Growing Vegetables in Containers – What Went Wrong?

, written by gb flag

Container of lettuce

Using containers to grow vegetables can be very convenient but there are a number of pitfalls that can result in disappointing harvests.

If you suffered setbacks last year when growing in containers, you’ll be keen to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Everyone has occasional failures – for me it was forgetting to drill holes in the bottom of a new container I was preparing recently. By the time I realised what I’d done my plants were struggling, and when I tipped them out the stink from the bottom of the pot made my eyes water! With that in mind, here are the most common problems and ways to avoid them...

Choosing a Suitable Container for Your Plants

While it’s theoretically possible to grow any vegetable in a container, it’s important to choose the right type of container for your plant.

For root crops, a deep container is a must if you want carrots to grow long and straight (although you can grow small round types such as Paris Market which are suited to shallower pots) and to enable earthing up for a good crop of potatoes. Apples and other tree fruits need a lot of space for their roots – a half barrel is probably the minimum you can get away with, even for those grown on dwarfing rootstocks.

Container with strawberries

Tomatoes and peppers often do extremely well in potting soil bags as long as they’re kept moist with planting holes cut out of the plastic to minimize evaporation, and herbs such as rosemary or thyme positively thrive in shallow troughs and window boxes, as they don’t mind being kept a little dry.

Ensuring Good Drainage in Vegetable Containers

Don’t make the same mistake I did! If your container didn’t come complete with drainage holes, get a drill and a big drill bit and make a few. How many you need depends on the size of your container, but I try to space them evenly across the base about a hand’s width apart. Next, cover the holes with a layer of broken crocks, gravel or small stones - it’s a great way to use up some of those little stones you inevitably turn up when digging the garden!

Water needs to be able to drip (or even pour) away easily from your container to prevent the roots rotting in stagnant water. If the pot is flat-bottomed it’s a good idea to raise it off the ground just a little– you can use whatever you have to hand, such as bricks or small bits of wood.

Waterlogged container causing lettuce to wilt

Retaining Moisture in Garden Pots

Like any normal garden bed, containers need to be free draining, but also water-retentive. Moisture is lost much faster from a container than it is from the ground and some pots, such as those made from clay/terracotta, are naturally porous and will evaporate moisture through the sides – lining the pot with heavy-duty plastic with drainage holes punched in the bottom is one solution for moisture-loving plants. Water will also quickly evaporate from the soil surface in a container, so mulching with bark or gravel can help to limit this.

A sheltered position that receives some shade for part of the day is usually best for containerized plants, especially leafy crops such as lettuce, spinach and arugula that are prone to bolting in full sun. Wind can also have a drying effect, and if your garden is exposed it’s important to make sure that pots are either heavy enough to withstand the wind (especially when growing tomatoes or other tall crops), or can be secured to the ground in some way.

To take advantage of any rainfall and minimize the amount of watering you need to do, avoid siting containers next to walls as these can throw a ‘rain shadow’ that can lead to plants not getting enough water, even during heavy rain.

Even with these measures, containers will still dry out relatively quickly and may need to be watered twice a day in very hot weather. Alternatively, it might be worth trying the wine bottle idea for crops in pots in our article How to Look After Your Garden When You’re On Vacation.

Dried out compost in a container

Feeding Plants in Containers

Finally, plants tend to exhaust the soil in containers quite quickly – it doesn’t take long for nutrients to leach away along with the water. Annual vegetables benefit from a balanced organic liquid feed which can be watered in, but this needs to be done regularly as the nutrients in the feed will wash out again all too readily.

Perennial plants in particular can suffer from nutrient deficiencies when grown in containers, as each year the soil becomes more and more depleted. At the start of each season it’s a good idea to scratch away the top layer of soil and replace it with rich compost, perhaps mixed with well-rotted manure or a granulated fertilizer. The nutrients will gradually filter down to the plant roots and feed your plant over a long period of time.

With all the planning and care that plants in containers need, you might wonder if it’s worthwhile growing crops in pots this year – but the convenience of having food right outside your door, and with minimal weeding too, more than makes up for it.

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Show Comments


"I'm planning on growing gherkins in pots this year, as I've run out of room on my allotment! I'm using buckets, the ones that supermarkets put their cut flowers in - will these be big enough, one plant per bucket? Many thanks"
Andi Fowler on Saturday 19 April 2014
"Hi Andi, that's about the size of container I used for a cucumber plant last year (although mine was a tree bucket) and it worked well. Make sure you keep them well watered and they should be fine."
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 19 April 2014
"I have really struggled with finding the right container for the right vegetables and finding the best spot to place them to guarantee enough sun light and drainage. Thankyou so much for all this advice and information, I have now successfully grown several different vegetables in my garden. "
Nicole Fergusson 16140471 on Tuesday 27 May 2014
"I would appreciate it if you could give me some advice re: growing veggies in medium sized galvanized tub. Do we need to have a hole/holes in bottom or is small stones-layer on the bottom sufficient? We are using medium sized galvanized trough for cattle-water trough. Any advice is requested. "
Jane Kirk on Sunday 22 November 2020
"Hi Jane, yes you'd definitely need some holes in the bottom of your trough to let water drain away."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 24 November 2020
"Hello, We have built an 8' foot long by 2 foot wide cedar planter box. We have it on legs that keep the box off the ground by about 4 inches. How many holes should we put in the bottom. We have a full sunlight balcony that this box will be on and we have, tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, romaine, peppers, cucumber and zucchini. Your help is greatly appreciated!!! "
Mindy on Tuesday 11 May 2021
"Hi Mindy. I usually drill holes about a hand's width apart across the bottom of any container. That should give plenty of drainage for your planter."
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 12 May 2021

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