Growing food in containers

woman growing food in containers on balcony

Don’t let a lack of space or an urban setting stop you from participating in the carbon capture movement. An excellent way to get your hands dirty is to sign up for a community garden. Or offer to help in someone else’s garden.

If neither is an option, you can grow food in containers using regenerative techniques like composting, mulching, and minimal soil disturbance. Containers can be placed on porches, patios, balconies, window boxes, and even indoors. Here are a few tips to get you going.


Find a big container

Bigger is better when it comes to pots. Especially if you're growing perennials, small pots make it hard to take advantage of these plants’ robust root structures. Root-bound or crowded plants won’t weather outdoor temperature swings well and typically need more tending. A good rule of thumb is to choose a container that offers as much space below ground as a mature plant’s foliage above ground (and, 6 inches deep at a minimum).


Choose your plants wisely

Many vegetables have varieties that are better suited to grow in containers, like dwarf and bush varieties. Check the back of your seed packets or ask an expert at your local garden store if you're unsure. If you grow annual plants like lettuce or tomato, you'll replant each season. Perennial plants like herbs will live for years in a container. If you're growing a perennial that won't withstand the cold, consider how you might bring the container indoors in the winter.


Keep plants well drained

The biggest reason potted plants don’t fare well over time is soggy soil. Some containers come with drainage holes, but many do not. Buy the ones that do (or create them yourself!). If your pot is over six inches wide, it needs more than one hole. If you're repurposing something like an old 5 gallon bucket, drill or cut drainage holes in the bottom (large enough for water to easily escape, but small enough to not lose precious soil).


Use potting soil

Garden soil often becomes compacted over time, and potted plants are almost impossible to aerate without damaging the roots. If you're growing food in contains, make your own potting soil mix by combining equal parts of coconut fiber, good garden soil, compost, and sand. The coconut fiber and sand prevent soil from compacting and increase drainage.

You can also buy potting soil from your local garden store. Potting soil is usually mixed with perlite or vermiculite, textured styrofoam-like pebbles, to help container soil stay loose and porous. Look for potting soil that is 100 percent organic and, if you can find it, inoculated with mycorrhizae, a fungus that works with plant roots to absorb more nutrients. Avoid soil mixes with peat due to their environmental impact.  


Maintain regeneratively

While potted plants are resilient, they do take a little extra care. Garden plants have deep root structures that can find water and nutrients underground, but if you're growing food in containers, it's up to you to keep them moist and fed.

  • Watering: The exposed sides of the pot absorb heat and dry out the potting soil quickly. Water your soil whenever it’s dry. 
  • Composting: Twice a year in the spring and fall, add valuable nutrients by layering on a half-inch of compost. Gently mix it into the top two inches of soil.
  • Mulching potted plants: If you're growing food in containers outside during the summer, cover the top of the soil with mulch to keep it from baking in the sun. Mulch also helps retain moisture, whether your plants live inside or out.



If your potted plant has stopped growing or the roots have pushed through the drainage holes, it’s time to repot. Find a new container big enough for your plant to stretch out and grow. Fill in the extra space with an equal mixture of potting soil and compost.

Yellowing leaves may mean a plant needs more nitrogen. Liquid fish emulsion can quickly boost plant growth. It’s simple to add, since you don’t need to mix it into the soil. Dilute the concentrate with water, following the instructions on the label, and slowly pour the mixture into the pot. Be aware that fish emulsion smells pretty, well, fishy, which can be a problem for indoor plants. Cut down on the stink by adding a few drops of lavender oil before pouring.


Written by Acadia Tucker, a regenerative farmer, climate activist, and author.