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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!