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Container Gardening: Summer Herbs and Edibles

By Linda Phillips 

Master Gardener℠ volunteer in Chatham County

When getting ready to plan your container edible garden for summer, there are a few things to keep in mind. One important one is, of course, available sunlight!

Most vegetables, especially if you are interested in tomatoes, need lots of sunlight. Six to eight hours of sunlight a day is best. In addition to sunlight, the heavy feeders like tomatoes need adequate space. For example, a five-gallon container is the minimal size for a tomato plant. A good source for container sizes for specific vegetables is in Chapter 18 “Plants in Containers” in the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Handbook. This article lists minimum container sizes for many vegetable and herb plants.

Tomatoes growing in containers on a back patio

Photo Sharon K. Fletcher CC BY-SA 2.0

Vegetable plants that like to climb, such as cucumber and squash need a trellis or tomato cage to climb in the container. If you have yard space, a fence is also a good place to plant squash, cucumbers or beans. The fence will provide climbing/support.

In addition to sunlight, of course your edible garden will need water! Especially in the summer months, keeping the plants evenly watered is important. My deck is south facing, so I often need to water as much as twice a day in the hottest summer months. If you have a water source, like a garden hose, you can set up a drip irrigation system. If you don’t have that capability, some garden centers have ideas to set up methods for self-watering for the containers. And of course, there is always the watering can!

If your space will accommodate, larger, deeper containers mean less frequent watering. Adding an inch layer of mulch on top of the potting soil in the container also helps to reduce the need for frequent watering by helping to retain moisture. To reduce moisture that may lead to disease , pull the mulch in the container about one inch away from the stem of the plant.

Frequency of watering is dependent on a number of factors such as weather, wind, pot size, location or if the pot is located in full sun, among other factors. For most plants, the containers should not dry out completely between watering to limit root damage. To check the soil moisture in the container, simply stick a finger 2-3 inches into the potting mix. If the mix is dry, the plant should be watered. Water the pots until the water starts to come out of the bottom (remember all pots must have a drainage hole in the bottom!). If there is a saucer under the pot, remove any standing water to prevent root rot and to minimize mosquito breeding on your deck or patio!

Keep in mind that the frequent watering required for your container garden will also flush out the nutrients from the potting mix. To add the nutrients back, a fertilizer such as fish emulsion can be used when watering. For more details on nutrient needs for specific plants see Chapter 18:  Plants in Containers

What to plant? There are many options for plants to put in your deck or back yard container edible garden. Even if you have a small space you can have a lovely herb garden with herbs such as mint, basil, oregano, parsley, chives, rosemary and thyme. I enjoy my deck herb garden to grab snips of my herbs to add to soups and salads. These herb plants are readily available at most garden shops and even grocery stores these days. The nice thing about herbs is the more you snip them, the more they grow.

A good source with other ideas for what to plant in your container garden is “How to Create a Container Garden for Edibles in the NC Piedmont.

This article gives ideas for succession plantings in your containers. Also keep in mind what you like to eat! This may be obvious, but an important consideration when doing your planting. Another idea is to try a new vegetable that may be less common in your local stores.

Have fun with your edible garden and enjoy your vegetables this summer! Use the charts in the links in this article to get more ideas for what and when to plant. As the summer ends, I will be replanting my lettuce in my container and looking at these references for more ideas.