It doesn’t matter how small your outdoor space is, there’s always an opportunity to grow your own vegetables and fruit, even on a patio or balcony. Although the world is your oyster, because you can grow almost anything in a container, it’s best to opt for decorative vegetables or fruit that provide a useful crop. You will have to be water and feed container-grown crops more rigorously than those in the ground.
Which pot or container for growing produce?
There’s lots of choice. There are tiered strawberry pots, which can look wonderful when well care for, and Pomona Fruits sell their own kit containing plants and a terracotta pot. There are veg trugs, raised off the ground to waist height, where you can mix and match low-growing leafy crops such as lettuces, herbs and courgettes.
Pots come in all shapes and sizes, although if you’re planning to grow a long-term patio fruit tree for instance, your pot should be rugged, squat and frost-resistant. Bush tomatoes with a tumbling habit can be grown in hanging baskets, as can strawberries and shorter chillies. Large pots are useful for tripods of vegetables, including climbing beans, and colourful garden peas.
You can use a variety of materials for summer use, including baskets, galvanised metal and glazed pots.
Make sure, whichever pot you choose, that there’s a good-sized drainage hole in the base.
Browse a wide range of fruit and vegetable varieties from Thompson & Morgan, where Saga customers can get 10% off.
Caring for vegetables in containers
You get what you pay for, when it comes to composts. Avoid cheap, peaty composts and wood-based composts, because they tend to be light in texture and, once they dry out, they are difficult to rehydrate.
Dalefoot Composts do an excellent peat-free compost for vegetables and salads, made from a blend of sheep’s wool and bracken. There’s also a tomato compost. Both are Soil Association approved and both will need 50% less watering and also feed your plants as well. They are dark in colour, so plunge your finger into the soil to feel how damp it is before deciding whether to water or not.
Read our guide to understanding compost
Don’t put tender plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, sweet corn and cucumbers, outside before the first week of June. Cold nights check their growth and a late frost will kill them off.
Summers are getting wetter, so if you’re using a large pot, invest in some pot feet so that excess rainfall and water has a chance to drain away.
Watering and feeding
Be prepared to water little and often, preferably in the mornings. Tomatoes are very receptive to being watered then and they produce better crops. Keep water away from the foliage if possible.
Feed flowering plants, such as tomatoes, courgettes and strawberries, with a slow-release potash-rich fertiliser. Tomato feed is ideal. Follow the instructions on the packet.
Feed leafy plants with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser or with seaweed, to promote healthy foliage.
Most containers of plants find it a south-facing position right by the house too intense, because it can get too hot. Position your containers a few feet away from the wall in hot spots, or find bright positions that get several hours of sun rather than all-day sun.
Growing from seed or ready-grown plants?
Growing your own plants from seed has several advantages. You have a wider choice of varieties, because commercially raised plants are normally restricted to a few popular varieties. If you don’t have a greenhouse or propagator, it’s going to be easier to buy ready grown plants and order what you need especially when it comes to tomatoes, peppers, chillis , peppers and aubergines. Organic Plants, who supply the trade and home gardeners, sell a full range that they send out at the right time.
Certain plants are easy to raise from seed, but do read the instructions first. You can grow courgettes in pots on a bright windowsill, but don’t sow them too early because they should not be planted outside until the first week of June, once the fear of frost has receded.
Peas, lettuces, spinach, beetroot, chard and beans can be sown direct into the pot or container.
F1 varieties have extra hybrid vigour.
Seed-raised tomato plants are widely sold, but there are now grafted plants available as well. These resist soil-borne diseases well, although they are more expensive.
If you’re making a container in the kinder months between April and September, you can use supermarket potfuls of common herbs such as parsley, basil, thyme, chives, dill and sage etc. However, a more exciting range can be acquired from Norfolk Herbs.
Good vegetable suppliers of seeds and plants include:
Kings – www.kingsseeds.com
Marshalls – www.marshallsgarden.com
Dobies – www.dobies.co.uk
Thompson & Morgan – www.thompson-morgan.com
Mr Fothergill’s – www.mr-fothergills.co.uk
The Organic Gardening Catalogue – www.organiccatalogue.com
Growing tomatoes in pots
The go-to container crop for long-term picking between July and September. There are cherry tomatoes and larger sized ones, although the beefsteak tomatoes tend to look rather ugly. It’s best to go for a blight-free variety and you should also avoid having potatoes close by. These two close relatives infect each other with blight. The tumbling varieties, suited to handing baskets, tend to be more disease resistant than the upright cordon varieties.
Read our guide to growing tomatoes
Tomato varieties suited to containers
‘Tumbling Tom Red’
A cascading, early red-fruited bush tomato that can be grown in pots, or in a hanging basket. Slightly larger than a cherry tomato. Widely available as seeds, or ready-grown plants. No pinching out required.
‘Red Alert’ F1
A compact red-fruited tomato and this will probably the first to fruit. This F1 variety is very vigorous, but no pinching out is required.
This blight-resistant variety can be grown in a pot, or in a hanging basket. Sweet, cherry-sized deep red fruit cascades downwards. Widely available as seeds, or ready-grown plants.
Orange, cherry tomato grown as a cordon, so you will need to pinch out the side shoots and restrict to the number of trusses to six. This tomato is adored by children and it’s the cherry tomato of choice for many. Widely available and good in a large pot.
‘Crimson Crush’ F1
This red-fruited, UK-bred cordon variety is disease-resistant and flavourful and it does well in a sunny spot.
Top tip: sweet basil can be planted with tomatoes and the two go together on the plate.
Growing sweet peppers in pots
Go for the thicker-skinned bell peppers, because they are far sweeter in flavour. Don’t confuse these large, blocky peppers with chillies, which are much hotter. Sweet peppers will need deep pots and lots of warmth and light. They can be eaten fresh and full of crunch, but sweet peppers also freeze well enough to be used in casseroles and curries.
A green pepper that ripens to red, even in cool, summers.
‘Salad Festival’ F1
Crisp and crunchy sweet pepper mixture of red, yellow and green. Seeds from Marshalls Seeds.
Mild variety recommended for outdoor growing, this ripens from green to red. Grafted plants from Thompson & Morgan.
Top tip: sweet peppers don’t like too much midday sun, so position them in a bright position.
Find out more about growing sweet peppers
Chilli peppers to grow in pots
Choose the heat carefully, from mild through to extremely hot. Keep the plants inside in winter and they should carry on fruiting. If you’re very keen, check out the full range on www.worldofchillies.com
A super-hot small red British-bred chilli with wrinkly red fruits. 1.3 scovilles – which sounds a lot!
Plump, glossy green fruits with a milder flavour. The slender green fruits are the most widely grown of all.
Read our guide to growing chillies
Courgette varieties to grow in pots
One of the most useful, because they go on and one producing until the first frosts. Look for compact varieties and you can also eat the flowers. All darker skimmed courgettes are less likely to turn into marrows.
Dark, smooth skinned courgette, with no prickly spines, that stays very compact. Plants from D.T. Brown – sent out in mid-May – www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk
This green and yellow Italian variety produces slender courgettes with a nutty flavour.
Top tip: water courgettes well, to prevent mildew, and feed them with chicken manure pellets once the first flowers have formed.
Read more about growing courgettes at home
Aubergines to grow in pots
Go for larger aubergines with glossy dark skins, because they look really handsome and they fruit better than smaller aubergines in my experience. Aubergines need warmth and sun outside, but the greenhouse can get too hot for them. They do well in tunnels and frames.
Shiny-skinned fruits with a firm texture and this decorative vegetable has pretty mauve flowers. Plants from D.T. Brown – sent out in mid-May – www.dtbrownseeds.co.uk
This widely available aubergine variety has longer, narrower fruits. Grafted plants are available from Marshalls.
This early cropping variety produces good-sized, glossy black fruits. Start the seeds off early.
Said to be the tastiest, due to its dense flesh that doesn’t brown when exposed to the air. Dobies are doing potted plants and super plugs.
Top tip: aubergines love a good summer, so you’re always at the mercy of the weather. Those in warmer parts of the country, or with sheltered gardens, will do better.
Read our guide to growing aubergines
Salad for pots and trugs
Whether you’re planting large containers or vegetable trugs, it’s best to create a tapestry of leaf that you can pick over a long period. Covering the compost will look better and prevent water loss.
Lettuce ‘Salad Bowl Mixed’
Loose leaf lettuces make great edging and the green and red mixture of oak-leaf shaped leaves can be picked earlier than hearting lettuces.
Lettuce ‘Little Gem’
The most popular hearting lettuce, because one lettuce feeds two people. The buttery foliage and fresh-green colour make this popular lettuce perfect for container growing. It’s also faster to heart up.
This is red and green version of ‘Little Gem’ and it provides extra colour on the plate. Very suited to pots and trugs.
This deep-red beetroot has dark edible foliage as well as round roots. This variety is less prone to bolting, that’s running to seed, as well.
Spinach ‘Lazio’ F1
The rounded small leaves of this variety make good baby salad leaves. Resistant to downy mildew races 1 and 2.
Spinach ‘Trumpet’ F1
Darker green rounded laves, perfect for picking as a salad. This has superb disease resistance.
Read more about growing salad leaves
Beans to grow in pots
If your pot is large enough for a tripod, opt for some colourful edible climbers, that look good. Beans often have pretty flowers.
Dwarf French bean ‘Red Swam’
Pink flowers produce purple-flushed green pods.
Exclusive to Mr Fothergills.
Dwarf French bean ‘Stanley’
The fastest maturing green bean, heavy cropping with tasty slender green pods.
Borlotti bean Lingua di Fuoco
Red splashed pods containing beans that can either be eaten fresh, or you can dry them for winter use.
Climbing French bean ‘Violet Podded’
Flat purple-violet pods and sultry flowers.
Runner bean ‘Firestorm’
A red-flowered, self-fertile hybrid runner bean guaranteed to crop in hot weather.
Runner bean ‘Moonlight’
A sister to ‘Firestorm’, this white-flowered hybrid bean will also crop well.
Read our guide to growing runner beans and growing French beans
Other vegetables to grow in containers
Cucumber ‘Carmen’ F1
An all-female hybrid producing straight glossy fruits. This variety is the most cold-tolerant, so worth trying.
An outdoor cucumber that crops heavily from July onwards, producing tasty, dark-green somewhat spiny fruits. Performs in cool summers too.
Pea ‘Purple Magnolia’
A sugar snap pea, with edible pods, this early variety has almost-black pods containing green seeds. ‘Shiraz’ looks similar, but any pea would do.
Sow in some edible flowers
Add some colour to your salads and containers with these easy annuals – for a mixture of red, orange, yellow and blue. Sarah Raven has a good range.
- Borage – Borago officinalis
- Cornflower – Centaurea cyanus
Read more about growing edible flowers, or read more of our fruit and vegetable growing guides