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A three-part container garden sprouts cherry tomatoes, beans and lettuce. Photo by Jano Nightingale
ColumnsJano's Garden

Jano’s Garden: Grow a mini vegetable garden

My gardening students always ask me how to duplicate their old backyard vegetable garden on their small outdoor patio or porch.

Many of us have moved or downsized in the past decade, and as the expression goes, “You can’t go home again!” But even if you have moved to a condominium or apartment, you still can grow vegetables, just on a smaller scale.

The key to container garden success is to face the fact that it is different. An outdoor container requires water every day because the soil is subject to evaporation, unlike dirt in a raised bed or the ground. Also, nutrients run through the container after watering, so more fertilizer is needed.


If you are starting a new garden project, a site assessment is always in order. So get out your garden journal, and if you don’t have one, now is the time to start.

You will be taking notes about your new garden space and using your journal throughout your plant selection process.

Plan to scope out your potential garden area for the better part of the day. Take a large potted plant and place that plant where you think it might do well on your patio, early in the morning. Take note of the sun above and any obstructions that might block the light. Large trees or a neighbor’s wall or fence might block potential sunlight in the area that will cast shade upon your containers.

The amount of sun that your container garden area will receive may determine which crops can be grown. Vegetables grown for their fruit generally need at least five hours of full, direct sunlight each day, and perform better if they receive 8-10 hours.

Continue to move your specimen plant around the patio throughout the day to locate the sunniest part of the space, and you are ready to begin!


Gardeners can use containers of all shapes and sizes as long as they have adequate drainage, are large enough to support growing plants and fit in with your decorating personality.

Some gardeners like shiny, colored ceramics, whereas others might enjoy a wooden wine box or an old boot! You can consider any container as long as you make holes for drainage and it’s large enough to hold the soil’s weight. Use pieces of old terra cotta pots in the bottom of each container, or plastic foam peanuts, which provide air circulation and drainage.


Vegetables need a relatively lightweight potting mix. You cannot use soil straight from the garden, so purchase a good quality potting mix and ask your nursery professional for suggestions.


Grow vegetables that take up little space, such as carrots, radishes, kale, Swiss chard, leaf lettuce or crops that bear fruit over time, such as tomatoes and peppers.

Dwarf or miniature varieties often mature and bear fruit early but do not produce overall like other standard varieties. Many seed companies, such as Burpee, Johnny’s Seed and Baker’s Seed, have developed small varieties, so check their websites.

Small-fruited tomatoes are perfect for the larger containers, so look for varieties such as Red Cherry, Sun Gold, Sweet Million and Yellow Pear, just to name a few. Herbs such as parsley, cilantro and basil can be added as seedlings from the nursery.


This is a container garden I have grown for years with great success. It is also an excellent project to do with children since it is all done on a small scale.


• One tomato (use small varieties listed above)

• 6-pack of greens (leaf lettuce, arugula or Swiss chard)

• 6-pack of peas or pole beans (pole beans grow tall, unlike bush beans)

• Package seeds: Radishes, lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, carrots (any seed that has a short growing period will sprout quickly)

• Tomato cage

• One large container (usually called 5 gallon)

• Potting soil (see above)


1. Before adding soil, place broken terra cotta pots or plastic peanuts at the bottom of your container. Fill the container with potting soil, watering as you fill. Soil should be damp.

2. Place tomato plant in the middle of soil, and push tomato cage into the container, surrounding tomato.

3. At the edge of each metal prong of cage, place seedlings of peas and beans. These will grow up the cage, and will need tying eventually.

4. In a circle on the edge of the container, place seedlings of lettuce or other greens. Scatter seeds in the holes, as they will develop at a later date.

5. Press all seedlings  firmly in holes and water gently. The soil will be damp, so don’t overwater.

6. Place in the sunniest part of your patio, water daily and tie up beans and peas as they grow. Cut greens on a daily basis, which encourages new growth.


Research seed catalogues and Master Gardener website for lots more ideas. And write to me for more suggestions at [email protected].

Jano Nightingale is a horticulturist and former Director of the Master Gardener Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York.