No place to dig a garden? You may still be able to grow your own food.
It's easy to raise moderate but satisfying amounts of many edibles--especially herbs and salad greens--in containers on a patio, deck, porch or balcony. Others, such as tomatoes, are more of a challenge, but it can still be done.
In recent years, as container gardening has grown, growers have developed an increasing number of compact and dwarf varieties intended to do well in pots.
Different vegetables need different conditions, even in pots. But containers make it easier to control the soil, light, water and fertilizer.
Here are some tips for getting started with container vegetable gardening:
Bigger is better. The greatest challenge of container vegetable growing is watering, since soil dries out faster in pots than in the ground. A larger volume of soil won't dry out as fast, so choose the biggest pot you can. It's fine to mix compatible plants in a single large pot. Make certain that any container has holes so excess water can drain away from the soil.
Plan for watering. So-called "self-watering" containers have a reservoir beneath the soil topped with a grid through which the roots can reach down to the water. With these containers you won't have to water as often, but you still have to keep that reservoir filled. And in the hot summer, mature plants will empty that reservoir fast, so you may have to fill it daily. Spread mulch over the soil in pots just as you would in a garden, to keep moisture from evaporating. Planning a summer vacation? It's wise to stick to spring and fall crops, such as greens, peas and radishes, and let the pot garden go fallow while you're gone.
Start with herbs. They are easy, especially if you begin with transplants, and will add a fresh-grown taste to almost any meal. Just remember to give them the conditions they prefer. All herbs need full sun, but some, such as rosemary, prefer dryer soil and fewer nutrients; basil needs more fertilizer and watering.
Move it. With pots, you may be able to finesse a sun shortage. Place a wheeled pot trolley (available in garden centers) under a large pot and move it to follow the sun. For example, move it into the sun in the morning; in the evening, when you want to sit on the patio, scoot it out of the way.
Green up. Baby greens, such as lettuce and spinach, are perhaps the simplest vegetables to grow, beginning in spring when they will tolerate cool temperatures. Sow seeds right in the pot. They will take a week or more to sprout, but then will quickly reach a harvest size of three to four inches. Use scissors to snip off only the largest leaves and you can keep your harvest going for several weeks. Then pull out the plants and re-sow.
Accept the challenge. Everybody loves tomatoes, but they take some work. For pots, seek out dwarf varieties that are "determinate"--meaning they will grow to a certain size, then stop and bear all their fruit in a few weeks. Choose cherry tomatoes or those with fruit no more than two inches across, and if you can, buy transplants rather than trying to start your first tomatoes from seed. You will need a large container, at least the size of a five-gallon bucket. Self-watering containers are wise because they even out the water and fertilizer supply and deter cracking, but you still will need to water frequently in summer. Tomatoes sprawl and the fruits get heavy, so provide a cage for all but the most dwarf determinate tomato varieties. Or install sturdy stakes when you plant and be attentive to tying new shoots to the stakes.