Vegetable Gardening in Containers

Note from Hammer & a Headband: My friend Marlene Bumgarner is dropping by the blog today to share this guest post on container gardening. If you thought you didn’t have room for an edible garden, keep reading to find out how to grow food on your patio, deck or balcony. You may remember Marlene from my roundup of easy-to-grow fruits and veggies. She is a gardening expert and author who literally wrote the book on both organic cooking and whole grains, so I always appreciate her gardening wisdom.

Guest Post by Marlene Bumgarner

Once upon a time I lived on ten acres, and we grew all our own vegetables. Then I moved into town, where I built raised beds and grew corn, tomatoes, salad veggies, and squash. Now I am retired, and I live in a tiny house by the seaside, a dollhouse-sized lawn and pond in the back and a concrete patio in the front. The back is wooded, which means shady. Most vegetables prefer sun.

After several years of experimenting, last year I raised dozens of thriving vegetables in a container garden from March to October. Having a wonderful farmer’s market just a short walk away, I don’t need to grow everything we eat as I did on our farm. Instead I selected plants that would produce more than one crop, and that I was particularly fond of. Radishes, onions, peas, parsley and cilantro went in first, followed by cherry tomatoes, carrots, arugula, pak choi and kale. Several of my herbs grow year-round – rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano, mint, and lavender – but last year I added tarragon, chives, and basil in pots, since they are annuals. As they matured, I dried them in paper bags and stored them in plastic baggies.

Photos by Marlene Bumgarner

This March, when I would normally be buying seeds and starter plants from my local nursery, I was Sheltering in Place. “No garden this year,” I told myself, but I didn’t know the effects being trapped at home would have on my gardening muse. By the end of March, I was desperate. I scoured seed catalogs and learned I’d missed the deadlines for shipping. Next, I began cleaning out all the drawers in my garage, desperately looking for old packets of seed. It was Spring, and in Spring I plant vegetables. What was I to do?

Creative Container Garden Ideas

Our local nursery came to my rescue – a Facebook post announced that they were taking online orders and would deliver to my neighborhood. Giddy, I went to their web page. Seduced by their attractive photos and extensive list of plants, I ordered 20 six-packs of vegetable starts and several packets of seeds.

New plant starts for the vegetable container garden

Photo by Marlene Bumgarner

When they arrived and set them on my patio, I realized I had seriously overbought. Most of last year’s vegetable garden had fit in two horse troughs, which I wrote about here: Kitchen Bounty from my Spring Garden

I would need twice that room to plant my new babies.

But there is one of the great advantages to container gardening – anything that permits drainage and 2” – 6” of soil can serve as a home for most vegetables. I pulled pots out of my garden shed, repurposed several buckets, and began transplanting vegetables into anything I could find. Another advantage of container gardening is that you can create your own planting mix, customizing it in some pots for acid-loving vegetables and in others for those that thrive in highly alkaline soils. You can also move the pots around so that the borage is in the shade and the tomatoes are in full sun.

Preparing the Soil for Vegetable Container Gardening

Once you have decided which vegetables you want to plant, research their soil preferences. You can do this inexpensively with a soil test kit from a nursery or hardware store. For acid-loving tomatoes I combine garden-center planting mix with compost, dry timed-release fertilizer, and worm castings. Beans, cauliflower and kale prefer alkaline soil. For them I add ground rock sulfur and wood ash until I get the soil to the right Ph.

Photos by Marlene Bumgarner

Before putting the soil in containers, I usually line the bottom of each pot with fine wire mesh, then weed cloth and about an inch of gravel. This allows drainage through the hole or holes in the bottom of the pot without washing out the soil. One two-sided challenge with containers is to keep the soil from either drying out or drowning. Either extreme must be dealt with before the soil is placed in the pots – make sure there are adequate drainage holes, then mix enough compost (acidic) or ash (alkaline) to the planting mix to hold moisture.

Harvesting Vegetables

Many spring vegetables will grow fast enough to start harvesting in two to three weeks. I take a pair of scissors and a basket out to my pots each morning, cutting lettuce, peas, cilantro, mint, basil, and arugula, and pulling up a couple of radishes. I wash them and place them in the refrigerator in plastic bags for my luncheon salad. Plant several of each plant so that when one stops producing, you can start something else in its place and harvest from a different plant. If some of the veggies begin to bolt in May or June – lettuce, cilantro, basil, and spinach are especially prone to bolt – cut off the flowers and move the pot out of the direct sunshine.

Photos by Marlene Bumgarner

If you have deep containers, such as wine barrels, horse troughs or buckets, you can plant heirloom tomatoes, corn, and sunflowers. Summer squash needs 12-18” of soil; winter squash another six inches. I plant potatoes in burlap sacks – my grandchildren love to help me harvest them with our bare hands.

About Marlene Bumgarner

Marlene Bumgarner, gardening expert and author

After teaching at Gavilan Community College in Gilroy for 30 years, Marlene Bumgarner moved to the California coast when her first grandchild was born. There she volunteers in the Young Writers program in local schools, leads writing workshops, and enjoys walking along the coast with her border collie, Kismet. The author of The Book of Whole Grains, Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Mothers, and Working with School Age Children, she is now writing a historical novel set in 19th century industrial England. She blogs about family life, cooking and gardening at

2 thoughts on “Vegetable Gardening in Containers”

  1. I enjoyed reading Marlene’s post on container gardening. When we lived in Oregon we did grow several different veggies but living in Las Vegas..we have tried the container and regular but the heat and sun here in the desert is just to brutal on alot of plants..even the flowering kind. (We do have one orchard/farm in the Vegas area where you can go and buy fresh fruits and veggies but we haven’t visited it.) (Love Marlenes first name which is my middle name.)

    • Thanks, Judy! Your flower garden is looking really great though, even in all that heat! I love seeing the different ways people find to grow their gardens, and also enjoyed all of Marlene’s creative container ideas. For me gardening still has a lot of trial and error, but it is fun when it works. 😀


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