A beginners’ guide to growing vegetables in containers

My father has planted flowers in pots since as long as I can remember. Growing up it was always a pleasure to watch his flowers and other decorative plants add life to our home. In fact it was quiet inspirational at times. And I did pick up my brushes to create a few art works out of our garden. But generally he avoided planting vegetables as he had not been very successful in growing them. It was because of the low yields. In fact most times it gives no yield at all. The vegetable plants also did not grow well, needed more maintenance and were more prone to disease and pests.

Sounds familiar? Isn’t it?

Most of the people would tell you that growing vegetables in containers is next to impossible. In fact I’ll also say that it is impossible, if you don’t do the basics right. But if the basics are done right then container vegetable gardening becomes a child’s play and lots of fun. In this post I’ll explain how to go about planting a vegetable seed or sapling in a container. But before you go through the beginner’s guide to growing vegetables in containers, I would recommend you to consider these ten things before you get your hands dirty.

Choose the vegetable to grow in container

Most vegetables are seasonal. Growing an out of season vegetable in a container is not a good idea because, the climatic conditions are not suited for the plant to grow and produce. So always choose a vegetable which can be grown in the season that you are planting your seeds in. The other important consideration is the amount of sunlight available for the plants to grow in. If you get full sunlight then you can plant almost anything you like. But in case you get partial sunlight (4-5 hours a day) then you can consider growing vegetable like beets, broccoli, leaf lettuce, garlic and cauliflower etc. These plants do fine in partial sunlight condition also.

Choose Container

Size of the pot plays a very big role in the growth and yield of a plant. The roots of a plant need space to grow. The larger the space for roots the better is the growth of the plant. As a rule of thumb the bigger the container the better it is for growing vegetables. But in terrace gardening we aim to optimize space and get the best out of whatever space we have. So it is a good idea to do a little research and find out the correct container size required to grow your favourite vegetable.

Containers can be classified according to their volume, shape and material. Unglazed earthen pots are best for planting as they have micro pores which help aerate the soil. It also helps in absorbing excess moisture and maintaining soil temperature. But they need to be handled carefully as they can break easily. Recycled plastic buckets, planters are fine as long as they are not painted black or with any other dark colour in case you are in a tropical climate. This will heat up the soil and heat it up fast. Thermocol and wooden boxes can also be used to plant your veggies.

Check the volume of you pot before planting. Most of the common vegetable like tomato, eggplant and okra etc do well when planted in a container having volume of 20-30 litres. Peppers and chillies however can be grown in 10 litre containers also. Radish can even be grown in a 2 litre water bottle. But something like a pumpkin or a snake gourd will need a container that is at least 40 litres in volume for a good produce.  The shape of the container also plays an important role in growing vegetables. Some vegetable plants have shallow roots while some have deep roots. Check the rooting system and choose cylindrical type of containers for deep rooted plants, while shallow rooted plants like spinach and herbs should be planted in a box type container with more surface area.

Preparing Potting Mix for the container

Potting Mix
Use a well drained, moisture retaining and fertile potting Mix

Plants grow in the soil in the open fields. But in a container they have to grow in a restricted space. Hence the soil has to be much more fertile and full of nutrients in your terrace garden. Soil also should be well drained so that water logging does not take place in your pot. At the same time it should hold moisture well, so that your pots don’t run dry too soon. Moreover using just soil can make the pot quiet heavy and it can be stressful for your terrace. One needs to consider all these when preparing the potting mix for container gardening. Generally a mix of well decomposed compost, sun sterilized red soil, coco peat and cow dung manure works well as a potting mix. Coco peat retains moisture and also makes the mix well drained. Red soil provides strength to the mix. Compost and cowdung manure provide all the nutrition for the plants.

Preparing the pot

The pot should be cleaned well with a mild soap and sun dried well to remove any trace of harmful microbes. Provide a drainage hole at the bottom to drain out excess water. This hole should be covered with broken pottery pieces to avoid blockage of the hole. Then add a few stones, sand or other draining material like sugarcane waste to create a separation layer between the bottom of the pot and the potting mix. Now you can fill the pot with the potting mix and press down a little to compact the soil into the pot. Do not fill the pot till the rim. Leave about one inch space from the rim. Now your favourite vegetable is ready to be planted.

Planting

In case you are sowing seeds then its good to treat the seed for some time with a cow dung based solution like Amrut Jal or Bijamrit beforehand. To sow bigger seeds make a hole with your finger in the soil and place the seed in it. Then cover the hole with potting mix. In case of very small seeds it can be mixed with a little sand or vermi-compost and then sprinkled everywhere in the container.

For transplanting make a hole big enough for the plug of the sapling to go in. Then carefully take the sapling out and place it in the hole and cover with soil. Compact the root area slightly you’re your fingers and palms. While transplanting make sure that the sapling gets least root shock. Otherwise it will affect the growth and quality of the plant.

After sowing the seed or transplanting water your pot with a watering can and you are done. By the way it’s a good idea to plant in the evening.

Germination

germination
Maintaining right soil temperature and moisture helps in high germination rate

Germination depends on a lot of factor like seed quality, soil structure, soil temperature and moisture level etc. Overwatering will cause the seed to rot while underwatering will dry the seed out. So make sure you water judiciously. It is good to have some cover for the pots. In case of heavy rains or sudden high temperatures pot can be covered. When temperature is lower pot can be covered with a transparent plastic sheet to produce greenhouse effect which helps in germination. Some seeds germinate quiet soon while other take a little more time. So be patient and keep the conditions ideal for seed to germinate. If seeds are of good quality they will germinate.

Watering

When the seed germinates it is time to rejoice because life has been created by nature. And now it is your turn to take care of it. Watering is the most important activity in a garden after plants have emerged from seeds. Water when you plants need it. Over watering may cause some plants to show adverse effects. It is also a waste of water resource. So be just in watering. Avoid watering during day time. It is best to water in the morning and late afternoons. Watering in the evenings may cause the water on the plants causing fungus attack as it will not dry out. In summers your plants will require more frequent watering than in winters. During rains water only when there is no rains for 1-2 days and your soil dries out.

Feeding the plant in container

Your plants will need nutrition to grow and produce fruits. Most of the nutrition is actually taken up from the air and sunlight. Hence ensure that your plant is getting the sunlight required for it. Move your container to a different place if your current place is not getting enough sunlight. Your potting mix should take care of most of the nutrition required for the plant in the early stages. When your plant begins to flower more compost can be added to the base of the plants in the container. You should also feed the plants on a regular basis with organic manures like Compost tea, Amrut jal or Jiwamrit. These solutions will not only provide nutrients, they will keep the soil ‘alive’ by adding millions of useful microbes to your soil.

Plant Care and Pest Control

mulching and pruning
Mulching helps in moisture retention, controlling weed and in maintaining nutrition of the soil

A very simple yet necessary thing to do is mulching. Mulching is referred to the act of covering the soil to prevent evaporation and growth of weeds. When your plants are about 4-6 inches tall mulch your soil with some organic material like straw or crushed dry leaves. These organic materials will ultimately decompose and become part of your soil.

Some plants like creepers and climbers need to be trained onto a trellis or string. Its better to arrange for such structures beforehand itself. Timely pruning of plants helps them to develop a better canopy and give better harvests.

Spraying regularly with a foliar spray like Panchagavya helps plants to do better photo synthesis and develop pest resistance. Such preventive sprays take care of most pest issues. It is a good habit to check below the leaves of your plants for the sign of any pests every morning. If you find pests or eggs then it can be sprayed away with water. You can also remove such leaves and place them in kerosene to kill the pests. For most common pests like aphids, mites etc homemade sprays like neem spray, garlic spray also work very well. You must never spray these during day time. Because it can cause leaf burns. Use these sprays during early mornings or late afternoons.

Harvesting your container grown vegetables

And finally when the time comes to enjoy the fruits of your hard work don’t rush through it. In case you are using open pollinated or heirloom variety of seeds then its good to leave the first fruit to ripen and dry out on the plant. That will give you the seeds for the next season. While harvesting check whether the vegetable has reached maturity or not. If you harvest too early then you’ll get immature produce whose taste would not have fully developed. If you make it too late then the vegetable may over ripen. Some vegetables have short harvest period while some like tomato are easy to harvest due to their longer harvest periods. Do harvesting with a pair of garden shears or scissors. Harvesting with hand may cause the plant to be pulled and damaged.

With all these basics done right my father started getting great results with vegetables. Additionally doing container vegetable gardening has also helped him to gain a lot of valuable experience which has further improved the quantity and quality of his produce. Many people would tell you that you can only grow vegetables successfully if you have a green thumb. These are just ways to de-motivate people from taking up organic terrace gardening. I believe the term green thumb is just what it is; a term. You don’t need to have a green thumb to grow your own food. When you start growing your own vegetable in your terrace with basics done right you would have developed your own green thumb by default.

Ten things to consider before you start your organic terrace garden

More than 50% of the people, who start their own organic terrace garden, give it up within a month’s time.  Almost all the road blocks and de-motivating factors in such cases invariably point to an over enthusiastic start with almost zero groundwork.  No matter how big or small is your kitchen garden a little planning and some amount of design goes a long way. There will be many changes that you’ll have to make to your original plan as time progresses, but a basic plan and design of organic terrace garden initially will give you a good guideline to start with. And as they say well begun is half done. And here are the things you must consider to get you started with your plan and design of your own organic terrace garden.


1. Space identification and preparation

suitable spce for organic terrace garden
Identify sunny spots which are easy to access and maintain.

Windowsills, Balconies are good places to start your kitchen garden. These places are easy to use, access and maintain. Starting a garden in the terrace however needs significant amount of effort. But if done in phases this too can be managed quite easily. Whatever be the place, make sure that every day it gets at least 3-4 hours of direct sunlight. Without sunlight plants just can not live and produce. Check for drainage to be working well in your balcony and terrace. If you get rains and the rain water is drained off automatically through drainage holes then you are good to go. For doing container gardening no extra waterproofing will be needed for your terrace. However if you plan to cover your terrace with soil, then its good to get specialized waterproofing done

2. Division and Design of space

terrace_garden_design
Divide the terrace space according to light, functions and requirement of plants.

By observing the sunlight and shadow patterns in the space identified you can get an idea about the spaces that get full sunlight (8-10 hours a day) and the spaces that get partial sunlight (2-5 hours a day). Placement of plants can be planned according to the sunlight need of the plants. Space also needs to be assigned for nursery operation, composting/waste management, storage and work area.

Climbers and Creepers will need trellis structures. Installing them early saves a lot of trouble later. Placement of containers, soil beds etc must be planned in such a way that each container and each corner of the bed is easily accessible. One should never have to reach out for them. Placement of plants needs to be planned according to the geography of the terrace too. For example there may be small depression in the terrace where harmless amount of water logging may be taking place. Having direct soil beds in such areas will be a disaster. However a temporary platform can be created using bricks and plywood and containers can be placed on them.

Drawing out your design is a must. It does not have to be a great looking one. It can be as bad a drawing as the one I have posted. But it should be a good functional design. So go ahead and draw it out.

3. Watering

water management in terrace garden
Water should be available always for plants. Look at options of reusing waste water and rainwater harvesting.

Water is the most important resource to be managed for a terrace garden. Water must be available on a daily basis for the plants. One should also look at managing waste water from home. The water used to clean vegetables can be used to water the plants. Consider having an arrangement of rain water harvesting to save water. During vacation time arrangement must be done so that your plants are watered as needed. Homemade drip irrigation systems can take care of this problem. But we suggest keeping things simple on your terrace garden to start with.

4. Waste management and composting

home composting
Have simple composting systems to recycle your kitchen waste back to your organic terrace garden.

Our idea of Organic gardening is to turn home into a zero food waste zone. This naturally means that you need to have some form of waste management system in your home. A simple bucket or a composting bag is good enough to compost your waste. Just make sure that you have planned for a place for composting which is protected from rain and direct sunlight. Some home composting systems which are easy to use is also a good option. These don’t need too much space and composting is also much easier with these.

5. Gardening supply

gardening store
Find a reliable gardening supply store in your area.

Find out a good gardening supply store in your area. Go to different vendors and build a rapport with them. The amount of knowledge that you can get from these guys is unbelievable. Try and compare their products, especially compost and seeds. You can do a simple jar test to check maturity of the compost. Initially get seeds from al vendors to test their quality. Later stick to the one that give you the better seeds. Some of these shops will give you limited quantity of seeds if you have a good rapport with them. Else you have to buy full packets of seeds. These packets are generally for farmers and you really won’t need so many seeds. Keep looking out for some exotic flower or vegetable in their nurseries which you can add to your garden.

6. Record Keeping

terrace garden record keeping
Keeping records of your garden will give you valuable feedback.

One of the things many amateur gardeners fail to do is to keep a record of all the work that they are doing and all the observation they are making.  A lot of factors affect a plant starting from germination to harvest. And many of these are not controllable and vary from place to place. Hence plan to maintain records of your observations. Prepare templates and number your pots so that this job becomes easy and streamlined. Your observations will be the best teacher that you’ll ever have for your kitchen garden.

7. Budget

budgeting your organic terrace garden
Financial and time budgeting is necessary to create and maintain a terrace garden.

Though a lot of recycling is done in terrace garden, still it’s not a zero cost affair. Containers even if bought from a scrap shop will cost some money. And then initially one has to start with some store bought compost, seeds etc. Investing in some gardening equipment also goes a long way. Last but not the least one has to dedicate some amount of time everyday for management of the garden. In case of a tight budget of money and time one can start small and grow slowly. If you have enough budget, it’s not a bad idea to get done with all the structural installations like green houses and wire mesh for creepers early on.

8.  Getting Family Involved

make tgardening a family activity
Gardening is a great family activity. Family involvement also makes sure your plants are always taken care of.

It is very important to get your family involved initially, so that everyone has ideas of at least the basic things like watering, composting, manure application etc. This is very crucial because in your absence garden is taken care of by your family members. Hence starting your organic terrace garden during exam time of your kids may not be such a great idea.

9. Starting Small

start small
Start your organic terrace garden with what you can initially manage. Gradually grow your garden while gaining valuable experience.

Starting small makes sure that you start well. Start with a few plants initially. Anything between 2-10 plants of maximum 3 different vegetables and herbs works well. As you grow them and get hands on experience, some more plants can be added to your garden gradually. Starting with a lot of plants at one go will demand a lot of effort and care and without experience it will be difficult to handle that.

10. Patience

patience for gardening
Patience is the key to success in organic terrace gardening.

The last and most important thing to keep in mind is that nature works at its own pace. A tree does not bear fruit overnight. Sometimes seeds may not germinate. Your produce can be destroyed overnight by insects. And sometimes you may just break a pot with a fully grown plant in it. You’ll feel the sky crashing on you at such times. But don’t lose heart. Learn from your mistakes. Have patience and let nature do its magic.


These are just a few pointers to get you started with your terrace garden and its plan. But it is good to remember that the plan cannot be a very tight one. Always have flexibility in your plan. Use your plan as a guideline and not as a prescription. A garden is a complete ecosystem of plants, weeds, insects and microorganisms. It has life and a mind of its own. Hence at times you’ll have to flow with it while at other times you’ll have to make course corrections. And it will be an art of balancing that you’ll learn only with time.

5 reasons why you should NOT become a terrace gardener

In the last post I gave an introduction to Organic Terrace Gardening. This post is about the most important question that you should be asking by now. And that question is WHY.

“Why should one take up to growing food in unused spaces of one’s home like terrace and balconies?”

I’ll start by answering the exact opposite question. “Why should one not start a kitchen garden!”

Lets face it. Terrace gardening is not a walk in the park. It requires effort and the outcome is not always 100% controllable. There are way too many reasons why one should not take up terrace gardening. The top five are as follows.

1. Nominal cost of growing your own vegetable may be higher in the short term

The cost of growing veggies in your terrace in the short term is going to be same at best or little higher when compared to price of veggies in the store. Though the real cost of consuming store bought vegetables regularly can be much higher than consuming from one’s own garden what you’ll end up paying in the store would definitely be less. In the long run the costs will significantly come down, but if you don’t have the patience then Organic terrace gardening is not for you.

2. Terrace Garden needs your time

Starting and maintaining a terrace garden would take away about 30 minutes of your time everyday on an average. Shows on TV may have to be missed to maintain a kitchen garden.

3. You may fail

Unlike a store where vegetables are always available when you go to pick them, vegetables may not be always ready to be picked in your garden. In fact sometimes your plants may not produce anything at all. Especially after all that hard work one puts into the garden it can be really frustrating.

4. Organic veggies are not plastic pretty

Your produce may not look as great as the veggies in stores. They will not be consistent in shape and size and will not have that store bought veggie shine on them. So what if Mother Nature does not intend to make everything similar, we still want to have assembly line vegetables and fruits with artificial shine.

5. Only seasonal veggies grow in organic garden

Terrace garden needs to be a seasonal garden. Hence you’ll not be able to plant all the vegetables all round the year. Living with nature and its seasons is passé. We are in a age where we defy the natural ways. Cold storage and inorganic production of food makes sure that we get everything all the time. So idea of seasonal vegetables does not seem so appealing.

Hopefully I have not been able to discourage you enough to give up the idea of kitchen gardening. In spite of all the drawbacks that I mentioned the benefits of having a kitchen garden are tremendous. Terrace gardening is one of the best ways to spend some quality time with your family. It is a great source of joy and happiness and learning. It’s a good way to get your daily exercise and get connected to nature. Of course you get to consume food grown by yourself which are free of chemicals and poisonous pesticides. And I bet you it will be the tastiest veggies you would have ever had.
All the benefits of terrace gardening aside, by growing your own food and reusing all waste in your home in an organic way you would also have done your bit toward the well being of the earth.

So…. What is Terrace Gardening ?

Terrace gardening, Container gardening and a few more such terms are in vogue today. Sometimes one comes across related terms like city farming or urban farming which makes things even more confusing.  In essence these are nothing but your good old kitchen garden.  Yes it is that simple. Though there are subtle differences (which I’ll touch upon later in this post), in spirit these terms are used only to refer to the activity of growing fruits and vegetables in the confines of your homes. We generally use the terms terrace gardening and container gardening because that is exactly what this site is about.

Terrace Garden

Simply put terrace gardening is the set of activities that one does to grow food in unused spaces of one’s home that is conducive to grow food. Technically one can grow everything from cereals, pulses to herbs. But growing cereals and pulses in terraces and balconies for consumption is a little far-fetched as of today. Hence terrace gardening really refers to growing vegetables and a few fruits in unused spaces of one’s home. And since these are grown mostly in containers it is also known as container gardening.

As urban open areas are shrinking in size every day the only real viable place that one can grow one’s own vegetables then becomes the balcony. If you are lucky to live in an independent house with a terrace then there is nothing like it. A 30 square feet balcony can yield sufficient green leaves and a few vegetables while a terrace of 1000 sq feet can fulfill 50% vegetable requirements of a family of four. All it takes is some planning and imagination to utilize the available area and resources efficiently and effectively.

Recycling is Organic

A Kitchen garden is not only a place where food is grown; it is also a place where all the food waste from home is recycled. According to a survey about six meals are wasted per week per household in the US. In India itself about 40% of the food is wasted according to United Nations Development Program. That’s a huge deal of food to be wasted. And having a kitchen garden at home ensures that one’s home becomes a zero food waste home as all food waste is typically recycled back to feed the plants.

Urban Farming

That was terrace gardening in a nut shell. So what about urban farming and city farming!

Urban Farming or City Farming is defined as growing fruits, vegetable and herbs and raising animals in cities. Terrace gardening also comes under the bigger umbrella of urban farming. But while city farming is a more organized and community based activity, terrace farming is a personal or family based activity. However in some cases community gardening is also done in terraces of public buildings which have huge amount of space.

Organic Terrace Garden

You can grow food in your home using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But then the whole point of growing your own food is lost. When one is growing one’s own food certainly she wants that food to be free of chemicals and poisons read fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover use of such chemicals is not only extremely bad for our health but also for the health of mother earth. Hence for us by default terrace gardening is only about growing food in an organic and sustainable manner using only organic resources and waste available.

Way of Life

For us terrace gardening not just a term. It’s a spiritual way of life. It makes one more aware of the environment and hence empathetic towards the earth and life. More on that in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with a quote from the legendary Masanobu Fukuoka of the one straw revolution fame.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”