Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

Raised Bed Garden that is Unused and Full of Weeds
Predecessor to Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

 

 

 

Starting a container vegetable garden is simple but it is not easy.  I’m going to tell my story using photos of my container garden.  There are a number of tips and tricks that you can easily find in a wide variety of books, but nothing compares to tried and true experience.  I’m going to walk through the high points of what I’ve learned while starting a container vegetable garden over the past few years.  We will cover

  • starting a container vegetable garden
  • potting soil for container gardens
  • container garden on your deck
  • drip irrigation for container plants
  • full sun container gardens
  • partial sun container gardens

By the end, you’ll have a clear picture of the basics of what you need to consider starting a container vegetable garden on your own.

Potting Soil for your Container Vegetable Garden

Mound of Freshly Dug Potting Soil for Container Garden
Potting Soil for Container Garden

Potting soil is one of the most critical elements of starting a container vegetable garden.  There are a wide variety of potting soils for a container vegetable garden available.  When I priced potting soil at the garden centers I was stunned at the high prices!  That may work for small planter boxes with flowers but certainly wasn’t an economic solution for starting a container vegetable garden for me.  Instead, I chose to call a local gardener who also specializes in garden soil mixes.  He delivered a truck load to my back yard for $25.  This picture is actually the remainder from last year’s planting so a truck load of potting soil for your container garden will easily last for at least two years, maybe longer.

 

 

 

 

 

Plant Containers and Planter Boxes for Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

Blue Planter Box Filled with Fresh Potting Soil
Container Garden Planter Box with Potting Soil

I found that Tupperware 18 gallon containers worked sufficiently for starting a container vegetable garden.  I placed about six inches of empty plastic bottle in the bottom to take up space and make it lighter to carry up the steps to my deck.  These plant containers worked fine for the container vegetable garden for the first year and only showed a few minor cracks in the second year.  I also took care to drill approximately 8 holes of 3/8 inch diameter in the bottom of each planter box to allow drainage.  To support that drainage, and make it easier to bend over and see the plants, I placed each plant container of the container vegetable garden on top of two cinder blocks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Starting A Container Vegetable Garden on a Deck

Row of Six Planter Boxes in a New Container Vegetable Garden
Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

I chose starting a container vegetable garden on my deck.  As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, I used to have a raised bed garden out in the yard but it failed due to lack of care.  It was just far enough away from the house that I would not take the time to visit it every day and tend it.  My deck container vegetable garden is right outside my backdoor and very easy to see, monitor and tend.  I also have two dogs and two cats who frequent the deck and they don’t seem to either mind or bother the setup.  I believe that ease and convenience are two of the critical aspects and benefits of starting a container vegetable garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting a Container Vegetable Garden Planting

Young Tomato Plant with Fresh Potting Soil in a Blue Container for Starting a Container Vegetable Garden
Starting a Tomato in a Garden Container

I over planted my plant containers last year while starting a container vegetable garden with as many as four tomato plants and two dozen cucumber plants.  I learned that density was too much for the plants to thrive.  This year, I planted only one tomato plant in each container and only six cucumber plants in each container vegetable garden.  The plants did much better without the extra competition and actually produced more fruit and vegetables than the more crowded situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting a Container Vegetable Garden Drip Irrigation System

Multiple Hose Adapters used to create an Early Drip Irrigation System for Container Plants
Early Drip Irrigation for Container Plants

Another critical aspect of the success of starting a container vegetable garden is an easy, systematic way to tend it.  I rely on drip irrigation – a simple system that can stand the test of time.  I also advocate simple, incremental testing as an approach to learning.  When starting a container vegetable garden, I simply used two hose bib adapters so that I could draw water for the drip irrigation system and still have a connection for my regular hose and the dog watering bowl.  This system worked adequately but was plagued with continuing problems of leaks and adequate pressure management.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drip Irrigation for Container Gardens – the All-Important Timer

Drip Irrigation Timer Displaying Time of Day
Drip Irrigation Timer for Container Garden

A container vegetable garden does not need water all the time.  My ideal watering times are 6AM and 6PM for five minutes each when starting a container vegetable garden until the plants reach maturity and then 8 minutes each thereafter.  A timer for the drip irrigation system makes this possible and very easy to do.  It also has a mode that you can immediately turn it on and off if needed.  It runs on a simple 9 volt battery and has worked well for two years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fertilizing and Drip Irrigation and Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

Drip Irrigation Fertilizer for a Container Garden Filled with Brown Liquid Fertilizer
Drip Irrigation Fertilizer for Container Garden

Fertilizing a deck container garden can be a challenge.  The containers are small and the nutrients available to the plants are very limited by the small amount of soil.  Adequate fertilizing is critical for success.  But, I didn’t want to have to manually fertilize the plants on a regular basis – that violates my principle of simple and easy.  I found a very useful fertilizer injection system and it connects directly into the drip irrigation lines and has a controllable flow.  This system worked well into it’s second year. There are a wide variety of drip irrigation fertilizer systems available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Improved Methods for Drip Irrigation Systems

Shiny New Custom Hose Bib for Drip Irrigation for Container Plants
Customized Drip Irrigation for Container Plants

After a year using the initial hose bib adapters and having trouble with leaks and pressure management, I hired a plumber to build a proper hose bib configuration.  This approach has eliminated my problems with leaks but even more, allows me to manage the water pressure to each outlet very easily.  I was disappointed that the plumber didn’t accommodate spacing needed for my timer and thus needed to get a short extension hose to connect the timer to the hose bib.  I will take some time this winter to build a proper mount for the timer to get it off of the deck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protecting Your Container Vegetable Garden

Simple Three Sided Planter Shade Constructed of Particle Board for a Full Sun Container Garden
Plant Shade for Full Sun Container Gardens

Texas Summer heat is ferocious and the plants suffer mightily.  I’ve tried a number of different approaches to mitigate the heat transferred from the deck to the planter boxes.  One approach was building individual sun shades for each planter box.  This did work and lowered the temperature by 3 degrees but ti still runs approximately 10 degrees or more hotter than the ground temperature.  AN added benefit to this approach it that it drastically improves the view of the deck container garden.  These simple shades look much nicer than the blue Tupperware containers. I recommend you consider this when starting a container vegetable garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planter Boxes, Soil Temperatures and Full Sun Container Gardens on a Deck

Three Sided Planter Box Shade Installed on a Full Sun Container Garden
Planter Box Shade Installed for Full Sun Container Garden

I start with a full sun container garden and then modify from there.  The planter box shades installed provide two benefits – lowering the temperature and improving the view.  I also recommend, if you live in an area with high heat, that you buy and use a soil thermometer.  I made a huge mistake last year thinking that the plant’s poor performance was due to water volume or fertilizer.  I finally got an Ag Extension Agent to visit and she identified the problem within about 5 minutes – the soil was too hot.  In Texas, this is something that has to be managed on an ongoing basis.  I find that the plants do best in a full sun container garden until they reach maturity and then benefit from some shade and coolness as they begin to produce fruit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helping Your Container Vegetable Garden Thrive

Full Sun Container Garden with a Row of Six Planter Boxes
Plant Cages in a Full Sun Container Garden

One of the challenges with tall plants in a container garden is supporting their growth in height.  Not all of my plants need this support but certainly the tomatoes and cucumbers.  I also tried a patio variety tomato plant and it never required any additional support.  It’s stalk and stems were thick enough to support it’s growth.  The only challenge I encountered with the patio variety tomato plans was that the fruits got so heavy that they eventually bent and broke the stalks.  I solved this problem by using stakes instead of cages.  For the cages, I found a hog panel at Tractor Supply and then used hose clamps and some inexpensive conduit.  These plant cages have worked well for two years.  They have adequate wiring to easily support and train the plants and the holes between the wires are large enough for me to reach my hand through.

 

 

 

 

 

Partial Sun Container Gardens and Summer Heat When Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

Partial Sun Container Garden Created Using a Shade Cloth
Improvised Shade for Partial Sun Container Vegetable Garden

As the plants reach maturity and the Texas Summer sun beats down on the deck, I add an inexpensive deck shade to convert to a partial sun container garden.  While it doesn’t provide complete protection, it does offer some and it also provides some additional shade for the dogs – who *really* own the deck.  I continue to use a soil thermometer to monitor and manage the soil temperatures as I move forward with the partial sun container vegetable garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summary for Starting a Container Vegetable Garden

Starting a deck container vegetable garden is simple but it is not easy.  I enjoy experimenting and learning and treat my garden like an ongoing learning lesson.  I doubt starting a container vegetable garden will out produce the local farmer’s market for you but the joy and pleasure of walking out your back door to make your own salad or vegetable side dish for supper is truly magnificent.  The biggest benefit is that the taste and texture of the fruit and vegetables that you produce on your own will far exceed that you’d get from the local market.  Take some time, do some research, prepare to learn, take lots of photos of you container vegetable garden and enjoy starting a container vegetable garden!

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Drip Irrigation, Planter Box Problems and Sunshades in the New Deck Container Garden

The deck container garden has done very well during it’s first month.  The container gardening drip irrigation system appears to be working without any problems or major leaks.  The planter boxes are holding up well.  The plants appear to be growing healthily with just enough water to each plant pot.  The heat hasn’t been bad enough to restart the problems from last year.  In fact, I’ve even avoided turning on the drop fertilization system thus far.

Container Gardening Tomato Plant with Drip Irrigation
Container Garden Tomato Plant in a Planter Box with Drip Irrigation

Managing water while container gardening can be a challenge.  I have a drip irrigation single emitter on the planter boxes with a single plant and double emitters on the plant box that has two plants.  I’ve been very careful to make sure that the emitter for each plant pot is well positioned and that there is plenty of dirt dammed up around the emitter to make sure that the little bit of water that is applied goes straight to the plant.

Planter Boxes Using Dual Drip System
Deck Container Planter Box Dual Drip System

My container garden pepper plants are a great example of a drip irrigation dual emitter situation.  The only other container gardening dual emitter setup is for the cucumbers.  I have noticed that the cucumbers, which are at the far end of the drip irrigation chain may potentially be receiving less water in their planter box than the strawberries and peppers plant pots which are further up the chain and thus closer to the actual hose bib.

Weeds in a Container Garden Plant Pot
Weeds in Deck Container Garden Plant Boxes

One of the drawbacks to using last year’s container garden dirt is that it has weeds in it.  I tried to avoid them as much as possible when getting the dirt in the first place but wound up with a few weeds that sprout in each planter box.  It’s not a big problem when container gardening but definitely something that needs doing at least weekly to prevent each plant pot from being over run with weeds.

Young Container Garden Tomato Bloom
Young Deck Container Garden Tomato Bloom in a Planter Box

I’m not sure when tomato plants are supposed to bloom or even what causes them to bloom or if they behave differently in a container garden.  Nevertheless, each of my three tomato plants will occasionally show a single bloom or a small stalk of blooms.  Since the plants are still young and have a lot of room in the plant pot, I make it a point to pinch them off whenever I find them.  I want the plants in each planter box dedicated to growing and strengthening rather than bearing fruit right now.

Container Gardening Planter Box Sunshade
Container Garden Planter Box Sunshade

Last year I had a big problem with the deck container garden over-heating due to what appeared to be heat reflected from the surface of the deck onto the dark blue sides of the planter boxes.  I didn’t realize that heat management would be such a challenge when container gardening.  I didn’t want to abandon the deck container garden nor did I want to invest in a total sunshade to cover every plant pot so I devised a simple sunshade cover that sits in front of three sides of each plant container.  It’s a simple construction and something that my youngest daughter and I made in about 20 minutes.  We used extra, leftover and scrap lumber to prototype a sunshade or shield.  Our goal was to have it be as light and cheap as possible.  I think we met that goal!

Sunshades for Planter Boxes in Deck Container Garden
Container Gardening with Sunshades for Planter Boxes

The wood I used has a weather proofed side and an untreated side so it looks nice from the front and is light in color to help reflect the heat away from each of the planter boxes that is bound to come later in the summer.  The only problem I’ve found thus far with this setup for container gardening is that the dogs and cats can easily tip them over if the get to messing around very close to the sunshades for each plant pot in the container garden.

Sunshade Installed for Planter Box
Sunshade Installed in Container Garden for Planter Boxes

The finished sunshade looks reasonable enough and hides the ugly planter boxes in the container garden from normal view.  It’s not horribly ugly, it was easy and inexpensive to build and I believe it will serve it’s purpose to reduce the heat in the planter boxes in the container garden.  The weather isn’t quite warm enough yet to actually test the soil temperature differences with a soil thermometer but should be by the next update.

Container Garden Plant Cages for Plant Pots
Deck Container Garden Cages for Plant Pots

My plants are beginning to get tall enough that I’ve brought the plant cages for the container garden I built last year back up onto the deck so that they will be ready to install on the planter boxes when the time is right.  There are a lot of unique challenges that have to be managed when container gardening!

Planter Box Cucumbers in a Container Garden
Container Garden Cucumbers in a Planter Box

My container garden cucumbers are doing well and starting to develop “real” leaves.  I only planted 6 seeds in each of two mounds in the planter box and it appears that all except one have sprouted.

Tomato Outgrowing a Container Garden Plant Pot
Deck Container Gardening Tomato Outgrowing Planter Boxes

My tomato plants are going gang busters.  Container gardening tomatoes is quite an adventure, especially when you use a wide variety of varieties!  This one is going to need a plant cage around ti’s planter box pretty soon so that it does not outgrow the container garden.

Container Garden Tomato in Failing Planter Boxes
Deck Container Garden Tomato in Failing Planter Boxes

This is my container garden specific tomato plant and the difference between it and the two other non-patio varieties is striking.  This plant , specifically for patio or container gardening, invests the majority of its effort in developing leaves where the other plants invest heavily in growing stalks.  It also appears to have more than enough room for roots in the planter box.

Container Gardening Tomato Plants
Container Garden Tomato Plant in a Planter Box

My youngest’s yellow tomatoes are doing very well.  They are not specifically designed for container gardening in a planter box but she wanted them and she was with me when we were selecting the plants.

Container Garden Peppers in a Plant Pot
Container Gardening Peppers in a Plant Pot

My two container garden pepper plants are doing nicely.  I’m a bit concerned at their apparent slower growth rate but we still have a long growing season in front of us.  The water also appears to distribute very well in the planter box.

Strawberries in a Deck Container Garden
Container Gardening Strawberries

Container gardening strawberry plants continues to be a challenge.  My youngest’s strawberry plant still lags behind all of the other plants. It just looks like it is never going to grow big enough to fill the planter box. We failed miserably with strawberries in the container garden last year and the outlook for this year does not currently hold a lot of promise.

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Refreshing the Planter Boxes for Starting a Deck Garden

Spring time has arrived in Central Texas and it’s time to take all the lessons I learned from last year’s deck container gardening and apply them to a new round of education, fun and starting a deck garden.  I had some success last year and am excited to get started again and take advantage of everything I’ve learned as well as try a few new things for my container garden on the deck.

 

 

What I Learned Starting a Deck Garden

I’ve summarized what I’ve learned starting a container vegetable garden but here are my key learning’s from last year:

My goals for this season are

  • is to determine the ideal plant/water/temperature ratios for my deck garden
  • teach my daughters the benefits of having a regular container gardening project that produces real results
  • have fun, learn and enjoy fresh food from my deck container garden

The deck garden sat idle through the winter season so the first step in starting a deck garden is do do a quick inventory of what we have and what needs to be done to restart our container gardening.

 

Drip Irrigation for Container Plants

Faulty Container Gardening Backflow Preventer
Faulty Planter Box Backflow Preventer

 

I use a drip irrigation system to provide a regular a measured amount of drip irrigation for container plants to each planter box.  I tested the drip irrigation system and everything appeared to work fine except for a leaky backflow preventer.  I replaced it for about $4 and tightened all of the connections before starting a deck garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potting Soil for Container Garden

Planter Boxes for Starting a Deck Garden from Last Year
Planter Boxes from Container Gardening from Last Year

 

Container gardening can be very tough on soil and planter boxes.  The soil in each of the planter boxes has become dry and hard and will need to be supplemented with some new potting soil for my container garden.  This is the first step in starting a deck garden.  Some of this is due to the very dry winter we’ve had and part of it due to the very high temperatures from last year.  I’m going to be much more rigorous measuring soil temperature in my deck garden with a soil thermometer this year.

 

 

 

 

 

Container Gardening on a Deck

 

Deck Gardening Planter Box Before Adding Dirt
Deck Garden Planter Box Before Adding Dirt

 

The planter boxes from last year’s container gardening on a deck remain in relatively good shape but definitely show some wear and tear.  They will probably last at least one more year but will need to be replaced after that if they continue to deteriorate and before I consider another year of starting a deck garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Potting Soil for Container Garden

Fresh Dirt for Deck Gardening
Fresh Dirt for Planter Boxes

 

I have some great potting soil for my container garden left over from last year’s container gardening when I filled the planter boxes but it is covered over with grass.  If you order potting soil in bulk, you can get it cheaper and it will always be ready when you are ready for starting a deck garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planter Boxes for Starting a Deck Garden

Freshly Filled Deck Garden Planter Box
Freshly Filled Container Gardening Planter Boxes

 

Each planter box for starting a deck garden is about 18 gallons and weighs approximately 125 pounds when completely filled with dirt.  I filled two planter boxes with new, fresh soil and lugged them to the top of the stairs.  It was tough but sometimes, starting a deck garden can be a challenge.  I then distributed the new soil across the 6 planter boxes to top them off.

 

 

 

 

Full Sun Container Gardens

Deck Garden Planter Boxes with Fresh Dirt for the Container Garden
Planter Boxes for Deck Garden with Fresh Dirt for the Container Garden

 

I filled the planter boxes for the full sun container gardens fuller with soil this year than I did last year.  Underneath the soil in each container is a set of empty plastic bottle as a space filler.  I have no idea about the condition of those empty bottles or what the temperature may have done to break them down.  Last year, I measured the temperature with a soil thermometer.  This year, part of my plan in starting a deck garden is to monitor the soil temperature much more closely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos of Container Gardens

Planter Boxes in Container Gardening Ready to Plant
Deck Garden Planter Boxes Ready to Plant

 

The planter boxes for starting a deck garden are filled and ready for planting.  This year, I’m planting

  • one planter box of cucumbers
  • three containers of tomatoes
  • one planter box of peppers
  • one container of strawberries

I’m a big believer of taking a lot of photos of container gardens – from starting a deck garden to the very end – to help me document my progress and learn from my mistakes.

 

 

 

 

 

Cucumbers in a Container Garden on Deck

Cucumbers in Deck Garden Planter Box
Cucumbers in Container Gardening Planter Boxes

 

Last year, I planted two types of cucumbers in the container garden on my deck and they did fairly well until the heat got them.  My mistake when starting a deck garden was that I over planted in two dense rows, one of each type.  This year I’m still planting two types – Sugar Crunch and Early Pride – but I’m planting them in two small mounds centered in the planter box with only 6 seeds in each mound.

 

 

 

 

Partial Sun Container Garden Tomatoes

Container Gardening Juliet Tomato
Planter Box Juliet Tomato

 

In my partial sun container garden tomato planter boxes last year, I planted four tomato plants and a pepper plant in each planter box.  The result was that the tomato plants tended to grow tall and stringy.  This year in starting a deck garden, I’m only planting a single tomato plant in each planter box.  I very much like the “grape” style tomatoes and the Juliet variety is well suited to this area.

 

 

 

 

Full Sun Container Garden Tomatoes

Patio Tomatoes for Container Gardening
Patio Tomatoes in Planter Box for Container Gardening

 

How could you have a deck garden without having a Patio variety tomato plant?  These prefer a full sun container garden so we’ll make sure they are placed on the end of the line.  Again, only one plant per planter box.  Last year, when starting a deck garden, I planted as many as four plants in a planter box and they were too over crowded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Pear Tomatoes in Container Garden on a Deck

Yellow Pear Tomato in Deck Garden Planter Boxes
Yellow Pear Tomato in Container Gardening Planter Box

 

My youngest daughter loves little yellow tomatoes in the container garden on the deck and she had the advantage of going with me when I purchased the plants.  So, she selected the Yellow Pear variety for this planter box.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chili Peppers in a Full Sun Container Garden

Jalapeno Pepper in Container Gardening
Jalapeno Pepper in Planter Box

 

I love fresh Pico de Gallo – a typically Mexican relish with tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro.  It’s not salsa, which i usually chopped very fine and even cooked sometimes.  Pico de Gallo (chicken scratch) is a much coarser relish and made/served fresh.  I want to be able to make my own so I considered planting everything I needed to make it when starting a deck garden.  When I thought about it, though, I decided not to plant onions because they are soil depth intensive and I chose not to plant cilantro because it is so easily available at the store.  Neither of those appeared to be well suited for a full sun container garden.  So, I’ve only planted peppers and tomatoes.  This is a mild jalapeno variety.  Pepper plants don’t grow very large so I elected to plant two pepper plants in this planter box.

 

Cowhorn Peppers

Cowbell Pepper in Planter Boxes
Cowbell Pepper for Deck Garden

 

I’m not really sure about this pepper but the description intrigued me and I didn’t want two jalapeno plants and I wanted to try this one more than I wanted to grow my own serrano peppers.  This is a cowhorn pepper.

 

 

 

 

 

Drip Irrigation for Strawberry Plants

Planter Boxes Strawberry
Container Gardening Using Planter Box Strawberry

 

I’m not a big strawberry fan.  I like them but it seems silly to grow them when they are so easily available at the store.  They also seem to require enormous amounts of drip irrigation for container plants and that makes it tough to manage when you are starting a deck garden.  That said, my youngest daughter wanted one for “her” container gardening and she was with me when we bought the plants so she got what she wanted!

 

 

 

 

 

Drip Irrigation for Container Plants

Planter Box Drip Irrigation Watering Timer
Deck Garden Drip Irrigation Watering Timer

 

I set the drip irrigation system watering timer for twice daily, 6AM and 6PM for five minutes.  Each plant in the deck garden has a 1 GPH emitter.  Some planter boxes have two plants so they have two emitters.  I have not utilized any fertilizer at this point and I have not measured the soil temperature with a soil thermometer yet.

 

 

 

 

Starting a deck garden is fun but it can be a lot of work and hopefully, it will pay off with lots of learning, enjoyment and delicious vegetables.

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