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Vegetable Container Gardening 101: A Strategy to Cut Grocery Costs

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Everyone knows that gardening can save you lots of money.

But if you don’t have a whole lot of space for a traditional garden, you might want to consider container gardening. It’s ideal for apartment dwellers or places where the quality of the soil is poor. And you can do container gardening all year round if you keep your plants indoors.

Even if there is four feet of snow on the ground outside.

Container gardening is also low maintenance, so you get more veggies with less work. All kinds of vegetables thrive in containers. You can do container gardening almost anywhere where you have available space.

Container gardens also save water. And you have more control over the growing environment of your plants. The result? Healthier plants.

Kids will enjoy container gardening more than traditional gardening because it’s easier. It’s an wonderful way to bond with your family! And you can offer any leftover produce to your friends or neighbors.

I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to take it off your hands. Or, you can sell it.

And your containers are movable. This makes it harder for pests and diseases to gain a foothold and do damage to your lovely plants.

Sunlight Requirements

Movable containers also make it easy to get your plants the best sunlight available. Most plants need 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight to thrive.

Purchasing Supplies

If you have the patience, you can start your plants from seeds. Try to get plants specially bred for container life. You can find these breeds in seed catalogs.

If you don’t have the patience to start your plants from seeds, buy some starters. These are plants already starting to grow. If you want a prolific harvest, buy something like cherry tomatoes.

They call this an “indeterminate” plant. These kind of plants bear fruit all throughout the growing season.

If you’re planning to do some canning, get “determinate” varieties instead. Determinate plants all ripen around the same time. And if you’re a beginner, choose veggies that are the easiest to grow, like lettuce and Swiss chard.

These also mature faster than other vegetables.

Check out the clearance racks at the stores where you usually buy your plants. University agricultural departments often run sales too. FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapters do as well.

You can also look into seed swaps, or even grow cuttings from food scraps. Buy your tools from thrift stores, yard sales, or dollar stores.

But whatever you do, don’t cheap out when it comes to buying soil. You need to buy quality soil, because otherwise your veggies won’t get the nourishment they need. It should also be organic.

Organic soil will give you tastier vegetables too. Try to find a mix specially formulated for use in container gardens.

Decorative as Well as Functional

Who says container gardens have to only be functional? They can be decorative too!

Put hanging baskets full of delicious vegetables on either side of a walkway. And the red cheery color of a basketful of ripe tomatoes will brighten up any part of a room.

Make creative use large containers in conjunction with smaller clusters of pots. You can put plants in window boxes, too. Mix different plants in the same container for an artistically-pleasing effect.

Types of Containers

When it comes to containers, bigger is better. Plants need space for their roots to grow. Also, you need enough room in the container to store water.

For most vegetables, a container that is at least 10 inches wide and 12 inches deep is enough. If you’re growing tomatoes or cucumbers, you’ll need a container at least 20 inches in diameter. Peppers need a container that is at least 16 inches across.

Use hanging baskets and arrange them from smallest to biggest to save space. You can grow strawberries, tomatoes, and many other things in hanging baskets. Some people even use discarded baker’s racks and grow a different variety of lettuce or herb on every level.

Terracotta pots are the containers that are most purchased for container gardening. They’re also expensive and break more often than other kinds of pots. Also, because these pots are porous, they’ll need more water than plants in some other types of containers.

You might prefer glazed ceramic pots, because they’re more durable.

Plastic pots are inexpensive. But they’re not as nice looking as other kinds of containers. Clay pots are more aesthetically pleasing than plastic, but plastic retains moisture better. To get the best of both worlds, put a plastic pot inside a clay one.

Wooden containers have a classic look but can be difficult to move once they’ve been sitting a while. If you use a wooden container, try not to use one made from treated wood. These containers might contain chemicals that your plants could absorb.

Concrete containers are durable, but not very portable.

There are many different metal containers to choose from. But they do conduct heat, so you have to line them with plastic. Also be wary of black pots since they soak up heat faster than other colors.

Think Outside the Boring Box

Look around for unusual and creative choices for container gardens. You can use old dresser drawers, bathtubs, and garbage cans. Or barrels, buckets, baskets, troughs, and boxes of every imaginable shape and variety.

You can even use an old colander as a herb garden.

Brighten up your container garden by choosing colorful containers. Experiment with containers of different heights and shapes for greater visual appeal. Thrift stores offer a world of possibilities for interesting and unique containers.

Try to find unique choices for your containers to make your gardening more fun!

Climbing Plants

Add a trellis for those plants that like to sprawl out or climb or bear heavy fruits. If you use a trellis, get a heavier container to reduce the possibility of it tipping over. There are many vegetables that can grow skywards on a trellis.

Some of these choices are vine tomatoes, squashes, and even pumpkin.

You can train cucumbers to climb up a trellis or a nylon mesh. This causes them to grow straight fruits that hang down. Choose a compact variety specially bred for container life.

The cucumbers climb high, making it so much easier to pick them. And because they’re off the ground, they’re closer to the sun and get more heat. This makes them happier because cukes love heat.

Use a large container because cucumbers need lots of water. They also have extensive root systems, which is another reason why a larger container is better. Choose a 5-gallon container or even something bigger.

Self-watering planters are an excellent choice for cucumbers because they need so much water. Make sure you don’t plant them too early, as cucumbers need heat to thrive. A week or two after the last frost is good.

You can start them indoors a couple of weeks before you put them outdoors if you want.

You can also use stakes, cages, netting, or twine to get plants to climb. A tepee of bamboo stakes will support pole beans or snap peas.

Specific Recommendations

You can put the following in a 5-gallon window box:

  • Snap beans
  • Green beans
  • Carrots
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Beets

Put 5 broccoli plants in a 15-gallon tub. Grow tomatoes in a bushel basket. One cabbage plant can be grown in a 5-gallon container, as can eggplant. Put kohlrabi seeds into a 5-gallon container, thinning it down to three plants at the most. Plant pea seeds can into a 5-gallon container and thin to three inches apart.

Combine plants that have fast maturation rates with plants that take a longer time to grow. For example, combine radishes and lettuce with broccoli and tomatoes. Group plants that have similar requirements for sun and water.

For example, lettuce, radishes, and pole beans all need about the same amounts.

Put root crops, low growers, and tall climbers in the same container. This maximizes your space. The climbers will crawl up the trellis.

And the smaller plants will spread around the base of the bigger plants. By using this strategy, there won’t be much weeding needed as there will be little room for weeds to grow.

Edible Flowers for Your Window Box

Place a window box right outside your kitchen window for easy-to-reach salad fixings. Herbs and edible flowers are two things that fit the bill. Edible flowers are excellent for window boxes.

Some flower varieties that you can eat include nasturtiums, marigolds, calendula, and viola. They add color and pizzazz to any salad and almost any dish.

Nasturtiums are very tasty and grow fast. In Latin, “nasturtium” means “nose twist.” Their name comes from their peppery flavor.

You can not only eat flowers, but you can also eat the leaves. They’re also high in vitamins A, C, and D. Nasturtium flowers range from pastels, such as pale yellow, to bright oranges and reds.

They’re also available in single or double flowers. You can buy seed packets that produce multi-colored varieties, or a single color in the same pack.

More Things to Consider

Cover the bottoms of your pots with wire mesh or coffee filters to keep soil in and too much moisture out. Make sure your container has adequate drainage holes. If you don’t have good drainage, your poor plants will suffer from root rot and die.

Also, make sure that whichever container you choose, it has enough room for the plants. The container needs to be big enough for the root system as well. Most herbs only need small pots.

If you have your plant in a small pot, it may need more frequent watering. This is because small containers can’t store enough water for hotter days.

Growing Herbs

Fresh-picked herbs add zest to any dish. Almost any herb will flourish in a container garden. Herbs need about 8 hours worth of direct sunlight.

You can skip the fertilizer since the best flavor comes from herbs grown in unfertilized soil. Most herbs don’t need much water, so go easy.

A One-Pot Vegetable Garden

Consider a one-pot vegetable garden if you have limited space. This is ideal for folks who have a small balcony or an open window that gets full sun. You can grow everything you need for specific dishes in a big metal tub.

Make sure you give each variety of plant enough room to thrive.

Place it in a location that gets 6-8 hours of sun per day. Fill it with fresh potting mix. After any possibility of frost has passed, plant seedlings in 4-inch pots.

Make sure the soil stays moist. In a few months, you’ll have enough herbs and veggies for the dishes you chose.

One thing you can do is to cultivate a spaghetti garden. To do this, grow tomatoes, oregano, and basil all in the same container.

Soil Conditions

Whatever you do, don’t use garden soil for your container gardens. It’s too water-logged and may contain nasty insect pests. Use a soilless mix instead.

Make sure your soil is fluffy. Fluffy soil means there’s good aeration in the soil and the water can drain. Fill your container with soil 2 or 3 inches below the top of the pot.

Then drench the soil before you plop down your seedlings. Let it set for a few hours to allow excess water to drain.

When planting, put the plant on top of the soil, and use extra soil to cover the roots. Try to leave 3 or 4 inches between each plant. Because not all seeds will end up germinating, plant more than you need.

Thin the excess later. Write the names of each plant on plastic tags to help you identify them. Add a layer of mulch around the soil to keep moisture in.

Good materials for mulch include straw, leaf mold, or compost.


Container gardens don’t keep moisture as much as traditional gardens, so you have to water them once a day. Sometimes even twice a day.

Plants use water more during the day when they’re photosynthesizing. So, check the moisture level of your soil every morning with your finger before watering. If dry, add water.

Check the condition of your plants when you’re checking the water levels. Remove any plants that look diseased or have an insect infestation.

For a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to gardening, use self-watering planters or bulbs. Or, a drip irrigation system. Remember that in hot weather, plants dry out fast.

To keep plants cool and moist during the warmer weather, use two pots. Put a small pot inside a larger one and fill in the space with sphagnum moss or newspaper. Add a one-inch layer to the bottom of your pots to help them drain better.

When you water the plants, soak the filler between the two pots.


Fertilizer is an essential ingredient to successful container gardening. Roots absorb fertilizer and replenish nutrients lacking from the soil. Even the richest soil will get depleted of nutrients as the plants eats them up.

Also, nutrients leach out when you water your plants. The faster a plant grows, the more fertilizer it will need.

There are three numbers on every bag of fertilizer. The numbers are always in the same order. They stand for the percentage by weight of each nutrient in the fertilizer.

For example, let’s say the numbers were 5-5-5. The first number is nitrogen, which promotes lush plant growth. A fertilizer high in nitrogen is good for leafy vegetables like lettuce and Swiss chard.

The second number is phosphorus, which grows healthy roots and is essential for fruit and flower development. Blooming plants like tomatoes and peppers benefit most from phosphorus.

The third number is potassium needed for stem growth. Root plants such as potatoes, carrots, and beets benefit most from this nutrient.

Add granular fertilizer when planting, and then liquid fertilizer when they’re growing. Sprinkle some liquid fertilizer on them about twice a month. Try using organic fertilizers.

Organic fertilizers are as effective as chemicals and don’t burn. Happy Frog All-Purpose Fertilizer is granular and easy to use. It provides gentle slow-release fertilization over time.

There is such a thing as over-fertilizing, so be careful. If plants get too much fertilizer, they grow too fast and won’t be as healthy.

Plants can absorb nutrients both through their roots and their leaf pores. Feeding fertilizer through the leaf pores can immediately supply your plant with nutrients. This gives them an extra boost during the peak of the growing season.

The Harvest

Most vegetables are more productive if you harvest them on a regular basis. After the growing season ends, add what’s left of your vegetables to your compost pile. Don’t reuse soil from one year to the next, as this is a good way to spread insect and disease infestations.

So dump the soil and scrub your container before using it again. You might want to use bleach to do this.

Try Growing a Lemon Tree

For a project that’s a bit on the exotic side while still being doable, try growing a lemon tree.You can grow a lemon even in locales far removed from the tropics if you grow it in a container. But don’t grow your tree from seeds, as it can take up to 4 years for the tree to start bearing fruit.

You might want to ask a nursery about dwarf varieties that grow well in containers. But this doesn’t really matter, because lemon trees don’t grow very big anyway. You can pretty much grow any variety in a container.

Choose a pot that is 25% larger than the root ball of the plant. A clay pot is ideal because it’s porous. Repot your tree every couple of years or so.

Scale the size of your pot to the current size of your tree.

Lemon trees thrive on 7-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you keep it indoors, use grow lights and keep your humidity level around 50%. Your tree will need constant watering if you want it to bear fruit.

Container Vegetable Gardening with Children

With container vegetable gardening, kids get to eat the fruits of their labor. This is something that’ll be satisfying for them. Plus, they can start learning the joys of frugality at a young age.

They can start out by growing celery in a dish. To do this, cut the bottom-most three inches off a bunch of celery for your child. Then, have her place it in a container of water.

Once it roots, she can place it in a more permanent container. Soon, she’ll have all the celery you can eat.

Try to get organic celery if you do this. Celery ranks number two (behind apples) as the product with the most pesticide residue.

You can also have your child grow garlic greens in a can, giving you a fresh supply all winter long you can use in cooking. Like as a garnish for soups or in salads. To do this, take a coffee can and punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage.

Put some plastic window screen in the bottom of the can so the soil stays in, but water can drain out.

Fill the coffee can with potting soil up to two inches below the rim of the can. Split the garlic into individual cloves. Make sure as much as possible skin stays on.

Put the garlic clove in the soil so that half of the pointy part of the clove is sticking up. Plant them close together without touching. Cover the cloves with one-half inch of soil.

Water the project until water starts coming out the bottom. Soon, you’ll have shoots. After they are a couple of inches tall, your child can start harvesting them.

Final Thoughts

A vegetable container garden will save you lots of money. And, you can do it both inside and outside, all year long. It won’t need all that much work on your part either.

Your containers are portable too. This means you can move them to take advantage of the available sun. A vegetable container garden is a fun project for the entire family.

And it’s not so hard to do. Nobody likes wasting money.

With just a little bit of effort, you can acquire the skills to maintain one. As a frugal warrior fighting the good fight against unnecessary spending, it’ll be a powerful tool in your arsenal.

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  1. Jillian Renee Apr 8, 2019
  2. Norm Tedford Apr 11, 2019

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