Dirt Poor? 7 Tips for Starting a Container Garden

Michelle Obama probably has some help with her family garden, but the reasons for home gardening are solid – when you grow your own food, you know how it was grown. It’s about as local as you can get and you know it’s fresh.

While there is plenty of land around the White House, many of us live in small urban spaces that may be amenity rich, but dirt poor.

That doesn’t mean you can’t garden, you just have to bring in your own soil. If you have a sunny window, porch or patio, you can start a garden in just a single pot.

Here are some tips to get started:

  • The funny thing about sunny spaces is they keep moving around. You might have a spot all scoped but by June or July, the angle of the sun will be different. That bare-branched tree will leaf out or the neighbor’s garage is now putting your garden into shade. With container gardening, you have more flexibility. If the sun’s rays shift 15 degrees, so can your container. Your vegetables will need at least six hours of full sunshine—more is better. 
  • Room to grow. If you are new to container gardening, remember that plants need to spread out their roots and have space above for leafing out. I usually pick pots that are too small and the plants die. If you are unsure about sizes, shop at a good garden store where you can get advice, or do some online research first. 
  • Containers should be well drained. First time gardeners are likely to ensconce their new bedding plants in containers that have no drainage. I am not sure what those cute plant pots (with no holes) are for—not for live plants. If there are no holes in the bottom of the pot, the soil stays too moist and the roots will rot. Buy good quality potting soil with perlite so that the soil doesn’t get compacted. 
  • Containers with drainage need something underneath. May sound obvious, but don’t forget that the idea of drainage means water is coming out the bottom. Self-draining pots have an attached base that will catch most of the water. Unless your containers are sitting on concrete, you should consider putting something underneath the pot. If the container doesn’t come with a base, plastic lids from food carryout containers may do the trick, or you can buy plain plastic water catchers.
  • The windy city. The back porches of three-flats and the balconies of high rises can put the wind in Windy City gardening. Plants can take a breeze, but oftentimes the containers cannot. If your container keeps getting blown over, the plants are not going to handle it well. If you want to give it a try, choose heavy pots, and consider adding gravel or broken bricks in the bottom—those help with drainage anyway. 
  • What to plant. Lettuce and spinach can be started from seed now. They like cool weather and aren’t intimidated by a little frost. For more tender plants, Mother’s Day is the traditional date around which we can (usually) assume there will be no more frost. Easy to grow tomatoes, green peppers and basil will inspire your summer salads, bruschetta and pesto dishes and there are tomato varieties cultivated just for containers. The University of Illinois Cooperative Extension service recommends tomato varieties Tiny Tim, Patio Hybrid, Small Fry and Husky Gold. 
  • Water a lot. After buying small pots, this is usually my other big mistake. I like to think that watering twice a week will suffice, but fast-growing vegetables need water every day—more if it’s hot. 
  • Bunk bedding. If you do it right, you can get one large container to multi-task. This article shows a tomato plant sharing space with basil and pepper plants. For more advice, visit the Chicago Botanic Garden site for container gardening

I have a friend who grows amazing vegetables every summer on his deck, which is surrounded by big shady, mature trees. He has invested in large, deep pots with self-draining bottoms. They sit on wheeled carts so they can move around with the sun. Every year he buys new fresh soil infused with fertilizer. He waters them religiously. His reward—we eat at his house whenever we get the chance!