When I lived in Saskatoon, I had visions of a beautiful container garden filled with vegetables on my back deck. I planned to make it interesting by adding flowers to some of the pots and creating a space that was both beautiful and edible.
However, at first, my dreams and reality did not meet.
In this blog post, I will let you know the mistakes I made when starting my first vegetable container garden and how you can learn from them!
Disclaimer: I garden in Zone 3b in Saskatchewan, Canada, and as such, my gardening advice is best suited to the Canadian Prairies. While I try to make my gardening tips applicable to as many locations as possible, it is impossible to be 100% relevant to every single zone in North America and beyond. Thanks for understanding!
If you want to see a little more of my container gardening journey, check out the videos beow:
10 THINGS TO AVOID FOR A BETTER CONTAINER GARDEN
1. choosing a Location with Too Little or Too Much Sun
In Saskatoon, my back deck was south-facing and received little wind. This meant that when the temperature soared to 30°C/86°F the deck felt more like 35°C. It was a great spot for starting a milk jug garden in the spring, but a terrible spot for young vegetables to grow in pots without watering at least twice a day.
In retrospect, I should have moved my pots to a shadier location when the heatwave hit, but, at the time, I was determined to be a purist because my apartment-dwelling readers would not have said luxury. Now? I say, just move the pots!
On the flip side, if you have a deck that is covered in shade for most of the day, you’re probably not going to have much success either.
A QUICK FIX: Make sure that none of your pots are touching the wall. They should all be placed at least 18 inches away, so they will be less scorched and will get rainwater when it rains.
2. Not Keeping Up with Watering
Further to my first mistake, I had a hard time keeping up with watering once the middle of July hit. The initial excitement of gardening was over and I was busy having summer fun. I generally watered once a day, but with the heatwave we were having, I should have watered twice a day or surrounded my plants with mulch.
3. Planting Too Many Things in One Pot
We’ve all seen those pictures on Pinterest where someone has planted basil in with their tomato in a pot and it looks wonderful. I probably should have used a bigger pot, because my tomato flourished and my basil stayed baby-sized. Same with the nasturtiums I stuck in with another tomato. They grew, but they never bloomed.
UPDATE: I tried the basil and tomato combination in a larger pot the next year and I still couldn’t get it to work. I can only get it to work in a raised bed.
P.S. Like the blue-painted pots? Here’s how to make them.
4. USING POTS THAT ARE TOO SMALL
I thought I had it all sorted out. I planted my larger plants in larger pots and smaller plants in smaller pots, but none of them seemed to be big enough. My kale never grew more than 8 inches, my bush beans barely produced, and I finally had to give up on my melon and baby pumpkins.
UPDATE: I also tried to grow kale in pots several years later. If you want success, you can only have one full-size kale plant per 12-14 inch pot. If you’re ok with baby kale, 2-3. Also, I have still never gotten bush beans to work. I’ve had a harvest, but it’s been so puny that it hasn’t been worth it.
5. Trying to Grow Regular-Sized Tomatoes in Pots
Can it be done successfully? Yes. Is it easy? No.
I tried putting mine in bigger pots (that still weren’t big enough), added nutrients and used better soil when planting, and still ended up with a disappointing crop compared to the ones in my garden.
Lesson learned? Stop trying to grow non-cherry tomatoes in small pots! If you want to grow heirlooms or other indeterminate varieties, you’ll need a 5-gallon pail or a 2-foot wide pot.
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6. Thinking You Don’t Need Fertilizer
Every plant can benefit from fertilizer, but potted vegetables really need it to thrive. Ideally, you should use a slow-release fertilizer twice a season or some sort of water-soluble fertilizer or homemade compost tea once a week.
7. Letting birds & Bugs Eat Your Garden Alive
If there’s any lesson I learned the hard way when first starting my container garden, it was to protect my investment. From birds eating all my young beets and lettuce to moths eating my cruciferous vegetables to an outbreak of powdery mildew, my garden had a hard time flourishing.
Most of the damage could have been prevented with a bit of netting and removing infected leaves as soon as I spotted them. I swore I would “get to it later,” except later never came. One effective trick for protecting lettuces from birds is to have a small cage around the pot with bird netting on it.
8. DIRECT SOWING SEEDS
I don’t know why direct sowing in pots has never worked for me. I have tried numerous times to just direct sow seeds into pots, and they do come up, but for some reason, they always seem to die. I find I have way better luck if I just put starts in my pots instead. The only exception? Cucumbers.
9. USING THE WRONG POTS
I know, I know. More about the pots?! But not all pots are created equal!
Avoid using dollar store cloth pots. It’s just not worth it. I would also suggest not using clay pots, as they get too hot and require too much water for the prairie climate. If you’re gardening in a wetter area, these might work well, but not in Zone 3 Saskatchewan.
When you’re buying pots, get the biggest size you can afford. You’ll have better results and will have to water your pots less often. The European grow bags from Gingerbread World pictured below were more of an investment, but I left them outside for an entire winter and on my full sun back porch throughout summer, and they didn’t fade. They remained fabulous and vibrant through all four seasons (and years after)!
10. Giving Up and Labelling Yourself a bad gardener
If you’ve had an experience like mine, it doesn’t mean you can’t grow anything. It just means that you made some mistakes and that you’re going to learn from them next year.
And if your garden has fallen into neglect because of illness or a family emergency? Be kind to yourself. Sure, it sucks to see your vegetables go to waste, but there is always next year. People are generally pretty happy to take your harvest off of your hands if you can’t deal with it.
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