Edibles Anywhere: 15 Foods to Grow in a Container Garden

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GROW YOUR OWN AND SAVE

It takes surprisingly little space to grow vegetables, herbs, and even fruit instead of buying them at the market. A patio, terrace or even a windowsill will do, as long it gets about six hours of sun a day. Root vegetables aren't good candidates for container gardening, but many edible plants grow just fine in cheap plastic pots from a garden or hardware store. Be sure to use potting soil -- not garden soil, which is too dense for container plants. (Potting soil is easy to make, especially for gardeners who compost.) Water frequently, as container pots can dry out quickly in summer heat, and add mulch to help maintain moisture. Edible plants extract a lot of nutrients from the soil, so it's important to replace them. A weekly application of fish emulsion should do the trick. Here are 15 edible plants that can thrive in containers just about anywhere.

TOMATOES

Small cherry or grape tomatoes fare best in containers and are much more easily grown from potted plants than sprouted from seed. Tomatoes require a deeper container, to accommodate the roots, and the vines need a supporting structure on which to grow. Tomato cages are a cheap solution that can be used year after year, but do-it-yourselfers can fashion their own from wire hangers and twine. Tomato plants also grow to be quite large; a single plant can fill a 5-gallon bucket. The little tomato varieties typically require 60 to 75 days from transplant to harvest.

BASIL

A perfect accompaniment to tomatoes, basil can be easily grown from seed. Place seeds in a 10-inch pot filled with potting soil. Cover with about a quarter-inch of the soil and water. Seedlings should sprout in about a week. Pots don't need to be large as the roots of basil plants are fairly shallow. Picking leaves after about six weeks helps the plants grow and keeps them from flowering. If they do flower, cut off the blooms.

LETTUCE

Lettuce, including a variety of greens such as arugula and mustard, is easy to grow in fairly shallow containers such as window boxes. Although there are heat-loving varieties for gardeners in southern latitudes, most greens prefer cool weather, so plant them from seed in early spring or late summer. Lettuce typically takes about a month to mature, but many gardeners pick the leaves a bit sooner to enjoy baby greens. Loose-leaf lettuce can be harvested using the cut-and-come-again method, which lets the plant grow new shoots after older leaves have been picked.

STRAWBERRIES

The strawberry plant is a perennial (it returns year after year with special care) and is easily grown in pots. There are three types of strawberries: June-bearing, which produce fruit a few weeks after flowering; everbearing, which produce another crop in early autumn; and day-neutral, which keep producing until fall. Strawberries are difficult to grow from seed and should be bought as plants. A trough-shaped container, such as a window box, allows the seedlings to be spaced at least 12 inches apart to give them room to grow. Strawberry plants have shallow roots and need moisture throughout the growing season. Cut off the first shoots to ensure larger, sweeter berries.

CHIVES AND SCALLIONS

Chives and scallions are often confused with one another. Chives are an herb with a more intense flavor than scallions, but both grow quickly and easily in pots. To grow scallions, buy a bunch that still has roots. Place in a jar for a week or so, to allow the roots to grow, then remove the greens and plant the white stem in soil. As the plant regrows, the new shoots can be harvested and sliced for recipes. Chives can be grown from seeds, but it's faster and easier to buy a plant from a garden center. Once potted, the plant should be kept moist, well fed, and in a sunny spot.

RADISHES

Easy to grow, radishes are ideal for novice gardeners. Simply scatter seeds over some soil and cover them lightly. In about a week, the seeds will germinate and should be thinned to about one plant for every 2 inches of soil. Watch the greens grow, and make sure the tops of the radishes are covered with dirt. Harvest in about a month, and then plant more seeds to keep them going. Radishes taste best when they are small and pungent.

MINT

This plant grows like crazy and will overtake a garden if permitted, which makes it an ideal candidate for growing in a container. Place mint seeds or a cutting from an existing plant in a pot with soil and keep moist but not wet. A container placed in or near a window should be rotated to keep the plant growing upright. When the leaves are big enough to snip, enjoy them in tea, mojitos, or salads.

PEPPERS

Growing bell peppers for a kitchen garden requires large containers about 14 to 16 inches deep. Drainage holes should be drilled about a quarter-inch from the bottom, if necessary. Add coarse gravel, fill with soil, and add one to three seeds or plants per pot. Bell peppers can grow as tall as 3 feet. To keep the plant upright, stake it with a piece of bamboo and loosely tie with twine. Grown from seed, bell peppers take about 70 days to ripen. Specialty peppers, such as jalapeños and Cajun peppers, take about two months to mature but are smaller, so more plants fit into each container. Peppers grown from seed can be started outdoors, but most seed companies recommend starting them inside under grow lights. To simplify, buy small transplants at the supermarket or garden center.

BLUEBERRIES

As container gardening has gained popularity, plant breeders have begun producing smaller plants. Blueberry varieties such as Top Hat, Brazel Berries, and Sunshine Dwarf are bred specifically for pots. A large planter at least 12 inches deep will do for most of them. When buying a single blueberry bush, be sure it is self-pollinating and doesn't require another plant nearby. Blueberry plants need a certain amount of freezing weather each year and won't grow in Southern states. Although they are perennial, don't be disappointed if they don't bear fruit the first year. A special fertilizer that acidifies soil (anything marketed for azaleas, for instance) will help blueberries thrive.

FENNEL

Fennel leaves, or fronds, can be used as herbs, while the stalks and bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked. The varieties of fennel best suited for growing in pots, such as Dolce di Firenze and Romanesco, are mostly frond and have very small bulbs. A 15-inch pot at least 10 inches deep can hold two plants. The plants grow quite tall, 4 to 5 feet, but are fairly sturdy and don't need to be staked. Fennel is most easily grown from transplants, as seeds require grow lights to get them started. As the fronds grow, they can be snipped for use in salads and soup.

BUSH BEANS

There are two types of green beans: bush beans and pole beans. Bush beans, also known as string beans, are relatively compact plants better suited to a pot than pole beans, which require a trellis. Pots can be shallow but should be wide to allow the plants to spread. Bean plants are best started from seed and placed about 6 inches apart to expose them to ample sunlight. Bean plants grow quickly, reaching maturity about two months after planting. Harvesting frequently helps ensure the plants keep producing beans.

HERBS

Herbs, including parsley, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, savory, sage, and more, can be grown in very little space -- ideally near or in the kitchen, where they can be snipped for use in cooking. Potted plants are quicker but more expensive than growing herbs from seed. A half-barrel planter can hold a few thyme and parsley plants and at least one other herb. The roots are shallow, so a window or planting box will do. Give rosemary its own pot, as it grows tall and woody as it ages. Most herbs grow well in heat and slightly dry soil, but be sure to water once a week -- especially if the plants are outdoors. In colder climates, bring the potted herbs inside during winter. They don't require much fuss -- just a sunny spot and a once-a-month feeding of fertilizer.

CITRUS

Citrus trees can be grown on a sunny patio in the summer and brought inside in winter, if necessary. One key to growing citrus trees in pots is the size of the pot -- don't put a small tree in a big pot. Rather, for a healthier tree, use a container just a little bigger than the root system. Citrus plants require little care during summer, but during winter they should be fertilized every two weeks or so, watered once a week, and kept at a temperature above 60 degrees. Citrus trees can be grown from seed, but it takes time for a sizable tree to develop. Better to buy a potted plant from a reputable grower.

PEAS

Easy to grow and delicious, snap peas combine the crispy shells of snow peas with the little gems inside English peas. They thrive in cool weather and can even withstand light frost, so they are good candidates for planting outside in early spring. Some varieties are bred specifically for growing in containers. Cover seeds with 1 to 2 inches of dirt. Peas do better with no fertilizer, because too much nitrogen (a common fertilizer ingredient) will cause them not to grow. The plants should flower in about a month to six weeks and pods mature in a bit less than two months.

NASTURTIUMS

This edible flower adds a bit of peppery bite to salads. Nasturtiums are easy to grow in shallow containers such as hanging baskets or window boxes. They also grow along the ground or trail over the edges of large pots, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. They don't need to be fertilized -- in fact, they prefer poor, sandy soil. They don't like a lot of water, either. If rain is lacking, water only when the top 3 or 4 inches of soil is dry. Nasturtiums can be grown from seeds, once the weather has warmed to more than 50 degrees at night, or from small flats. Planted about 10 inches apart, the seeds will germinate in a week to 10 days and flower within a month or so. Pinching back the leaves, which are also edible, produces a lusher plant.