Six Issues in Successful Organic Container Gardening

Organic container gardening is a natural offshoot of general organic gardening. Let’s take a look at how this system would work.

The Container

The first thing to deal with is the container. We’re looking for a natural container here – one made of wood, clay, pressed papers (although this last one could be debatable)

I’m not overly interested in plastics and others made of non-renewable resources. But if that’s your thing – then go for it.


The most important component of a container garden is the soil. The next little bit of advice is heretical in the container gardening world but it does come from my own experience.

You can grow container gardens in straight peat moss. (It’s tricky but it can be done)  Or – better –  you can use up to 20% of composted manure in peat moss

Do not go above the 20% line when you’re adding it to other materials. My practical trials this summer showed that drainage was not adversely influenced when 15-20% bagged manure was added to the peat. Above this number, plant growth was no better.

Real compost – made yourself using a hot system can be added at greater quantities but I still recommend being careful about going over 20%.

I Use A Soilless Mix

You can also use a soil-less potting soil such as Pro-Mix – these are the only ones I use.  Note these would not pass an organic certification program because they usually contain a wetting agent.

Do Not Use Real Garden Soil or Potting Soil

Using a garden soil-based mix can lead to major drainage problems and aeration problems as the soil based mix tends to turn to concrete under repeated waterings.
Using a potting soil for houseplants that contains real soil creates the same issues as above.

Plants to Grow

Plants can be anything you can grow in the ground. Seriously, I have no idea why some folks recommend this plant or that plant as “container plants” (other than perhaps they’re smaller) but I grow anything I want in a container. From full size banana plants to rare alpines, they’ve all lived in a container in my garden at one time or the other.

And yes, that includes full size tomatoes and other vegetables.


The single best fertilizer for organic container gardening (imho) would be fish emulsion. Because it has a relatively high nitrogen count, using fish emulsion replaces the nitrogen that gets flushed out of the container during watering.

Reusing Container Soil

I reuse my container soil from year to year. Watch the video below and don’t do what I do and drive the shovel in so hard it cracks the pot. 🙂  But do add compost or composted manure to a freshly loosened up container to give it some life.  I’ve used the same soil in my current containers for at least 5 years now.

Insect control

Control of insects and garden pests in organic container gardening is no different than for regular organic controls.

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My Bottom Line

The bottom line when it comes to organic container gardening is to ensure you have a good soil, feed it using the organic supplies above and follow basic environmentally sound methods of garden pest control.

You can grow anything you like this way and it’s not much different than organic gardening in the main garden.

If you have questions about container gardening, I’ve written an ebook about those and you can find that here.

Ten Steps For Successful Container Vegetable Gardening

Container vegetable gardening is simple if you give the plants regular care and commitment.

Container Size Is Critical – This Is The Number One Cause of Problems

The first thing is to find suitable containers. I know I can grow a tomato in a green garbage bag holding six shovels of soil but unless I want to water it twice a day, I need a container that will hold twice that for my efforts at container vegetable gardening.

I could add twelve shovels of soil to my garbage bag but that is pretty ugly sitting on an entertainment patio.

You could use one of those Styrofoam flowerpots that resemble clay; I’d want a big one (twenty-four inches across is ideal) and clay will be a little too heavy to move around for some folks.

You can use anything you like for your container vegetable gardening as long as it holds approximately ten to twelve shovels of soil. Six shovels is the minimum for tomatoes – but you’ll wind up watering twice a day.

Half whiskey barrels are ideal but you won’t move them very far. I use my eighteen-inch clay pots because they’re big enough and I like the clay “look”.

I could add twelve shovels of soil to my garbage bag but that is pretty ugly sitting on an entertainment patio.

But you have to be prepared to water twice a day with almost any container and a massive tomato plant!

Ensure Drainage Holes In Your Containers

Ensure there are holes in the bottom for good drainage because vegetables really do not like to have wet feet and if we have a summer like last year’s deluge, we’ll both need all the drainage we can use. If I had a wooden deck, I would probably put several bits of wood under the pot to keep it off the deck and prevent staining.

The Soil You Use Is Critical

I am going to fill my pots from top to bottom with a soilless soil mix like Pro-Mix.

Remember you do not have to put anything in the bottom of the pot (like old clay pot shards or stones) to “help” the drainage. These supposed helpful bits only reduce the water movement according to modern soil science research.

The soilless mix will not compact like real garden soil and when I feed it with my compost and weekly compost tea, it will produce great crops.

Never use real garden soil in a container. It will compact, turning to concrete over the summer and your plants will not grow well.

Grow Any Vegetable You Want

It’s a great gardening myth that you can only grow a restricted number of plants in container. You can grow anything you want! (if you give the plant enough of the right soil, enough water and food.)

Let the kids have a pumpkin, let the old geezer across the street grow a potato or turnip (that’s what old geezers grow) the old hippy couple can grow all the herbs they can use for an entire winter and you can grow anything you like because it’s your container.

Squeezing More Vegetables Into A Container

I start with a tomato in the middle. I’ll stake it with a tall bamboo pole so it will grow straight up and once it gets a few feet tall, I’ll remove the bottom leaves to admit more light to the soil. Tying it up to the pole will be a weekly event as it gets tall enough to attract squirrels.

This will leave lots of room around the bottom of the plant so this is where I’ll grow my salads. I’ll start my spinach and lettuce from seeds approximately six to eight weeks before I want to eat them. Spinach can go into the barrel quite early – about the beginning to middle of April – and it will be up and ready to harvest the smaller leaves before the tomato is planted in the middle of May.

Sow lettuce every two weeks for a steady supply of greens over the summer. If you like radish, consider planting them with the lettuce so as you harvest the radish, you thin out the rows giving each lettuce plant more room. The basil seeds will go into the ground at the same time as I plant the tomato. I do need fresh basil for my tomato sandwiches.

Remember not to plant seeds too deeply and to keep them well watered until they germinate a week or two later.

Consider combinations you might grow in your containers. If you like salsa, combine tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and cilantro together.

Colour Conscious

If you like your veggies to brighten up the garden, why not use purple eggplant and red peppers together?

Herbs are a natural combination and your basic window box can produce more than enough taste sensations for an entire family.

What You Use The Most

The key here is to grow what you’ll use.

Don’t grow lemon grass if the closest you’ve ever been to Thai cooking is watching somebody eat it on television but do grow tomatoes and oregano if you like making pizza or toasted tomato sandwiches.

Note that radishes, bush beans, basil and carrots are great for kids.

Throw in a sugar snap pea or two to trail over the edge and the kids can enjoy their own garden all summer long.

Watering: Everybody Ignores This One So Don’t Make This Mistake

Remember that we have to water regularly and feed our container vegetable gardening experiments with a compost tea or fish food fertilizer at least once a week to keep the harvest coming.

Every time you water – water should run out the bottom of the pot to ensure you get it wet all the way to the bottom.

Then you wait until the surface is “just” dry to the touch and you soak the pot again.

  • Regular soakings take water to the bottom of the pot and keep roots alive right to the bottom
  • Light waterings dry out the soil at the bottom of the pot, restrict root growth and reduce the yield.

The rule is simple: water until the water runs freely out the bottom of the pot every time you water.

Feeding For Success

You have to feed the plants weekly

With soilless mixes (with any soil actually) you have to feed weekly. You see, nitrogen is the engine of plant growth but it is water-soluble. So as you water from the top, the water dissolves the nitrogen and carries it out the bottom of the pot.
In order for the plant to keep growing, you have to replace the nitrogen from the top on a regular basis.

I like to mix compost at around 10% by volume into the soil mix and then feed weekly with a fish food emulsion. It does tend to drive cats and raccoons nuts with the smell but it surely grows great plants.

Prune Vegetables Upward

  • Prune vegetables upwards.
  • Stake tomatoes.
  • Watermelons can grow on a net supported by stakes.

Cucumbers can do the same. Pruning or growing upwards saves space and prevents the weight of the fruit from breaking trailing vines or pinching them against the side of the pot.

You can allow some vines like cucumbers to trail over the edge of the pot while you stake a tomato up the middle (use a really large container like a half-barrel for this trick).

The Word On Varieties To Use

Some writers suggest you use varieties that are specialized container plants. For example, grow a bush cucumber rather than a vining type. Pick a “determinate” or bush tomato rather than an indeterminate one that will grow forever and take over the patio or balcony. Use mini-varieties.

When I grew tomatoes in the greenhouse, we grew the biggest, tallest varieties you can imagine. Massive vines we had to top out at 7-feet tall so we could harvest the fruit. And the same for other plants.

Here’s the truth of the matter. You can grow anything you like – big or small – as long as you have enough soil, enough food and enough water. Restrict one of those and you’ll fail with anything you grow.

Harvest Regularly

Harvest regularly There’s few things worse than not harvesting vegetables regularly when they are in a container. You’ll quickly see them grow rank and ugly and become unsalvageable. Picking regularly keeps them growing and producing.

Pest Control

There’s nothing special about this – it’s the same in a container as it is in the garden soil.

Use environmentally sound methods of pest control when container vegetable gardening Most of those are found on this site and will not be repeated here.

What’s Different?

You can grow a garden anywhere if you use containers. On docks, balconies, on a boat. Anywhere.

Here’s my ebook on Container Gardening – it will explain the details you want to know

What’s Important

Enjoy! yourself and involve the kids in your container vegetable gardening. This goes without saying.

Growing cherry tomatoes or sugar peas comes with its own rewards when you watch the kids harvesting vegetables (or sneaking them because they taste so good)

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