No matter where you live, growing food in containers can be accomplished if you learn some basics. While some types of vegetables are simply better suited to growing with their roots in the ground, the determined gardener can grow almost any kind of food plant in containers. It is the nature of all plants that some require more root space than others. Lettuce, for instance, has a relatively small root system that grows shallowly, near the surface of the soil. By comparison, some squash plants have roots that will have an eventual diameter of thirty feet if they’re allowed to grow unrestricted. Clearly, squash plants are not well suited to container growing.
Other kinds of plants don’t have enormous root systems, but they get too tall to manage in all but the largest container. Corn and quinoa grown for seeds are both good examples. And some plants need space for their roots to develop – beets, garlic, onions, parsnips, radishes, and turnips all need depth combined with lateral growth in order to develop fully.
Balcony farmers and container growers need to consider these three essentials:
- They need to hold the soil in place. You can use thick plastic or burlap bags, window boxes, terracotta pots, or anything that will provide a stable receptacle for soil.
- They need drainage. Plants don’t want to sit in water, so it needs some place to go. Drain holes at the bottom of the container are critical.
- They need to be at least 10cm (4”) deep. Deeper than this is even better – in fact the more room you can offer the plants, the larger their root systems will grow, so they’ll be able to take up more nutrients.
It’s important to remember that the soil in containers is going to be warmer than the soil in the ground. While this benefits heat-loving plants like peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and melons, it also means that evaporation of water out of the soil will become an issue in hot weather. On a sunny balcony in mid-summer, you might have to water twice a day to keep plants healthy. While the soil needs drainage, it also never wants to be completely dry, so this can be a challenge for container growers.
Sunlight is another matter to think about before you get started. All plants need at least some direct sunlight in order to thrive, but fruiting plants like peppers and tomatoes require a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunshine every day. At least with containers, you can move plants around to make the most of the sunshine.
Soil for growing veggies in containers needs to be very fertile. Many store-bought potting soils will suffice, but you should mix some balanced organic fertilizer into the soil at planting time, and provide a liquid fish or kelp based fertilizer at regular intervals throughout the season – every three weeks should suffice. In her outstanding book, Backyard Bounty, Linda Gilkeson recommends this mix for homemade container blends:
“Mix equal parts peat moss/coir, good garden soil, compost and sand. Using perlite or vermiculite instead of the sand will make the mix lighter in weight.”
Gilkeson also provides a lightweight recipe in her book for growers on rooftop gardens.
One final piece of advice is to avoid over crowding your containers. If you’re sowing mesclun seeds, use only a scant pinch of seeds. Over crowded plants will not have access to the light and nutrients they need for steady growth, so they’ll end up leggy or stunted. Whenever you’re growing the plant on to full maturity (like with fruiting plants or for full sized leafy heads), grow one plant per pot. For these plants, 5 gallons is a standard minimum pot size – otherwise look for containers that are as wide as they are deep. These will probably be so heavy that they cannot be moved once they are planted.
Arugula – Try Astro (MS483) in containers on your balcony. Its natural resistance to bolting means it works a little better in containers than some of the others.
Bush Beans – Mascotte (BN103). If you want to grow bush beans in containers, Mascotte is the one. Plants are compact, yet productive, and the beans are delicious!
Drying Beans – Calypso Bean (BN176). Super-productive plants that stay compact and bushy. Great in containers – and great in soups! A very fun crop to grow with your kids.
Pole Beans – Matilda (BN134). If your space is limited, grow up! Trellis these tall plants and enjoy lots of straight beans from productive plants.
Beets – Try Bull’s Blood (BT174) as a micro-green, and harvest just as the first set of true leaves is emerging. Eye-catching and delicious – and very nutritious.
Broccoli – Certified Organic Broccoli Micro-greens (MG195). These are very easy and fast to grow, and by all accounts one of the healthiest things you can eat. Perfect for even the smallest home food production space!
Cucumbers – Patio Snacker (CU381). This new selection stays very compact and bushy, but produces impressively large, very tasty fruits. Try Patio Snacker in containers in your balcony garden.
Kale – Vates Blue Curled (KL429) stays smaller and more compact, and grows perfectly well in containers or raised beds. It’s also cold hardy, so well suited to winter harvesting.
Lettuce – Lettuce plants have relatively small root systems, so they work quite well in well drained containers when the soil is kept moist. Even large varieties like the classic Parris Island Cos (LT470) can grow to full size in tighter spaces.
Mescluns & Salad Greens – City Garden Blend (LT450) is lovely. Several different seeds are pelleted together, so you only need to plant three or four pellets in a 3 to 5 gallon container. Watch as a beautiful selection of different green and red lettuces grows in, and then start harvesting! This blend requires very little space, and can be accomplished on a sunny windowsill.
Micro-greens – Micro-greens are all about down-sizing, so they can be grown just about anywhere. Instead of recommending a specific seed, we recommend the Growlight Garden (ZHG289A), which can be used to produce masses of micro-greens on a continuous basis in only 2 x 3 feet!
Mustard Greens – Komatsuna (MU540). You have to try this amazing mustard! It’s tender and mild and does well in containers, and it’s incredibly cold hardy. It will easily survive a mild winter, or you can just bring your containers indoors. Komatsuna can be harvested as baby greens just three weeks after planting, or allowed to form full, spinach-like leaves. It is also available as a beautifully attractive red-leaf variety Komatsuna Red (MU547).
Onions – Scallions are actually very easy to grow, they take up very little room, and they are surprisingly cold hardy, so you can grow them from early spring until around November. Give them some cloche cover, and you can harvest all winter. They are all excellent, but Kincho (ON569) may be the closest to what you would find in the supermarket.
Pac Choi – Toy Choi (MU522) works very well in containers and raised beds. It’s compact to the point of being cute, but tastes wonderful raw or cooked. Very nice, crunchy, succulent stems.
Peas – Surprise your guests by serving a salad of pea microgreens using Dwarf Grey Sugar (PE592). Harvest the seedlings at about 4 inches tall, while they are still tender and crunchy – try them with a simple vinaigrette dressing!
Potatoes – Reusable Potato Grow Bags (HG402) allow you to grow potatoes pretty much anywhere other than full shade. Grow some on your balcony or in your driveway!
Spinach – Try Space (SP704) in containers or even window boxes. Space is very compact and upright, holding its leaves skyward for easy harvesting. Plus it’s super fast growing and very tasty.
Strawberries – Choose an ever-bearing variety like Yellow Alpine (FR840), and enjoy fresh picked strawberries from spring to late summer. Strawberries belong in every balcony garden.
Swiss Chard – Give Peppermint Swiss Chard (SW763) a try this season in any large container. Aim for relatively vigorous root growth and a pot size of 5 gallons or more. It’s pretty enough to treat as an ornamental – and then you get to eat it!
Tomatoes – For anyone short on growing space, Red Robin (TM826) is a clear winner. It was bred to be productive in containers and hanging baskets, and its fruits are abundant and delectably sweet.
Basil – Certified Organic Dolly Basil (HR1025) has all the aroma of Genovese, but with slightly larger leaves, faster growth, and a better tolerance of the cool nighttime temperatures that can occur on balconies and rooftop gardens. It’s also slightly better suited for container growing.
Chervil – Chervil (HR1061) is unfamiliar to many North American gardeners, which is a pity. Not only does it complement salads well with its mild, distinctive licorice flavour, it also tolerates partial shade better than any other herb.
Chives – Grow a wide, bowl-shaped container of Chives (HR1065), and you’ll be cutting them for fresh use all summer. Chives are very easy to grow.
Dill – Even if you are constrained by space, you can still grow Certified Organic Ella Dill (HR1024), which was bred for container growing. Ella stays compact and bushy, but still attracts all the good garden insects – plus it’s aromatic and flavourful. Grow some in your balcony herb garden.
Mint – Container growing is the recommended method for Peppermint (HR1090), because it can spread rapidly in the right soil conditions and become weedy. Imagine fresh mint straight from your balcony herb garden!
Oregano – Certified Organic Oregano (HR1117) thrives in containers, and responds to the pot size. Grow it in a large container, and you’ll get a large, spreading plant.
Parsley – Dark Green Italian Parsley (PL571) is extremely easy in containers, but select deep ones as parsley grows a long taproot that looks a bit like a parsnip.
Rosemary – Rosemary (HR1125) is easy to grow from seed, but slow. You might want to look for a plant at your local nursery if you’re planning a balcony herb garden.
Sage – For the first season Certified Organic Sage (HR1132) can live well in a medium sized (3 gallon) pot. But this perennial will eventually develop a thick woody stem, and would need to move into roomier accommodations like a half barrel.
Thyme – English Thyme (HR1145) is best used cut fresh from your herb garden, but it dries better than most other herbs, so at the end of the season you can cut two thirds of the plants down and dry them for winter use.
Alyssum – Snow Cloth (FL2037) attracts pollinators to your balcony garden as well as beneficial insects that help minimize pest insects. Plus it smells wonderful and cascades over the edges of containers for a beautiful look.
Calendula – Also known as Pot Marigolds. Try the dwarf variety Fiesta Gitana (FL2053) in containers. The flower petals are edible, and can be sprinkled over summer salads.
Celosia – Our Bright Sparks (FL3906) has shockingly vivid red, orange, and yellow flowers that rise above lush foliage. This flower works best in containers as a focal point in any garden.
Clarkia – Grown in containers, Clarkia (FL2038) stays nice and compact, flowering over a very long period with a mix of carmine, red, and pastel pink.
Cosmos – So easy to grow in any garden situation, our Cosmos Mini Blend (FL2415) is particularly well suited to container growing.
Cynoglossum – Early summer blooms, and lots of them! Grow these Chinese Forget-me-Nots (FL2597) in any size of container, or tuck sprinkle some seeds in with your vegetable containers. This plant attracts ladybird beetles.
Iberis – Plant speedy annual Iberis (FL2042), a few seeds at a time, over several weeks, and you’ll be rewarded with a very long-lasting display of star-shaped, pink flowers.
Linum – Charmer Mix (FL2959) looks like little clumps of grass at first, but then it blooms! Scores of tiny, cup-shaped flowers appear in a wide range of colours from white to coral pink, orange, red, and magenta. The bees love it!
Lobelia – Midnight Blue Lobelia (FL2033) is the one to plant for that gorgeous cascading look in hanging baskets, or tucked in around your veggie containers. Lobelia blooms over a long period in such a vivid blue that it contrasts nicely against foliage and other flowers.
Marigolds – All marigolds work well in pots, but Brocade (FL2948) is a favourite for containers.
Nasturtiums – Please try our Salad Blend Nasturtiums (FL2993), and enjoy the edible flowers, leaves, and seeds of this remarkable and attractive plant. The flowers are completely edible and have a mild peppery flavour, but they bring a really powerful visual impact to summer salads.
Nemophila – We have a soft spot for this humble, low-growing flower. Baby Blue Eyes (FL2043) forms a mat of foliage just inches above the soil, and then, around Summer Solstice, it transforms into a carpet of pure sky-blue flowers.
Pansies – This is another plant with edible flowers to tuck in here and there in your organic balcony farm garden. Try the very easy Johnny-Jump-Up (FL3411). Just sprinkle some seeds lightly among your containers and you’ll see lots of charming little flowers appear a few weeks later.
Phacelia – This is the flower beekeepers depend on. Purple Tansy (FL3445) is attractive to pollinators like no other plant. It grows to around 23cm (9”) tall, so it works well in containers and brings the pollinators in to do the good work on your cucumbers and other fruiting crops.
Sunflowers – Give our Suntastic (FL2063) a try, as not all sunflowers are monsters. These stay compact and tidy, particularly when grown in containers. Save the seeds they produce, or let the wild birds eat them at the end of summer.
Sweet Peas – Patio Mix Sweet Peas (FL3205) were selected for their compact growth and suitability for hanging baskets and patio containers. These flowers will flood your deck with fragrance in early summer, and they’re very easy to grow.
Veronica – Blue Bouquet (FL3811) features elegant spires of purple flowers that open over a long time. These perennial flowers look so nice in terracotta pots placed here and there as an accent to your patio garden.