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Small-space containers big with new gardeners

URBANA, Ill. – When victory gardens returned last spring, long gone were acre plots with rows and rows of vegetables.

A row of low containers filled with greens and herbs.
Photo credit Ken Johnson. Soft-sided grow bags are great options for growing vegetables if gardeners don’t have space to grow in the ground.

Instead, a new generation of gardeners who were interested in home cooking and food access grew herbs and small-scale varieties in backyard strips, patios, or balconies.

During the pandemic, 16 million people, many under the age of 35, started gardening, according to the Garden Media Group

“We expect these new gardeners will continue growing in 2021,” says Kelly Allsup, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator based in Bloomington. “Most will likely be growing their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs in small spaces like raised beds, containers, and grow bags.”

Allsup says produce from lettuces to peppers can be grown successfully in a variety of containers. Gardeners are only limited by their imagination, willingness to experiment, and availability of drainage holes. Whether choosing standard patio containers or fabric grow bags, each vegetable has unique minimum size needs.

For example, tomatoes need a container that is at least 20” in diameter at the top, while leafy greens only need a 10” diameter container.

The diameter of the top of the container is the “Minimal Pot Size.” Container heights are usually categorized as “standard” or “azalea.’ Azalea pots are shorter and ideal for plants with minimal roots such as herbs. When in doubt, standard pots are recommended for growing vegetables and are readily available at garden centers.

These are the container sizes and amount of soil recommended for some common container plants.

  • Minimal pot size: Tomatoes >20”, Peppers >16”, Carrots >12”, Radish, Onion, Beets, Leafy Greens, Herbs and Flowers > 10”.
  • Soil Volume by pot size: 10" = 3 gallon, 12" = 5 gallon, 14" = 7 gallon, 16" = 10 gallon, 18" = 15 gallon, 24" = 25 gallons, 30" = 30 gal.

Containers do well with spinach, Swiss chard, beets, kohlrabi, kale, eggplant, peppers, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, and herbs such as cilantro and basil. Some vegetables are better off in beds.

“We’ve learned that some vegetables, tomatoes and squash for example, are not well suited for containers,” Allsup says. “But the green industry has created smaller varieties that can grow in smaller soil volumes.”

Many of these may need to be ordered as seeds from garden catalogs, but some may be available as transplants in local garden centers. 

Here are a few container suitable vegetables: ‘Micro Tom’ tomato, ‘Dwarf Yellow Crookneck’ squash, ‘Romeo’ ‘Short Stuff’ carrots, ‘Baby Ball’ beets, ‘Mexican Miniature’ watermelon, ‘Striped Guadeloupe Fairy Tale’ baby eggplant, ‘Tom Thumb’ peas, ‘Mini White’ cucumbers, ‘Kitchen Minis’ bell peppers and tomatoes, and ‘Huckleberry’ potatoes.

There are also fruits for container growing. Bushel and Berry is a series of berries described as “patio perfect.” They grow shorter but may have cold hardiness issues.

‘Raspberry Shortcake’ fruits in late June, while ‘Baby Cakes Blackberry’ produces a crop its first year in September and its second year in July.

SOURCEKelly Allsup, Horticulture Educator, Illinois Extension
ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for the University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and communities to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.

PHOTO ACCESS: The photo in this article is available to download for media use.