Selecting The Right-Sized Containers For Growing Vegetables

There are few things more rewarding than planting and growing your own vegetables. And you don't need a lot of space. Just about any crop that can be grown in the ground can also be grown in containers. Here is a handy guide to selecting the right-sized containers for growing vegetables.


Which Crops to Grow?

When selecting seeds or bedding plants, the easiest way to get started is to choose varieties that have been bred for small spaces. Look for seeds or bedding plants labeled "bush," "dwarf," "patio," or "mini." Nurseries and seed catalogs now offer numerous varieties of vegetables and fruits especially designed for small spaces, but don't let that stop you from trying to grow "full-sized" varieties. Just experiment!

Less challenging crops: carrots, onions, eggplant, radishes, peppers, beans, peas, Swiss chard, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages, herbs, and salad greens. Don't forget to provide supports for vine crops like peas, beans, cucumbers, and squash.

More challenging crops: corn, melons, and potatoes. These crops need a larger volume of everything: food, water, and space. They can all be grown in containers, but if you're limited by space, they may not be the most cost efficient choices.


What Size Pot?

When selecting a suitable container for your vegetables, it's important to consider the growing habits of both the top growth and the root system of each vegetable. Large plants take up more nutrients and require a greater volume of growing media in order to maximize production. And while certain houseplants may appreciate crowded roots, your vegetables will not. Cramming them into too small of a space and crowding their roots will only result in disappointing growth.

Here is a range of minimum container sizes and suggestions for plant spacing. This is a general list. You may find you need more or less space depending on the varieties you choose.

Vegetable Suggested Minimum Pot Size Spacing between plants
Beans, green 3-5 gallons; 8-12 inches deep 2-3 inches (provide supports)
Beans, lima 3-5 gallons; 8-12 inches deep 2-3 inches (provide supports)
Beets 1/2 to 3 gallons; 8-12 inches deep 2-3 inches
Broccoli 4-5 gallons 1 plant per container
Brussels Sprout 4-5 gallons 1 plant per container
Cabbage 4-5 gallon; 8-12 inches deep 12-18 inches between heads
Carrots 1 quart to 3 gallons; 8-12 inches deep 2-3 inches
Chard, Swiss 1/2 gallon; 8-12 inches deep 4-6 inches
Collards 12 inches deep 4-6 inches
Corn 21 inches wide, 12-14 inches deep 2-3 plants per container, 6 inches apart
Cucumbers 4-5 gallon; 1-3 gal. (dwarf) 14-18 inches (provide supports)
Eggplant 3-5 gallon 1 plant per container
Horseradish 5 gallon; 24-30 inches deep 1 plant per container
Kale 3-5 gallons; 8 inches wide X 8 inches deep 4-6 inches
Leaf Lettuce 1/2-3 gallons; 4-6 inches deep 4-6 inches
Mustard Greens 3-5 gallons; 8 inches wide X 8 inches deep 4-6 inches
Onions, green 1/2 to 3 gallons 2-3 inches
Onions, yellow/sweet 5 gallons 3-5 per container
Peas 4-5 gallons; 12 inches deep 3-4 inches (provide supports)
Peppers 1-3 gallons 1 plant per container
Potatoes 1-20 gallons space plants 6" apart
Pumpkins 12 inches deep, 4 foot wide 1 plant per container
Radishes 1-3 gallons; 4-6 inches deep 2-3 inches
Spinach 3-5 gallons; 8 inches wide X 8 inches deep 4-6 inches
Squash, summer 2-4 gallons; 24 inches deep 1-3 plants per container
Squash, winter 3-5 gallons; 24 inches deep 1 plant per container
Tomatoes, full-sized 4-5 gallons 1 plant per container (support)
Tomatoes, cherry 1-3 gallons 1 plant per container (support)
Turnips 1/2 to 3 gallons; 10-12 inches deep 3-4 inches


Container Tips:

Containers come in all shapes and sizes. Use pots, pails, window boxes, washtubs, coffee cans, cinder blocks, rolled up chicken wire, and other found items. Just make sure they provide adequate drainage.

Wood containers are subject to rot. This can be minimized by lining the insides with plastic or wax, and sealing the outside with a non-toxic water-sealant designed for decks. Avoid containers made from treated wood. They can leach toxic chemicals into the soil that may harm plant roots, or even worse, end up on your dinner table.

Container vegetables need to be watered frequently-sometimes daily. Containers made from terra-cotta (clay), or wood will wick water away from the plant's roots much faster than those made from plastic, so pay even closer attention to watering your veggies when using them.


If in doubt about the container size you should use, bigger is better. Don't forget, small containers will need to be watered and fertilized more frequently because they hold less soil.

Dark colored containers (especially made from plastic) absorb sunlight. This can create a hostile environment for your plant's tender roots. Paint the outside of dark containers a light color so they will reflect heat rather than absorb it.

Water draining from containers can leave marks and stains on concrete and wood. Make sure to catch excess water by placing a saucer or reservoir underneath them.

Large containers filled with moist dirt and growing plants are heavy! Save your back and use a plant caddy to move them from place to place.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services.


June 19, 20090 found this helpful

I have been doing a small amount of container gardening for about 8 years and have expanded from 2 to 6 rows this year. I don't use anything near the sizes called for here. Some things work great, some I am still experimenting with.

With limited space I put a lot of things in hanging baskets, about one gallon size found cheaply at most discount stores. Cherry tomatoes and strawberries thrive in them. Cucumbers and snow peas produce enough for me but might produce more in a larger container.

I was given some scrap boards 1/2"x4" that I made into 8"x14" boxes and covered the bottoms with some scrap metal mobile home skirting I found (now I use window screening). They are great for lettuce, Little Finger carrots and small onions/scallions.

Last year I grew pole beans in 2 liter soda bottles. I cut the tops off and put one seed in each. I placed 3 concrete blocks in a triangle and placed the bottles in the openings. When the beans started growing I ran them up the tee pee of poles I had made from old tent poles.

I also tried squash and a few other things in the 2 liters but they did not do well but I believe it was a drainage problem. I am experimenting with several drainage solutions this year.

Broccoli has always done great in 8" clay pots.

This year I am experimenting with gallon milk jugs for the first time. I saw some videos on YT where a woman that lives near me used them to grow tomatoes out the bottom and eggplants, peppers, etc out the top. She hung them on a PVC frame. I had about 60 jugs so I figured it would be a good way to recycle. I am not doing the hanging plants but I am experimenting with many of my other plants in the top of the milk jugs.

Finally my favorite quick planter - "grow bags". I take a bag of potting soil, poke some drainage holes on one side then lay it in the garden, holes down. On the top I cut out a rectangle to expose the soil and add a few scoops of manure/compost. These are great for scallions, lettuce, peas, potatoes or a few flowers. I use these along the front edge of the patio and cover the edges of the bag with mulch.

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