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Growing Crops in Pots & Containers
How to grow vegetables, fruit and herbs in pots, containers, Hanging Baskets and Growbags
Many fruit, herbs and vegetables, including trees, can be grown in pots or containers provided the pots are the right size and a little thought is given to the variety of crop chosen. With the current push by governments and local authorities to get people growing their own, even those with no proper garden or allotment can grow something edible - even if it's just herbs on an indoor windowsill.
Full instructions for growing specific crops in containers are given on the individual crop pages on this site, however this article will give you general information, hints and tips about choosing and using containers.
General - Ensure all containers have drainage holes in the bottom so that the compost/soil doesn't get waterlogged.
Plastic are the easiest containers to use because they are light and durable and come in many shapes, colours and sizes. They are also generally economical to buy which is especially useful if you plan on growing lots of crops in containers.
Terracotta is the traditional material used for flower pots. Nowadays they come in a wide range of sizes and are often more decorative than plastic containers. The only drawbacks are that they tend to dry out more easily and larger ones can be quite heavy.
Stone is another traditional material generally used for larger containers. Nowadays they come in a wide range of sizes and stone types and are often more decorative than plastic containers. The only drawback is that even relatively small sized ones can be very heavy.
Wood containers have become very popular as they often blend in more easily and are available in many shapes and sizes. In particular, half or quarter barrels are very useful for growing larger crops such as fruit trees. The only drawback is that if not properly treated with weather proofing, they can deteriorate and fall apart very quickly. Liners can help protect the insides from the wet earth.
Growbags are recommended for trailing plants such as cucumber, courgettes and squash as well as peppers and tomatoes, although the latter may need support if cordon varieties are grown. Special growbag supports are available at many garden centres. Drawbacks include drying out quickly and the shallow depth of compost which is not suitable for many crops.
Hanging Baskets can be used to grow smaller crops such as herbs or the dwarf varieties of cherry tomatoes. The only drawback is the size which limits the crops which can be grown.
Other Containers. Practically anything can be (and has been) used to grow plants - from old chimney pots to sturdy polythene bags to old wellington boots! So long as it is a reasonable size, weatherproof and has draining holes is can be used.
When it comes to the question of of how large containers need to be to grow crops, the phrase "how long is a piece of string" instantly springs to mind. It really does depend on what crops you are growing but below is a general idea:-
Small containers Many herbs will grow in pots which are just 7.5cm/3" in diameter and pots as small as 15cm/6"in diameter can be used to grow small crops of some vegetables such as radish, salad leaves (including Rocket), Spring Onions, short rooted Carrots and single strawberries if they are at least 15cm/6" deep. However, don't expect to get many plants per pot or hanging basket.
Medium containers Containers between 20cm/8" and 60cm/2ft" can be used to grow larger plants from single tomato plants to 2-3 aubergine plants. However when growing the taller top heavy varieties of crops or long root vegetables, they must also be quite deep - at least 30cm/12", to ensure canes can be securely anchored as supports where necessary or un-staked plants don't fall over and have enough soil to provide sufficient nutrients. Troughs over 90cm/3ft fall into this category although they are best used to grow a larger quantity of smaller plants such as spinach, peas or 2-3 strawberry plnts rather than large plants such as marrows.
Large Containers The world is your oyster. Deep containers over 60cm/2ft in diameter can be used to grow almost anything - from a good quantity of parsnips to several larger plants plus fruit bushes or larger plants such as rhubarb. Barrels fall into this category and are excellent for fruit trees. Available in various sizes, the larger barrels are generally cut in half and sometimes, in half again so they have a flat back, suitable for placing against walls.
Use compost or a compost/soil mix for containers to keep them as light as possible, especially if you think you may be moving them around. Avoid using seed composts as these are generally low in nutrients and will not sustain your crops throughout the season. Peat should also be avoided as it offers no nutrients to plants and is becoming more scarce. Coir is a good and sustainable substitute for peat. When growing large fruit trees, using a mix of topsoil and compost offers more
Perlite and Vermiculite are both used as soil conditioners and to bulk up the growing medium. They are very light and have water retaining properties which can be invaluable for container growing. They also keep compost and soil from compacting.
Water Retention Granules These are mixed with the compost or soil and retain water which is very useful in hot dry summers.
Fertiliser Growing crops in containers is more of a strain on the compost than growing crops in garden beds, especially as often you will be growing plants more intensively in a smaller area. Fertilisers can play a major role in the production of healthy plants and good yields. They come in many forms from liquid feeds to "plugs" which are placed in the containers at the start and release plant food steadily throughout the growing season.
Water Trays These are invaluable for smaller pots which will dry out more quickly. Having a shallow tray which will be filled up every time you water will save you having to water several times a day during hot sunny periods.
General - Make sure you have drainage holes in all containers and only fill pots and containers with compost/soil to within 2.5-5cm/1-2 " of the tops. This makes watering much easier and a good method is to fill the space between the compost and the rim with water and let it drain down into the soil. Many a plant has been lost trough under-watering.
Small Pots Apart from leaving the gap at the top as above, there's nothing more to do than to fill with compost/soil, lightly firming it in. If you are going to use additional perlite or vermiculite, it's easier to make up the mix before filling the pots.
Medium and Large Pots It is always a good idea to place a shallow layer of small stones or crocks which are broken terracotta flower pots in the bottom to ensure the drainage holes don't get clogged up with soil or roots. In general, this needn't be any deeper than 2.5cm/1".
If filling with a mixture of compost/soil and perlite/vermiculite, you may find it easier to mix these in the actual containers. Place a thick layer of soil in the bottom then add a thin layer of vermiculite/perlite and gently fork to mix. Repeat until the container is almost full and finish with a layer of compost/soil.
Once again, don't fill to the top. For larger containers it's best to leave a space of 5cm/2".
As mentioned above, there are countless crops which can be grown in containers or one kind or another. For a complete list click here.
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