How To: Start a Container Garden

How To: Start a Container Garden

Sarah Coffey
Jul 22, 2009

Project: Outdoor container garden with herbs and vegetables
Time: An afternoon
Cost: Free - $75 for planters, soil, and seeds/sprouts

Container gardening is big right now, and it's a great way for city dwellers to have their own home-grown food source in a small space. All you need is a deck, a roof garden, or a small patch of backyard to start your own outdoor garden. To learn the basics, we attended a session at the Green Grocer over the weekend. Merrill Smith, from Chicago's City Farm, demonstrated the best way to start growing herbs, lettuce, and tomatoes...


  • Planter that provides aeration for roots
  • 2-4 inches of good soil (high-quality compost is best)
  • Seeds or sprouts
  • Sunlight (most herbs and vegetables require a couple hours of full sun per day)
  • Water
  • Hand-held garden cultivator (claw)


  • The planters Merrill uses are made from recycled 2x4s with a plastic screen lining the bottom. She lines the screen with newspaper or burlap, so the soil doesn't fall through. A wine crate is another great option.
  • For herbs and lettuce, a planter with a larger surface area and shallow roots in about 2-4 inches of soil will create a higher yield. Tomatoes require a deeper planter. (Merrill uses a plastic bucket lined with burlap and filled with compost.)
  • The materials for Merrill's planters came from the ReBuilding Exchange, an organization that works with contractors to recycle materials from demolitions and renovations.
  • The compost Merrill uses comes from City Farm, a sustainable vegetable farm between the Gold Coast and Cabrini Green. They sell compost to the public for $5 per bucket.
  • The seeds and sprouts shown above also came from City Farm.
  • Merrill sells her Green Box (the large version shown above) through City Farm for $75, $50 of which goes to the farm.


  1. Choose what you're going to grow. Good options for container gardening include herbs such as basil, sage, and mint; red and green lettuce; and tomatoes.
  2. Purchase or build your container. For herbs and lettuce, it should be a shallow container with a large surface area and a screened bottom that allows the roots to aerate. For tomatoes, use a deeper container, such as a bucket. (See "resources" above for details.)
  3. Find a sunny spot for your herbs and vegetables. Herbs and lettuce need at least a couple hours of good sun per day; tomatoes need full sun.
  4. Fill the container with 2-4 inches of compost soil. If you're planting sprouts, make sure to give them a few inches of space around the roots. If you're planting seeds, scatter the seeds evenly across the planter.
  5. Keep a couple of containers of each plant going at once, so that when you've clipped one plant, you have another one ready for your next meal.
  6. Water your plants regularly. Herbs should have somewhat damp soil—don't let your shallow planters dry out. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are easy to over-water. Feel the soil before you water them. If it's moist, wait until it's dry before watering. Water around the base of the plant, rather than through the leaves.
  7. Use a hand-held garden cultivator (a claw) to aerate the surface soil without disturbing the roots too much.
  8. Herbs and lettuce take about 2-3 weeks to grow from a sprout into enough to cook with. If you keep a couple of containers going, you can cultivate/reseed/replant every 2 weeks to keep a constant supply going.
  9. To harvest your plants, use scissors to snip the leaves or vegetables. Snip the leaves around the base of the plant first, so that it will continue to grow and fill out.
  10. At the end of the growing season, you can store your compost soil