'Carmen' peppers in container

Q: I want to grow some vegetables in containers this year. Any tips?

A: Space comes at a premium in most gardens. Soils can be a problem – too much clay, too much sand. Light and moisture requirements are not ideal. Pests invade with a vengeance. What’s a vegetable gardener to do? Try gardening in containers. Luckily for us, plant growers and equipment suppliers have responded to our requests with a wide variety of patio-sized vegetables and the containers.

Shopping for containers is more fun now there are so many varieties. Any pot will do, as long as there is enough room for the plant’s roots.
Terra cotta and resin or plastic pots are readily available in a range of sizes, but avoid metal and darker colored pots that may absorb too much heat. Tomatoes are water hogs; they require a five-gallon or larger pot and staking to support the stems and fruit. Cucumbers, eggplant and peppers can be grown in five-gallon pots as well. If the pots are heavy, place the pots on dollies to move them around. Lettuce, baby carrots, herbs, scallions, and radishes can be grown in smaller containers. Potatoes require 25-gallon pots, as do the squash varieties.

Beyond the basic pot:
Grow bags are newcomers to the container market. Made of a felt-like fabric that drains, they are extremely versatile. The bags come in a variety of sizes and fold down for storage at the end of the season. Check gardening supply companies for availability.

Earth boxes or self-watering containers have a water reservoir in the bottom that you fill through a tube. This is an advantage for growing tomatoes and other plants that transfer diseases to the soil with overhead watering.

The upside-down tomato container has become popular with tomato growers. It hangs upside down with the tomato plant growing from the bottom. These can be very heavy. So be sure to hang it on a sturdy hook in an area protected from the wind.

You can grow almost any plant in a container if you have a large enough pot. Think of the street trees you sometimes see in large pots on the sidewalk. It may not live a long life, but it will grow. New varieties of vegetables have been developed for container gardening that have more compact growth habits. Look for the words ‘patio’ or ‘baby’. Seed packets will indicate the full size of the mature plant. Container plants mature at the same rate as garden grown, some even sooner. Most cherry tomatoes such as ‘Sun Gold and ‘Sweet 100’ thrive in containers. Lettuces and herbs grow as well in containers as they do in the garden. New vegetable varieties such as ‘Baby Ball’ carrots, ‘Bambino’ eggplants, mini cucumbers and baby beets are developed for small spaces.

Suitable container soils are usually mixed with vermiculite or another agent to keep it from compacting and help retain water. Some mixtures add slow release fertilizers or water retaining granules. Do not use soil from the garden in your pots; it can carry diseases and pests and will make the pot overly heavy. You can mix your own using the following formula: equal parts compost, garden soil, sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite and sand. Place a piece of screen the size of the pot in the bottom to contain the soil and keep out slugs. Plants in pots need to be fertilized more frequently than garden plants, a diluted fertilizer added when watering works well. They will also need to be watered more frequently as the season progresses and the root system and overall plant become larger.

Most vegetables need lots of sun to grow, at least 6-8 hours a day. Check the seed packet or plant tag for your plant’s specific requirements. One of the advantages of container gardening is portability. You can move the plant to the sunniest spot or to the shade when temperatures rise.

Growing plants in containers allows you to move the pots out of harm’s way – safe from the ravages of deer, raccoons, voles and squirrels. Covering the plants with insect or bird netting will keep other predators away. Some gardeners insert cages made from wire or stakes in their larger containers for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to support the plants. Insect netting can be wrapped around the supports and attached with clothespins.

Whether you are new to gardening and want to experiment with a few vegetables or you’re looking for a way to squeeze more vegetables into your existing garden, container gardening is a great option. Follow these guidelines and your container gardens will flourish.

Contributed by Valerie Smith, Certified Colorado Gardener
Photograph courtesy of Carey Harrington