Posted on July 18, 2011 - by

Food from Small Places: How to grow food without a garden plot

One summer afternoon when I was four, I uprooted every single carrot in my mother’sgarden. After she’d found the trail of interrupted young vegetables and cornered me, I solemnly announced that the naughty bunnies had done it. It was true that my rampage was spurred partly by mischief. But another part of me was simply astonished to discover, again and again, the slender finger of orange hidden beneath green feathered shoots.

Getting into dirt-related trouble is a luxury that few of us, children and adults, have anymore. In our rapidly urbanizing and commerce-oriented world, growing our own food feels like an increasingly distant and daunting task. Farmers markets and community gardens are finding ways to bring local produce and agriculture to the city, but it’s rare that urban dwellers have the land for their own garden plots.                         Photo:

The good news is that limited space is no excuse for keeping your hands out of the soil. Planting vegetables and herbs in moveable containers provides a solution to the limitations of land, time, or poor soil. Potting vegetables and herbs is a simple way to feed your appetite for fresh produce and add life to a patio, porch, or even a fire escape.

Best of all, growing food in pots is quite easy. All you need are containers with drainage holes, a good soil mix, fertilizer, light, water, and the right plant varieties. Here are a few tips to get your garden growing.

Vegetable Varieties

What you can grow depends on the size of your containers, the amount of sunlight that reaches the plants, and the season you plant in. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach, and radishes are the best bet if you’re working with shallow containers and shadier areas. Give them at least a six-inch wide pot with eight inches of soil depth. Vegetables grown for their fruits, like peppers, tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, broccoli, and eggplants need more light— six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day—and, in general, more room to grow. Spacing requirements can usually be found on the seed packet or plant tag. If you’re planting seeds, remember to plant more than you’ll need in each container in case some don’t sprout. You can thin crowded young plants later.

Plants with a rapid maturation period are ideal if you’re starting late in the summer, or in  order to get several crops from a container. Herbs, small salad greens like oak leaf lettuce and mustard cress, silver beets, radishes, and cherry tomatoes are all quick-growing options. Using vegetable starts instead of seeds shortens the planting to harvest timeline.

Choosing a Vessel

A vegetable container has two basic requirements: holes to allow for adequate drainage and a size large enough to support the mature crop,meaning at least eight inches deep. Clay pots, cement blocks, milk cartons, dish pans, and tin cans all work well for small plants. Larger ceramic pots, half barrels, garbage cans, bushel baskets, and redwood or cedar boxes will house vegetables that require more room. Use potting as an opportunity to be creative and recycle!

Soil, Fertilizer, and Water

Use a lightweight, porous potting soil so that air and nutrients can circulate to the root system.  Nurseries and garden centers offer mixes that usually contain peat moss, organic material, sand, and pumice or perlite. Mixing compost or aged manure into commercial soil will give your plants a boost.

Potted vegetables generally require more water than those grown in the ground. Most vegetables and herbs prefer that the soil remain slightly moist. When the soil feels dry to the touch about one or two inches below the surface, it’s usually time to water. You can use an organic liquid or soluble fertilizer every two to four weeks to replenish micronutrients in the soil.

The Harvest

In just a few weeks, you’ll be able to gather bowlfuls of salad or vegetables to grill just by stepping out onto your balcony or deck. You won’t have to worry about unused produce rotting in the refrigerator or about whether you remembered to buy the fresh herb a recipe called for. You’ll be eating locally and organically. And, I hope, you’ll take pleasure in finding space for a bit of dirt in your life.





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  1. Visit My Website

    April 10, 2012


    Wendy Loh said:

    Aloha from beautiful Hawaii where we want to grow and eat more local. Coming from an island state this is VERY critical especially in an emergency situation. Well, we’ll just use the emergency situation as an excuse to get people thinking….self sustainability and whether or not we need to…it’s a matter of what we SHOULD be doing. Love reading your email,s and have been sharing it with my team. Our Tower Gradens are launching this weekend and we are VERY excited about it. Check out my website and let me know your thoughts. ALOHA!!!

  2. Visit My Website

    April 10, 2012


    Wendy Loh said:

    OOooops! That’s Tower Gardens as I don’t know what a Tower Graden is. Check it out.

  3. Visit My Website

    April 10, 2012


    Wendy Loh said:

    Here again, I didn’t see my website. or go to youtube and look for Tower Gradens and then look for ABC News and watch the video.

  4. Visit My Website

    April 10, 2012


    Connie LeBlanc said:

    Thank you for the valuable tips on container gardening. Coincidentally, the magazine “Birds & Blooms” ran an article on using cardboard boxes as containers… apparently the cardboard is wonderful for soil enhancement when it breaks down. I would be tempted to wrap a “blanket” of plastic around the exterior of the box to prevent the soil from being lost to a bare surface as it breaks down (i.e., if placed on a lawn, patio, etc.)
    The link is included here with extra info on cardboard gardening:

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    April 10, 2012


    Penny Mcintosh said:

    Check out this video I made about hydroponic gardening:

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    April 11, 2012


    Gavin said:

    Your comment, “Getting into dirt-related trouble is a luxury that few of us, children and adults, have anymore”, is oh so true. However I would rather say getting one’s hands into some good ol’ dirt is probably one of the best activities any person, especially a kid, can and should do regularly. It has manifold positive impacts, including enhancing the immune system and it helps to ground /earth individuals. There is a lot to be benefited from daily earthing.
    I work with children at a private school where the vegetable area (approximately 1 acre) is a brilliant learning opportunity for the students. I often see the transformation take place when a student gets their hands into the soil and plants seeds or seedlings and watches their efforts transform into an edible plant. It also changes their attitude when they get some dirt on their hands and appreciate the importance of all the soil biology that works in synergy to assist the plant acquire its nutrition and moisture requirements.
    Maybe it is because we make and use copious quantities of compost but we have clover with 4, 5 and 6 leaves. I believe this is as a result of having many beneficial bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizal fungi, etc in our soil. Students are fascinated to look at the soil biology under a powerful microscope and watch the interesting activities of the critters zip, float and gyrate across the screen.
    One of the most repeated comment is when students taste real fruit and vegetables and realise there is a significant difference.
    So there is more to dirt than dirt, there is a multitude of interesting benefits from getting your hands dirty, growing food and enhancing one’s immune system all at the same time. Isn’t that called multitasking?

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    April 12, 2012


    Brigett said:

    Awesome article! I’ve done both container garden and traditional gardening, and container gardening is much less work and lots of fun! So for anyone who thinks they do not have the space-DON’T GIVE UP-TRY SOME POTS!! Also, as another reader posted, a great way to container garden is to use a Tower Garden. You can read more at or you can also find out more info on my website The info will not go live on it until April 16 though! However you garden, keep it up and keep up the great tips and encouragements!

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    April 15, 2012


    Carl Lindstrom said:

    Claudia here is an idea: do Tub Gardening my way. Buy an IBC 1000lit. tank locally (google it) for around $50-100 then cut it open at the top, add some course sand in the bottom for drainage and fill it with rich compost soil. Now it can be worked on without bending and crawling, it is away from slugs and other garden “pest”. Easy to weed, water (just soak it since the excess drains out), you don’t need good garden soil in the ground and all you need is a sunny place. It will be a hi-yielding mini-garden, that you can even protect with a greenhouse plastic cover frame. Finish by dressing the tub with wood panel for a great look ! Voila. I did it in a greenhouse: