No yard? No Problem … Container Gardens to the Rescue

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By Alison Ashton

These days, home is a second-story condo with no yard. Instead, we have a sunny, south-facing balcony and a sizable deck, which means our urban farming must be done in containers. Which is all right by me. Even when I lived in houses with yards, I was still more inclined to garden in containers because I’m horticulturally challenged and lazy. Overseeing a few containers just seemed…easier. And it is; even I’ve managed to cultivate pots of vigorous herbs and sweet cherry tomatoes.

container-melangeYou can grow anything, from herbs to apple trees, in containers, says C. Darren Butler, a Los Angeles-based University of California Master Gardener, arborist, and landscape designer who teaches small-space gardening workshops and other horticultural classes. “The only thing I’d caution people that they shouldn’t try in a container is corn,” he says.

Here’s all you need to get started:

Location. “You need sun–five to six hours a day,” says Butler. “That’s the number one thing.” But that sun can be on a patio, balcony, deck, or stairway. If horizontal space is limited, a sun-drenched wall is ripe for vertical gardening.

Choose a container. “I don’t think there’s any one perfect container,” says Butler. Size and water retention are the main considerations. He recommends sustainably harvested wood, UV-treated recycled plastic, or simply reusing 5-gallon plastic nursery buckets. Glazed clay pots retain water well, Butler notes, but they can be expensive and breakable. Avoid terra cotta, he cautions, which tends to wick moisture away from plants.

Evangeline Heath Rubin, who documents her horticultural adventures in the blog Farm Apartment, got her apartment garden started with a self-watering EarthBox ($59.95), in which she grows a variety of salad greens. EarthBox kits come with a container, watering system, potting mix, and casters.

The depth of the container depends on the plant’s root system. Most plants need at least 8 to 12 inches, though baby lettuces, radishes and arugula can thrive in as little as 4 to 6 inches. Tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and the like need a bit more depth–14 to 20 inches. You can even grow a lemon tree in a 5-gallon pot; you’ll just need to prune the roots every few years when the plant is dormant.

Soil. Butler recommends a mix of one-third coarse builder’s sand or washed plaster sand, one-third organic matter (compost or organic potting soil for vegetables), and one-third native soil (ask a neighbor to lend you some).

You’ll want to feed container plants to replenish nutrients that are washed away every time you water, says Heath Rubin. Compost or worm castings are ideal. Her solution for small-space composting has been vermiculture–using worms to compost kitchen scraps–in a compact Wriggly Ranch worm bin. “I give them the gourmet treatment,” boasts Heath Rubin, who purees vegetable scraps for her colony of red wigglers. “I think of them as my pets.”

Plants. “Don’t be afraid to start from seed,” says Heath Rubin. Butler recommends compact container varieties, which are available for just about any kind of fruit or vegetable. Organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and companies like Seeds of Change sell seeds for everything from bush cucumbers to cherry tomatoes to baby eggplant.

Hmm, with sun, decent soil, a hospitable container, and seeds even I can turn my concrete jungle into a verdant urban farm.

alison-thumbA longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for Nourish Network. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.

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Spring Soupe au Pistou

Pistou is the Provencal cousin of Italian pesto (difference: the French version doesn’t include pine nuts), and it’s used as a condiment as well as in a soup that bears its name. This spring rendition of the typically summery soup adds a touch of fresh mint to the traditional basil in the pistou (just enough basil to “borrow” from your new seedlings), and substitutes leeks for onions and sugar snap peas for haricots verts in the soup itself. As spring turns to summer, adapt the recipe to use whatever produce is available. Add zucchini or other summer squash. Trade the snap peas for green beans, use fresh shell beans instead of canned, and swap canned tomatoes for peeled, seeded summer-fresh tomatoes (you’ll need 1 1/2 cups). Serve with grilled bread.

Spring Soupe au Pistou

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Yield: 8-10 servings

Spring Soupe au Pistou


  1. 1 teaspoon olive oil
  2. 1 medium leek, thinly sliced (white and tender green parts)
  3. Sea salt, to taste
  4. 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  5. 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  6. 3 garlic cloves, minced
  7. 1 quart water
  8. 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained, seeded, and chopped
  9. 1/2 pound red potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  10. 2 thyme sprigs
  11. 1 bay leaf
  12. 1/2 pound sugar snap peas, cut into 1-inch pieces
  13. 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
  14. Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  15. Pistou:
  16. 1 garlic clove
  17. Sea salt, to taste
  18. 1 cup packed fresh basil
  19. 1/2 cup packed fresh mint
  20. 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  21. 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  22. 2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


To prepare soup, heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon oil. Add leek and a pinch of salt; sauté 3 minutes or until very tender. Toss in carrot and celery, and saute another 4 minutes, or until tender. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds, or until just fragrant.

Add water, tomatoes, potatoes, a pinch of salt, thyme sprigs and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Add snap peas and cook 4 minutes, or until crisp-tender. Add beans and cook 2 minutes. Season to taste with black pepper.

While soup simmers, prepare pistou. If using a mortar and pestle, place garlic in the bowl with a pinch of salt and pound to a paste. Then add basil and mint a few leaves at a time and continue to pound to a paste until herbs are gone. Whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil and cheese, and season with pepper to taste. If using a blender or mini food processor, add garlic to bowl with a pinch of salt and pulse until minced. Add basil and mint and pulse a few times until herbs are chopped. Drizzle in oil and process until herbs are very finely chopped. Add cheese and pulse just until combined. Serve with soup.


  • Jacqueline

    I’m so jealous. My little fire escape doesn’t get enough sun for vegetables. I do, however, have a gorgeous climbing hydrangea that is a little oasis of green floating four stories in our brick and concrete alley. Flowers and herbs keep me happy.

  • Alison Ashton

    Oooh, I love hydrangea! What color are yours?

  • Jacqueline Church

    Right now it’s just green, green, green. There are about a dozen flower bud heads but they’re very different from the regular hydrangea. This one grew through the snow, through the winter. It’s so great. I’ve got to post some pictures…

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