Gardening

10 Best Vegetables to Grow in Pots, No Garden Required

Plant, prune, and pick your way to a yard-to-table summer.

April 22, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

This past year has seen a surge of moves to the suburbs, time spent on balconies and in yards, and home cooking, which inevitably also led to people thinking about growing their own food. Growing herbs and vegetables doesn’t have to take up an entire yard or require a farmer’s touch, either. Everyday people (you!) can successfully feed themselves fresh homegrown produce, no matter how big or small the outdoor space.

I checked in with two plant experts, Nadia Hassani, plant author and Penn State Master Gardener, and Tim McSweeney, Food52 design director and backyard farmer extraordinaire, to find out the best starter produce for growing in containers. But first, a couple things to keep in mind:

Both Nadia and Tim reminded me that growing in containers means much more frequent watering (as opposed to planting in the ground) to prevent the roots from drying out, as well as frequent fertilizing (Tim says a good liquid seaweed or comfrey tea will do), so be prepared to carefully tend to your individual salad ingredients as they reach maturity. Pots can also overheat (especially the black plastic ones), so doubling down on each container is a smart idea to provide the plants with insulation.

If you’ve never grown vegetables, something else you may not know is that they need pollination, and in order for this to occur, you’ll need to lure some pollinators (bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds) into your garden to do the dirty work for you. The best way to do this is to pepper (ha) in some pollinator plants, like goldenrod, purple coneflower, or sunflowers, along with your vegetables.

Lastly, it’s probably best to plant a variety of plants, so if one doesn’t work out, you’ll have other successes to fall back on. Now, onto all the edible things you can grow:

Vegetables all grown on a fire escape by our Senior Merchandiser, Aja Aktay. Photo by Aja Aktay

1 Gallon Containers

1. Lettuce

Nadia suggests a whole window planter box for lettuces, as you won’t be able to fit more than one in a gallon container, but imagine reaching out of your window to pluck some fresh romaine for a Caesar salad? Incomparable.

2. Herbs, of Course

Basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, you name it—herbs are a great choice for first-time edible gardeners. If you don’t cut all the herbs and let them go to bloom, you create attraction for pollinators and also end up with fragrant, edible flowers (chive blossoms, for example, are delicious).

3. Edible Flowers

Adorable for plating and quite delicious in a number of applications, edible flowers provide both a source of sustenance and a gorgeous, aromatic environment for you and the rest of your plant children.

4. Spinach

Similar to lettuce, spinach (and many leafy greens, Nadia adds, for that matter) will do well in containers. Spinach and feta omelets all summer, y’all.


3 to 5 Gallon Containers

5. Tomatoes

The poster child for balcony plants, tomatoes are a perfect addition to any small-space vegetable garden.

6. Mini Eggplant

While full-sized eggplants would be a bit of a pain to grow in containers, Nadia recommends a mini version, like fairy-tale eggplants, which are specially grown for small-container gardening. You’ll be nailing a fresh-from-the-garden baba ghanoush in no time.

7. Kale

Hardy, chewy, leafy, crunchy kale—not only does it make any dish feel complete, it’s also relatively easy to grow yourself; you’ll just need 3-to-5-gallon containers. Another option Nadia suggested is kalette, a delightful little crossbreed between kale and Brussels sprouts.

8. Hot Peppers

Good news for small-space gardeners: “Hot peppers actually like their roots constrained,” Tim says, “so they don't get quite as bushy. But to compensate for their restriction, they kick out more fruit, i.e., peppers.” More peppers, please!

9. Swiss Chard

Hey again, leafy green! With lettuces, spinach, and kale already, your table and smoothies are going to be full of fibrous, iron-rich goodness.

10. Cucamelons

A viral little wonder, cucamelons (which also go by the names Mexican sour gherkins or mouse melons) aren’t actually melons at all: They’re in the cucumber family, but with a tangier, more citrusy flavor. Nadia advises that they can be finicky from seed, though, so it’s best to look for a seedling at a nursery and provide them a trellis to grow up onto.

What are your favorite vegetables to grow in containers? Tell us about your successes (and failures) below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • kdenton
    kdenton
  • Ruth
    Ruth
  • Frances
    Frances
  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • Olj
    Olj
When I'm not writing & editing for Home52, I'm likely to be found DIY-ing a new piece of furniture (or restoring an old one), hanging things on the wall in my apartment, or watching hours of vintage RHONY.

18 Comments

kdenton April 29, 2021
Several years ago we lived in a sixth floor apartment with French doors on the back that opened to a bit of a ledge, not a balcony. It wasn’t screened (needled to keep bugs out). We put pots of tomato plants on the ledge and watched them flourish. One day I opened the French doors to see a squirrel gnawing on my lovely red orbs. Needless to say, I did not want this rodent in our apartment and quickly shut the doors. The critter climbed six stories of brick wall to take a few nibbles! From then on the “war” was on...how to get the tomato before the squirrel did.
 
Ruth April 26, 2021
Count me as another who thinks this is a sweet-spirited article that could use a little more meat on its bones. Can you find the Kristin Miglore or Maurizio Leo of the gardening world, who can go into depth with posts that teach more than these few basics, which can be found on any number of sites? Among other issues: predators. Are you prepared to fight off squirrels, birds, and (shudder) rats? Anyway, I realize articles about gardening are mostly a way of helping to sell the lovely items in your shop, but let's see a little more substance, please.
 
Olj April 26, 2021
I am planting a container garden. Are you saying it will attract rats?

I have an unearthly fear of them and am
about to throw out $100 worth of plants I was about to pot.

I am very scared. Please be honest and answer quickly. Thank you
 
Smaug April 26, 2021
It's really not a big worry. Rats, particularly roof rats (which are considerably less obnoxious than the Norway rats that typically invade buildings) will poke around if they're already established in the area-- they like lemon peels and will chew tomatoes if they're thirsty, among other things- but a container garden isn't all that attractive to them and generally lacks the sort of cover they like.
 
Ruth April 27, 2021
I'd agree with this. If you live in the city and you see rats around your area, I'd be cautious, especially if you're on garden level. If you're on a higher floor or don't see rats around the streets, I wouldn't worry too much. We're on the third floor, and I struggle with squirrels, but I've never seen a rat among my plants.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. April 27, 2021
Hi Ruth! Our articles about gardening are a new foray for us, as we've seen a keen interest among our readers for the topic, so we hope you'll bear with us as we further expand the vertical. Re: a gardening expert, I assure you it's in the works.
 
Smaug April 27, 2021
Good luck with that- it's extremely difficult to write about gardening on a national (or more) level, it's just so different in different places.
 
Frances April 24, 2021
I have seen 4 or more articles like this in the last 2 weeks. Not 1 has asked the question "how much room do you have?" A 15 gallon pot takes a lot of room. Do you live on the second story? and If you do how many lbs will your balcony hold? Counting the pot, dirt, plant and water that's a lot when you're talking about a 15 gallon pot. I have seen pots stacked, on shelves, hanging, window boxes on the rails. But they were all small. If the water runs off is it going to rain down on the people down stairs? and Do you have the sun for the plants you want? You have to plan for it. Or it won't work.
 
Smaug April 24, 2021
Any garden needs careful planning and understanding of available resources- unfortunately these articles generally aren't written by gardeners, the best that can be hoped is that they'll spur people to research the subject. For what it's worth, a 15 gal. nursery container is 16" across; it takes 200 square inches, or about 2% of an 8'x8' balcony. Tomato plants themselves can take up a lot of room and need support. Squashes and cucumbers can be huge plants, even small ones eat up a lot of surface area. Balconies should be able to deal with rainfall, but they aren't always well designed, and water from watering plants will stain.
 
creamtea April 24, 2021
I agree with Smaug and Francis, the article is a little simplistic. You'll need to know your conditions (which direction does your balcony face? How much sun do you receive? How breezy, cool, damp or dry is your spot? Different balconies, even in the same building, can have different microclimates. I've tried tomatoes, strawberries, globe carrots, leeks, chives, peppers on a North-facing balcony with varied success. If your site is cool or breezy, peppers may not do well. For tomatoes, it's worth doing a little research to find out which varieties do well in pots, are amenable to your microclimate and season length, and have some flavor to offer.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. April 27, 2021
Hi Frances! These newer garden articles are meant to serve as a base-level understanding of what our readers may or may not be able to grow, as any gardener well knows it takes a lot of research and preparation to properly plant a garden. It's all dependent on personal preference, and we'd like to encourage people to take a stab at it!
 
Smaug April 30, 2021
Noticing in emails lately that Serious Eats is taking some random stabs at gardening, and a lot of sites -Relish, Epicurious (now apparently "Cook This Now") etc. are leaning more and more on retail sales (their own or their "partners'") and "lifestyle" articles (cleaning, gardening, decorating,DIY) that tend to be more about shopping than doing. I guess there's not enough money in sticking to food these days.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. May 3, 2021
Hey Smaug, this is Home52 (our home vertical that launched last year) which is purely dedicated to cleaning, decorating, gardening, organizing & anything else home-related.
 
Smaug May 3, 2021
Okay, now you've lost me. I'm none too sure what a "home vertical" would be- an offshoot at a guess- but I logged into Food52 and that's the heading on the page.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. May 3, 2021
https://food52.com/blog/25174-home52-is-here-amanda-merrill-home52-announcement Here's the announcement for the launch from last year.
 
Smaug April 22, 2021
Actually many vegetables don't require pollinators- in the first place many of them- tomatoes, peppers, corn etc. are wind pollinated. In the second place pollination is only needed to produce fruit or seeds- without going into any of that "it's not a vegetable, it's a fruit" nonsense, leafy vegetables are mostly better before they flower and root vegetables may or may not care.
When you talk of herbs, most of them fall into two distinct groups. Soft herbs such as parsley, cilantro, basil and the like are annuals or biennials (they flower and then die)- most of them are members of the carrot family (umbelliferae- I think officially something else now). Most will do well in relatively small pots, but are pretty much through when they flower. Hard herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano etc., mostly members of the labiatae, are long lived, deep rooted plants. They are tough and can struggle along in small pots for a few years, but are by nature deep rooted shrubs that need a lot of space. I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether a 3-5 gallon pot is sufficient to grow tomatoes in- there are patio tomatoes that work on that scale, though I've never found one that tasted decent, and some, such as cherry tomatoes and Early Girls, can take just about anything and still produce a few tomatoes, but generally a full sized tomato plant needs at least a 15 gallon nursery pot (which is actually only something like 12 gallons). I don't agree with the advice on peppers, though some plants- Begonias jump to mind- do behave that way, and perhaps some of the smaller hot peppers do too, but most that I've grown like at least 10 gal. pots. I did find a nice, large sweet pepper called Carmen (from Park seed) last year that is surprisingly productive in 5 gallon or so pots.
 
Nadia H. April 25, 2021
Re the pollinators, you are correct, many vegetables are self-pollinating and technically do not need insects, but reality is a bit different. A bee moving from flower to flower helps to shake loose the pollen. I had the direct comparison one year when I grew mini eggplants in containers for an educational event. Eggplants usually get devoured by flea beetles in my garden and I needed healthy-looking plants so I protected them with insect netting. The netted plants looked great with almost picture-perfect leaves but there were barely any eggplants whereas the very same eggplant variety in my garden with lots of pollinators swarming about, started at the same time and grown under the same conditions besides the netting, looked quite sad with their chewed up leaves. Yet like every year, those plants were loaded with eggplants. In this era of dramatic pollinator shortage, encouraging gardeners to add pollinator plants to their mix whatever they grow can only help the plants thrive.
 
Smaug April 25, 2021
Could be, I guess. I don't grow eggplants, but I've never seem insects show any interest in the flowers on my peppers and tomatoes (other than one giant fuzzy yellow bee- I think a male valley carpenter bee- that spent a lot of time circling one plant, but it was acting more like it was protecting a nest than looking for food). Pollen generally doesn't need much help releasing, but I suppose it could use some help in protected situations. I've heard of people growing tomatoes in greenhouses doing things like massaging their plants with electric toothbrushes to help get things moving.