Ten great crops to grow in containers

by Mark Ridsdill Smith on

in Blog, Featured home page, What to grow

When growing in small spaces, you want a lot from the crops you grow. You want them to give you plenty to eat, to taste amazing, and ideally to look great, too. After experimenting with over fifty different vegetable crops, here are ten I’ve found to be amongst the very best. (Herbs and fruits to follow another day).

What are yours? I’d love to hear what your favourite veg to grow in containers are in the comments at the bottom.

No.10 Tromba Squash

Tromba squash tastes like courgettes / zucchini but climbs fantastically (great for small spaces!) and has eye catching almost phallic fruits. Grow these at the front of your home to catch the eye of passers by! 

Tromba (or tromboncino) squash is a great alternative to courgettes in container - as climber it takes up much less space.

Tromba (or tromboncino) squash is a great alternative to courgettes in container – as climber it takes up much less space.

No. 9 Nasturtiums

The queen of the edible flowers – so bright and cheery in the container garden and adds flavour, zip and colour to salads. The small leaves are edible, too and the round leaf shape adds pleasing variety to salads. 

Queen of edible flowers

Nasturtiums will brighten any home

 

No. 8 Chillies

If you like chillies and have a sunny space, chillies are a top choice. They look great and home grown chillies have an added taste dimension. One plant can give you 50 – 100 chillies – so self sufficiency in chillies is a realistic proposition! Any you can’t eat can easily be dried for eating over winter. 

A super productive and pretty crop - as long as you have a sunny, warm spot.

A super productive and pretty crop – as long as you have a sunny, warm spot.

 

No. 7 Oriental greens

Asian leaves are the almost perfect crop for small spaces. They grow super fast, don’t need a lot of sun, and can be eaten in either salads or stir fries. Try Chinese cabbage (super fast growing), tatsoi (a variety of pak choi), mizuna (prolific), mustard red giant, Chinese broccoli or choy sum. Or buy a mixed pack of Asian leaves. Oh, yes, and you can grow them all year round, too. 

There ars so many fantastic fast growing, tasty oriental greens including pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, serifon and mustard red giant (pictured).

There ars so many fantastic fast growing, tasty oriental greens including pak choi, mibuna, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, serifon and mustard red giant (pictured).

Number 6: Runner beans

One of the most productive crops – several kilos of beans can be grown in one pot. The orange or white flowers add beauty and the tall height of the plants add stature. For tender, tasty beans pick when small. Likes a constant water supply so grows best in a container with a water reservoir.

Runners taste best if picked small - and picking encourages them to produce more.

Runners taste best if picked small – and picking encourages them to produce more.

 

Number 5: Cavelo nero (Tuscan kale)

With its plumes and rich green colour this is one of the most attractive container crops. It’s so hardy it will survive the coldest of winters here in the UK. Sow in August for a supply of leaves over winter or spring for a summer harvest. The leaves can be cooked or eaten in salads – and are full of taste and vitality!

There's lots of good reasons to grow crops in your pots over winter - not least that they look so much better than bare earth. Cavelo nero is a great choice.

There’s lots of good reasons to grow crops in your pots over winter – not least that they look so much better than bare earth. Cavelo nero is a great choice.

 

Number 4: Bright lights chard (or rainbow chard)

With it’s mix of bright red, yellow and white stalks, this looks spectacular in a container. It grows all year round, the small leaves look beautiful in salads, and the big leaves taste delicious cooked – the stalks, in particular, taste similar to asparagus. Underrated. In London I used to grow this above the front door to brighten the street! 

Bright lights or rainbow chard - keeping picking the outer leaves and you can harvest one plant for months.

Bright lights or rainbow chard – keeping picking the outer leaves and you can harvest one plant for months.

Number 3: pea and ful medame or broad bean shoots

You can grow £4 – £5 ($6 – $8) worth of pea and bean shoots in one seed tray in just three weeks. They taste delicious and look beautiful as a garnish or even as the main ingredient of a salad or stir fry. They can be grown successfully in the tiniest space and only need an hour’s sun a day. Winner! Read how to grow them here. 

Pea shoots are fast and easy - old fruit trays like this make the perfect container.

Pea shoots are fast and easy – old fruit trays like this make the perfect container.

Number 2: tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most productive crops you can grow in containers – 5kg (10 lbs) – off one plant is common. Each plant crops for a long period, giving you fresh tomatoes over several months. And last but not least, home grown tomatoes are a taste sensation! Do you have a favourite variety for containers? 

Few things taste as good as a home grown tomato. Grow them in good soil in a good sized pot and they are hugely productive, too.

Few things taste as good as a home grown tomato. Grow them in good soil in a good sized pot and they are hugely productive, too.

Number 1: mixed salads

Salads are the ultimate crop for small spaces: fast growing, productive and bursting with flavour. Pop outside and pick one five minutes before lunch – it doesn’t get fresher than that! You don’t need much space (or even sun!) to be self sufficient in salads. I grew over 14 kg (30lb) -equivalent to 140 supermarket packs – in one year on my small balcony.

You can be self sufficient in salads with just a few pots like this. The secret is to keep sowing them in seed trays so that you always have a supply of baby plants to move into your containers when the old plants get tough or bitter.

You can be self sufficient in salads with just a few pots like this. The secret is to keep sowing them in seed trays so that you always have a supply of baby plants to move into your containers when the old plants get tough or bitter.

 

 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Dyson December 1, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Just the ideas I needed. I will give feedback next year when I have some of these growing, What I like about these pages is the simplicity, the lack of spurious choice, just the right amount of information to get one started. Excellent.

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Edible Little Balcony September 17, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Great posts! These are also some good suggestions for container gardens…I have a balcony garden on the 4th floor, and my chilies have just started to produce, so happy! I also had runner beans, but they never flowered – I’m guessing it was just too windy for them? Radishes, peas, and onions also have worked out great for me! :) Keep up the cool site!

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Mark Ridsdill Smith September 18, 2013 at 7:28 am

Congratulations on your chillies! And thanks for sharing your other successful crops. Not quite sure why your runner beans didn’t flower, it may have been that they didn’t like the wind. They can sometimes be a bit temperamental about setting fruit – but they’re a great container crop when they do.

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sarah June 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm

hi mark, just wondering if you have any advice on fruit, berries etc and if you can recommend any for pots – tanks sarah

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Mark Ridsdill Smith June 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Hi Sarah, I’m working with the London Orchard Project on producing a fruit guide aimed at container growers at the moment :) Hopefully it’ll be ready in the autumn. Two of my favourite fruits for containers are strawberries (particularly the everlasting types) and blueberries. But many other fruits (eg figs, apples, plums) will do fine in (fairly large) containers – although it may take a few years until they are productive. I’d recommend going to a specialist fruit nursery as its important to get a variety that is suitable for pots – and specialists will be best placed to advise you. Are you in the UK? If so, two mail order places I’ve found very helpful are Cool Temperate and Ken Muir. Hope that helps.

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Anna June 8, 2013 at 9:00 am

Hi Mark, I love your work. I used to container garden on a narrow roof in North London which had walls along the longer sides so the direct sun light levels were limited and they also make the space a rather draughty tunnel but still it was my and various insects’ urban retreat . Runner beans did great, as did dwarf French purple beans, wall baskets tomatoes (I think they where the “hundreds and thousands”? , prolififc crop of tiny sweet fruit), nasturtiums, potatoes,herbs-sage, thyme, rosemary, Thai basil, dill, borage. I also had poached egg plants and various marigolds and calendula. Broad beans and rocket weren’t very successful for me, the blackbirds always got there first. Apart from perennial herbs all were grown from seeds. What tasty memories I have from that period… :-). Looking forward to more news and tips from you and greetings to all vertical and horizontal gardeners!

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Bex June 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Thanks Mark, that’s really useful! Keep up the good work.

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Bex June 3, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Great blog Mark. I was wondering if the Tromba Squash need additional support? I’ve put some straight in the soil, but no green shoots yet. I was also wondering what crops you’d recommend for a north facing balcony?

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Mark Ridsdill Smith June 5, 2013 at 8:07 am

Hi Bex, the tromba will need something to climb up – strings or a trellis or similar. Plants for a north facing balcony – depends really on how much sun it gets. But assuming its not very sunny I’d start off with leafy veg – kale, chard, rocket, lettuce and all the oriental leaves like pak choi and mizuna and see how they do. Also herbs like mint, chives, parsley, lovage will do well. And perhaps try a few spring onions, carrots, snap peas and French or Runner beans in the sunniest bits.

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kathleen May 19, 2013 at 4:48 pm

HI Mark,i have about 10 green boxes readt to plant into.I have aquired some compost from local authority it looks full of lumps of twigs etc what should I add to it to grow toms ,squash etc in?

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Mark RS May 19, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Hi Kathleen
Local authority compost varies quite a bit – sometimes it is excellent and can even be used neat without any additives. In other places it can either be too strong or can be unbalanced in nutrients, resulting in poor growth. Unfortunately the only way to really find out is try it or to find someone else locally who has grown in the same compost. If there’s any chance the compost came from North London, then you will probably be fine and can grow in it neat. If you got it from elsewhere, then you could possibly try it neat in a couple of containers, and then mix it 50:50 with a soil based compost (B&Q do a peat free one) or a multipurpose compost like New Horizon. You might also grow in neat New Horizon compost as a control in one box to see how it compares. One thing about council composts is that they are generally too rich and too lumpy for starting seeds. Does this help at all?
Mark

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Jennifer May 14, 2013 at 10:50 am

Hi Mark – this is a timely find – as I was just thinking about planting food in my pots, which get a lot of sunlight all year round.
However, I have been neglecting te soil and feel that i should top up the nutriants. Is there a general food that I can use for all the plants?
My second question is – can I link some of your blogs to my website – I have a section on Health and a section on Home. The work I do is helping people to live an authentic life. This all fits in well with my philosophy.
Well done with what you are doing

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Mark RS May 14, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Hi Jennifer, the best general food for plants I know is worm compost – its rich in the major nutrients and contains many trace elements, too. However, it does take 6 – 12 months to make if starting from scratch. In the meantime, you could get a general purpose organic fertiliser with balanced NPK and mix some of that in. Liquid seaweed is a also good general purpose feed, rich in trace elements but only limited supplies of NPK. One product I’m currently trying is ‘Sea Mungus’ – this is a mix of chicken manure, worm compost and seaweed – so it sounds like it should be quite well balanced. Quickcrop sell it in the UK if you want to give it a go.
And yes, please feel free to link from your website. Many thanks! Mark (PS NPK, if you haven’t heard of it stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium – the essential elements that plants need to grow).

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Claire May 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Hello Mark! Fantastic post! I never realised many of these crops could be grown in pots… What would be a fantastic addition to this post would be what container sizes are required for the above crops? I imagine courgette needs a decent sized container but I might be wrong…. I love sourcing containers from what I find around so if you can offer suggestions from terracotta pots to wine crates etc this would be wonderful.
Thanks, Claire

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Mark RS May 8, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Hi Claire, great question! The crops that will most benefit from big pots (30 – 50 litre) on the list are the squash, tomatoes and runner beans. These all need lots of food and water to crop well and this is easier to give in big containers. Chard, cavelo nero and chillies will do fine in medium sized pots (15 – 20 litres). The Asian leaves and salad leaves will mostly crop fine in your average window box sized trough (around six inches deep), and pea and bean shoots only need a seed tray. Hope that helps?
Mark

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Sarah May 3, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Something I’ve found very easy to grow is rucola/rocket. You can just leave them alone and they will grow and grow, produce seeds, sow themselves out, and then grow some more.

I have another question: my outside salads aren’t doing too well. They are not growing very strong, and the leaves just tend to lie down and then decompose. I have one inside which is doing much better, unfortunately it’s also a lot less tasty. Now my balcony is very windy, I guess that doesn’t help, but maybe I also water them too much/little? I try to water the soil without wetting the plants too much, but when they lie on the ground that’s not really feasible. Or do they need more nutrition? They do get a lot of light, so I think I can rule that one out.

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Mark RS May 7, 2013 at 9:11 am

Hi Sarah, it could be one of several reasons – most of which I think you’ve identified. As you guessed, most plants do not like wind and it has been unusually windy (in Newcastle at least) these past few weeks… The salads I’ve protected from the wind with improvised cloches (hoops covered in plastic) have grown about four times as fast as those that are not protected. So trying some sort of cloche could be interesting to see what affect it has (take it off on hot, sunny days, though, as plants can fry inside). Or it could be about nutrition – are you using new compost? If you’re using old compost, you need to add fertiliser before using it again. Chicken manure pellets are high in nitrogen which is needed for leaf growth – so these are a good fertiliser for salads. To find out if you’re are overwatering put your finger into the soil a couple of inches – it should feel damp like a rung out flannel, not soggy. Another sign of overwartering is green algae on top of the soil round the plants. Plants do drink more water in wind so underwatering is indeed another possibility – but if they are in reasonable size pots and you are watering on most days this shouldn’t be a problem. Again, feel the soil with your finger a few inches down and if it feels dry this could be the problem. Hopefully this info will help you get the bottom of what’s going on?

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