How to grow a patio vegetable garden

Patio vegetable garden setup and tips to get growing

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If you’re looking for a way to grow food that doesn’t involve a half acre of land and a strong back, consider setting up a patio vegetable garden. All you need to start growing today is a sunny spot on a relatively level surface, some containers, potting soil, and the right veggies. In this article, I’ll walk you through the process of setting up and maintaining a patio vegetable garden of your own.

How big should a patio vegetable garden be?

As a horticulturist, I grow dozens of containers filled with veggies on my patio every season, but there’s no need to create something so extensive. Start with just a few pots your first year, and plan to expand your garden as you learn how to grow. Of course, if you want to dive in and go big right out the gate, go for it. Thankfully, patio vegetable gardening isn’t super expensive, nor does it require a ton of labor beyond the initial set up. Yes, you will have to care for your plants all season long (more on how to do this in a bit), but maintenance is minimal when compared to an in-ground garden.

When determining the size of your patio vegetable garden ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How many people are in your family?
  2. Do you know how many different veggies you want to grow?
  3. Do you have a lot of time to care for the plants in the summer?
  4. How much space do you have?

Plan with the answers to these questions in mind, and remember there will be a learning curve to deal with, too. We have tons of vegetable gardening resources here on Savvy Gardening that walk you through the growing and plant care process for almost any crop you’d like to grow.

Wooden planter box for growing food on the patio.

Patio food gardens can be as fancy or as humble as you’d like. Here, the gardener built wooden boxes for their patio and planted them with tomatoes and edible flowers.

How much sun does a patio vegetable garden need?

The majority of vegetables and herbs grow best in full sun. That means when seeking out the ideal site for a patio vegetable garden, choose a location that receives a minimum of 8 hours of full sun per day. And remember… a patio vegetable garden doesn’t actually have to be on a patio. Feel free to set up the garden on a porch, deck, driveway, parking pad, or patio. Any relatively sunny, level spot will do.

If you don’t have a spot with full sun, don’t fret! You can still have a productive garden; you’ll just have to adjust what you grow. Leafy green vegetables, like lettuce, kale, and chard, and some root crops, like carrots and radish, grow fine with as little as 4 to 6 hours of sun. However, if you’d like to grow heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and squash, you’ll want to choose the sunniest spot possible.

One nice feature of a patio vegetable garden is that you can make it mobile. Use wheeled planters and pot dollies to move the containers from one side of the patio to the other each day to increase their light exposure. Follow the sun if that’s what’s required for the plants to receive maximum light.

How to start a food garden on a patio or deck.

Warm-season crops, such as peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes, require full sun growing conditions.

Other location considerations

Another feature to be on the lookout for when choosing where to put your patio vegetable garden is a water source. Lugging full watering cans is a job that gets old fast. And you’ll be watering your garden a lot once summer’s heat arrives. If possible, keep the garden close to the spigot so it’s easy to turn on the hose and water your garden every day. Vegetables are thirsty plants, and you’ll be spending a lot of time watering them during summer’s heat (more on watering later in this article).

Lastly, when choosing your site, don’t forget to look up. If your home’s eaves extend out over the patio, don’t put your patio vegetable garden right up against the house. Rainfall will never reach the pots if they’re tucked under the eaves. While rain most likely won’t be your primary source of irrigation water during the summer, the occasional heavy downpour does help reduce how often you’ll have to water with the hose.

Bucket food garden for small-space growing.

Galvanized buckets with holes punched in the bottom make great containers, just be sure they aren’t tucked under the eaves of your house.

How to choose the best containers

Now that you know where to site your patio garden, it’s time to consider the types and sizes of containers to use. You can grow in any type of container, as long as there is a drainage hole in the bottom. Plastic and glazed ceramic are two of my favorite options. When it comes to the size of the pots, always err on the larger side. The more soil a pot holds, the less often you’ll have to water, and bigger pots mean more room for roots to grow.

How large should patio vegetable garden containers be?

Here’s a guide to pot sizes from my book Container Gardening Complete. Use it to determine what size container each plant in your patio vegetable needs:

    • 10-15 gallons minimum for each extra-large vegetable, such as full-sized indeterminate tomatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, melons, and artichokes.
    • 8-10 gallons minimum for each large fruit or vegetable plant. This includes peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, dwarf blueberry bushes, cucumbers, summer squash/zucchini, and bush-type winter squash varieties.
    • 5-8 gallons minimum for each medium-sized vegetable or flowering plant. This includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bush-type cucumbers, determinate tomatoes (often called patio tomatoes), and okra.
    • 1-2 gallons minimum for each small-statured or micro-sized vegetable. This includes kohlrabi, lettuce, kale, chard, collards, spinach, true micro tomatoes, and other greens. Individual herb plants fit into this category as well.
  • Plants that are usually grown in a group, such as bush beans, peas, and edible roots, such as carrots, beets, radish, onions, and turnips, can be planted in almost any sized container, as long as the seeds or plants are spaced at the appropriate distance for optimum growth (as noted on the plant tag or seed packet) and the pot is deep enough for the roots to have ample room to grow. The smaller the pot is, though, the fewer seeds or plants it can house.
How to plant a small container food garden

If you plan to grow shallow-rooted veggies, such as lettuce, kale, and other greens, you don’t need a deep pot.

If you plan to combine different plants together into the same pot, then add the target soil volumes listed above together to ensure there’s enough room for all of the plants in the container to produce an ample root system. For example, if you want to combine a full-sized tomato plant with a pepper plant and a few herbs, you’ll need a container that holds at least 20-28 gallons of potting mix. Obviously the specific variety of any given vegetable is also closely tied to the size container it needs, so these are guidelines, not rules; there’s no doubt you’ll need a far bigger pot for a standard-sized tomato than you will for a dwarf-type tomato, but it’s always best to err on the side of a larger container.

The best soil for a patio vegetable garden

When growing in containers, don’t use soil from the ground. It doesn’t drain well and is very heavy. Instead, use potting soil. There are many brands of potting soil on the market and some are better quality than others. Your local garden center likely has several brands to choose from. I suggest using an organic potting soil when growing vegetable plants. Choose a high-quality organic potting soil and mix it with some compost or worm castings to bulk it up, add organic matter, and improve its water-holding capacity.

If you want to save money and create your own high-quality potting mix, here are the recipes I use to mix up my own DIY potting soil every year. Making my own potting soil for my patio vegetable garden saves me a lot of money every year.

The best vegetables for a patio vegetable garden

While you can grow just about any vegetable in a pot, not all varieties are suited to growing in tight quarters. Whenever possible, choose compact vegetable varieties for your patio vegetable garden. Most produce full-sized vegetables but on plants that stay smaller and are better suited to container growing. Check out this article for a complete list of the best vegetable varieties for a patio vegetable garden. In it, you’ll find compact selections for just about every veggie out there.

The best vegetables for a patio food garden.

Compact varieties, such as ‘Baby Pak Choi’ and ‘Micro Tom’ tomato, are just a few inches tall. They are the perfect fit for a patio food garden.

Patio vegetable garden design ideas

Once you’ve decided where to place your garden and what you’ll grow, it’s time to get creative! Patio vegetable gardens can be really beautiful when planted in gorgeous colorful pots. Or, they can be strictly utilitarian when planted in plastic bins and tubs. If you want to get creative and build a patio vegetable garden with flair, here are three of my favorite patio garden design ideas worth considering.

Food fountain

Purchase wide, low pots in 4 or 5 different graduated sizes. Fill the pots and then stack them on top of each other to create a tiered food fountain for a corner of the patio or deck. Fill the pots with a mixture of edible greens, herbs, and compact tomato and pepper varieties. This is also a great way to grow strawberries.

A food fountain makes a great patio food garden for small-space areas.

Tiered containers stacked on top of each other and planted with vegetable plants makes a great patio food garden.

Milk crate garden

If you’re on a budget, consider growing your patio vegetable garden in repurposed milk crates. Line the crates with landscape fabric, burlap, or another porous fabric, fill them with soil, and get planting. You can even plant through the holes in the sides of the crate if you’d like. To grow multiple layers and maximize space, stack the crates checkerboard-style to create a “wall” of vegetable plants.

Milk crate patio food garden.

Grow veggies in milk crates for a unique food garden. Stack them checkerboard style to make an edible wall.

Galvanized stock tank planters

Metal livestock troughs make great patio planters. They come in a range of sizes and have a removable drain plug so you don’t have to drill holes in the bottom for drainage. Each stock tank can house multiple plants and become a patio vegetable garden in just an hour or two.

Use galvanized stock tanks to grow food on patios and porches.

Galvanized stock tanks make great planters for decks, porches, and patios.

Watering your patio vegetable garden

Once your patio containers have been planted, it doesn’t mean it’s time to sit back and relax. You still have to take care of the plants if you expect them to produce. Watering is always the biggest maintenance task when growing a patio vegetable garden. Do not neglect this task or take short cuts! Water your pots deeply as often as they need it. In the summertime, that means daily. Don’t splash a little water on the soil and call it good enough. Hold the running hose directly on the soil of each pot for several minutes. Allow the water to penetrate deeply and drain out the hole in the bottom of the pot. Repeat this two or three times per pot when the weather is hot and dry. You’ll find more watering tips here.

Fertilizing a patio food garden

The next necessary task is fertilization. If you used an organic potting soil that contains a natural, slow-release fertilizer, you won’t have to fertilize again until mid to late summer. I suggest using a liquid organic fertilizer for the job. Mix it in a watering can every 3 to 4 weeks and fertilize as you water. For more on the best fertilizers for a patio vegetable garden, please read this article.

Container vegetable garden for a patio.

Don’t forget to provide support for plants that need it. Here, a wooden teepee supports pole bean plants.

Support and harvest your plants

In addition to watering and fertilizing, provide support for any plants that need it. Use a tomato cage, trellis, or stake to hold tall plants upright. If you want them to trail over the edge of the container (which is fine, too!), skip this step.

The last task is to harvest your patio vegetable garden regularly. I head out to the garden every morning to inspect my plants and pick what’s ripe. Many vegetables produce better when regularly harvested, including beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini.

Enjoy the bounty of your new patio vegetable garden. Plan to expand it each season and enjoy the process. Yes, you’ll make a few mistakes along the way, but it’s part of the process. Live and learn… and enjoy the fruits of your efforts.

Lettuce pots are an easy way to grow food on a patio.

Lettuce makes a great addition to a patio vegetable garden. It can be harvested repeatedly by cutting off the leaves and leaving the growing point intact to regrow.

Container gardening book

Here’s more on growing healthy and productive vegetable plants:

Do you have a patio vegetable garden? We’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.

Plant and Grow a Patio Vegetable Garden. Learn how to plant, tend, and harvest a patio vegetable garden to grow fresh, homegrown vegetables in a small amount of space.

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