bit worried it should not get any unwanted stuff like insects or bugs.

And, I saw a video few months back on TED.com, which I really liked so just sharing it with y'all - http://www.ted.com/talks...

Thanks Amy!

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over 2 years ago Foodiewithalife

I have a studio and no patio, so it's been a struggle to grow herbs indoors. Basil did not turn out well. You're inspiring me to give it another go. Are there any herbs that you reccommend for a warm-ish temp? Since I can't keep them outside, my house is usually between 60*-70*F.

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Many herbs would do well in this environment, to be honest. Your bigger concern should be the size of your pot (bigger is better) and your sun - you want about 6 hours of direct sunlight for herbs. And you need to water! Never let soil dry out, and don't keep it too wet - like Goldilocks, you have to find the perfect fit for your mini-climate. GOOD LUCK!

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over 2 years ago Lydia Schaffer

I'm in college, and right now I reside in a dorm. My roommate thinks I'm crazy for the two pots I have on my windowsill! One has pursulane and a couple of pansies, and one has thyme and tricolor sage squished in it ... although I think the thyme will need a new pot soon. Do you sell your book Apartment Gardening through Barnes and Noble? I would love to check it out since next year I'll have a patio (oh endless options ...) Anyway, loved the post. Very helpful!

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

HI Lydia,

Keep me posted on your windowsill garden - I'm always curious about the productivity of those. Have you seen this? www.windowfarms.org? You will love! And yes, AG is available at book retailers nationwide - THANKS!

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over 2 years ago scg

omg. The windowfarms Project is so cool. Thx for sharing!!

- a nyc apartment dweller

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over 2 years ago mdbrigham

Very useful post. I've struggled to consistently get my herbs going now that we're in an apartment. It was easy to neglect them. I also struggle with light/angles because our porch is in the building's courtyard.

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over 2 years ago Rob Johnson

Even though I have a yard, I love container gardening! Great post Amy!

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over 2 years ago hayley.marcus

Thanks for the great post! I've just started getting into gardening myself. My mom always had a small herb and vegetable garden, and now for the first time I have my own little garden, on my windowsill inside my kitchen. My rosemary, thyme, and sage that just survived their first winter and are having a little growth spurt thanks to the sun that decided to show its face a little more. (My basil only made it to November, but I'm excited to get it going again). Anyway, your post was great and has definitely inspired me to explore more options when I move this summer to as place that *hopefully* has a teeeny bit more space to expand to more pots and more than just herbs [I'd definitely like to try lettuce!). I was hoping maybe you could point us in the direction for good resources that will specifically describe which plants will or will not do well and plants and what kind of sunlight and season different plants need. Also, I think it'd be really cool if you knew of DIY ways to fortify your plants. For example, I think my grandfather used to use egg shells in his garden (but I don't know why), or anything like that. [I don't currently have the capacity for true composting]. Thanks so much and I'm excited for it to get warmer to start planting!

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Great questions and congrats on branching out and expanding. Not to be a super sales person, but I have all of these sort of answers and specifics in my book, Apartment Gardening: http://www.gogogreengarden... - check it out! I wrote it as a tried and true resources for interested gardeners because I find that soooooo many garden/containter books out there over promise and under deliver. (PS - smaller plants will do well in containers, so cherry tomatoes vs beefsteak & you can use coffee grinds for mulch/fertilzer!)

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over 2 years ago carmeneatyourgreens

I've got some beets started in my basement right now under grow lights.
Once they've produced their first true leaves, can I put them in pots on my porch?
Or should beets only be grown in a garden bed?

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Beets do much better in a garden bed. As they are a root vegetable, they really need space to ....well root! So, unless you have a deep box (say 1.5 feet or more) I would recommend planting directly in the ground (AND direct sowing - don't really need beet starts unless your ground is frozen just now. Where do you live?)

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over 2 years ago carmeneatyourgreens

I live in Philly...I'm an apartment dweller but luckily I get to have a raised bed in the yard out back as well as some pots on the porch.
I'll definitely throw some seeds in the ground this weekend, as well as my starts to see what happens.
That's what I love about gardening, it's always an adventure!

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over 2 years ago carol_tanenbaum

And for those of us who have no balcony, nor are able to set plants outside on windowsills, but must make do with strictly indoor container gardening, what do you recommend? Aside from moving?

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

Ha, Carol! Yes, you can grow a flat of microgreens on a kitchen counter in under two weeks. I would also recommend you consider sprouting, which is sort of growing....but different! Still produces a vegetative, healthy and delicious end result. Otherwise, I would recommend a community land share! Do you know about www.urbangardenshare.org? check it out!

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over 2 years ago carol_tanenbaum

Thanks, Amy. I should've added that I've got two cats (Russian Blue, Korat) who think that almost every green living thing is being raised for them to nibble (and vomit), so I need to be sure that whatever I attempt to grow isn't felin toxic. Although they leave the orchids alone, even when blooming. Will check out a community land share, but would really love to raise some rosemary, etc on my (due east) facing windowsill.

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over 2 years ago lazychef

Can you say a little more about which plants do and do not do well in containers? Last summer, I tried my hand at container gardening for the first time and grew herbs, hot peppers, bell peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. The herbs, hot peppers, and eggplant did great. The bell peppers did ok (although the fruit stayed fairly small) and the tomatoes did rather poorly. (Of course, all of the failures may be due as much to my poor gardening technique as anything else). Which fruiting plants do you recommend for containers, and which are destined for failure?

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over 2 years ago Amy Pennington

As I noted in another comment, I have all of these sort of answers and specifics in my book, Apartment Gardening: http://www.gogogreengarden... - check it out! I wrote it as a tried and true resources for interested gardeners because I find that soooooo many garden/containter books out there over promise and under deliver.

That said, bell peppers are big peppers and hot peppers are smaller, so if using a container, always opt for a smaller fruit. Make sense? Choose a cornichon over a market sized green cucumber. I like Cucurbitaceae plants for containers. And note also that fruiting plants need LOTS of sun to be successful - 10 hours would be perfect (8 at minimum) of direct sunlight. And you'll need to fertilize with some phosphorus which supports both flower development and fruit.

Keep me posted on how it turns out!

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over 2 years ago Winner Celebration Party

Great post! I had a balcony garden last year with promise, but I unfortunately neglected it over time (plus partial sun wasn't treating some of the plants well). The one question I always have is, how large should my pots be? I imagine it varies depending on the type of plant. Can you recommend a minimum size, or even sizes according to type of plant? Thanks!