How to create an urban garden with vegetables in pots

You might be surprised by how easy it is to grow food in a small space. Many vegetables only need a gallon container to produce a prolific harvest, and if you have enough space for large pots, you’ll be on your way to becoming an urban farmer.

different green leafy vegetables sitting inn white pots one a white counter with blue background

Table of contents

Finding a spotChoosing containersAll about potting soilStarting seedsCaring for your vegetable garden8 Best vegetables for container gardening

Finding a spot

Most vegetables need an outdoor space to thrive, but it doesn’t need to be a backyard. Great spots to garden include:

  • Stoops and patios

  • Decks and balconies

  • Rooftops

  • Window boxes placed outside windows or on stair railings

Check out how much sunlight and wind your outdoor space gets and make sure it can take the weight of your plants. (Remember that plants take on weight when watered.) Most vegetables require full sun; if your spot is shady, try lettuce and radishes. If you don’t have any outdoor space at all, consider indoor-friendly edible plants such as herbs and lettuce. 

Choosing containers

Once you’ve found your sunny spot, it’s time to choose containers. Window boxes are great for windows and railings and can accommodate a variety of smaller plants. For larger plants like tomatoes, however, you’ll need larger pots. If you’re concerned about weight, try fabric planters, which are easy to move and collapse when not in use. Your container size will determine which plants you can grow.

  • If you have a one-gallon container, you can grow: salad greens, radishes, carrots, and green onions

  • A two-gallon container is best for: beans, peas and turnips

  • You’ll need a five-gallon container for: peppers, tomatoes, summer squash

kitchen sink with window box of plants on the counter

All about potting soil

Potting soil isn’t the same thing as the dirt outside. It’s actually a potting mix of lightweight growing media (such as peat moss, bark, and perlite) blended with compost for nutrition. In containers, soil tends to compact, so it’s important to use potting soil that’s light and drains easily.

As your plants absorb nutrients from the potting soil, you’ll need to re-up the nutrient levels by adding a little compost or organic fertilizer to the soil. Don’t reuse last season’s soil—not only will it be drained of nutrients, but the old potting soil could contain diseases.

Starting seeds

There are a few ways to start your vegetable garden:

  1. Transplant. Transplanting a small plant from a nursery or a friend is the easiest way to get growing. Fill your container with potting soil, and dig a hole a few inches deeper than the plant. Be careful not to disturb the root structure too much when transplanting.

  2. Start seedlings indoors. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, take a long time to reach maturity and are best started indoors. Plant your seeds in small containers, and transplant them once they’re big enough to go outside. Seedlings need continually moist soil, light, and warmth. Transition them to outdoor life by “hardening off,” or taking them outside for short periods so they can get used to the wind and direct sunlight.

  3. Direct-seed. Some vegetables do best when planted directly into their containers, such as salad greens, peas, carrots, turnips, and radishes. Consult your seed packet, but a good rule of thumb is to poke a hole into the ground that’s twice as deep as the size of the seed. Cover loosely with soil and keep the soil moist to encourage germination.

container for planting sitting on wood table with many tiny plants poking out

Caring for your vegetable garden

The best thing you can do for your vegetable garden is to check on it every day. That way, you’ll be able to poke your finger in the soil to tell if it needs to be watered. (In most cases, you’ll want the soil to dry out in between waterings, but keep the soil moist for seedlings and new transplants.) Trim away dead leaves and remove pests by hand (really!) or with diluted organic insecticidal soap. You’ll learn what your plants need by watching them carefully.

8 Best vegetables for container gardening

Start growing vegetables with these small-space-friendly, easy-to-grow varieties.

  1. Peppers. Both hot peppers and sweet peppers take well to containers. Peppers require warmth and full sun, so they’re typically transplanted into five-gallon containers, rather than direct-seeded. 

  2. Beans. Beans are easy to grow from seed—you can try growing your own from a dried bean in your cupboard, or choose a variety that can be eaten fresh, such as green beans. Bush beans tend to be smaller and don’t require trellising, while pole beans will climb up a trellis or fence to take advantage of vertical space. Choose a two-gallon container.

  3. Salad greens. Salad greens are incredibly rewarding to grow in pots since they have a shallow root structure and grow quickly. Salad greens can be direct-seeded in early spring and fall. Most salad varieties are shade-tolerant, so they’re your best bet for indoor gardening.

  4. Tomatoes. Smaller varieties of tomatoes, such as the adorably named Tiny Tim, will thrive in five-gallon containers. Start seedlings indoors and transplant in the summer—tomatoes need plenty of sun. Add crushed eggshells to the soil to avoid a calcium deficiency called blossom end rot.

  5. Summer squash. Did you know you can grow squash in a five-gallon container? Choose a smaller variety, like Pattypan squash, for a more manageable harvest.

  6. Peas. Peas are a great way to make use of vertical space, a boon to anyone working in a small space. Once they’re a few inches tall, start training peas to climb up a trellis or fence.

  7. Root vegetables. Root vegetables like radishes, turnips, and carrots can grow in one-gallon containers and are easy to direct seed. Most varieties don’t love intense heat, so plant them in spring or fall.

  8. Green onions. If you don’t have enough space for bulb onions, try spring onions, which flourish in one-gallon containers. You can direct-seed green onions, or save the tips of green onions from the store, and then insert them in seeds.

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