The Container Grocery Store

The Container Grocery Store

Whether you’re a young couple that’s just starting out or a couple facing retirement, you know that you often have to stretch your budget to cover all of your expenses. You may need to move to larger accommodations, there’s furniture to buy, there may be student loans or a wedding to pay off. Well, you can cut a lot out of your budget, but everyone needs food to live that’s one cost you can’t eliminate. However, you can make a dent in your grocery bills by growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in containers.

Containers are great because you can use them whether you’re living in an apartment or a house; plants will do just fine in containers perched on balconies or sitting on patios. Just make  sure to put them in a location where they’ll get as much sun as possible; vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to develop properly, and herbs need five. A south-facing location is best, but if that’s not possible, a west-facing one is almost as good.

Vegetables growing on east- and north-facing balconies and patios will still provide some produce, but the yields won’t be as high. Herbs growing indoors should be cultivated close to the windows that get the most sunshine; it’s also important to grow them in high-humidity areas, like the kitchen.

Choosing the right pot is crucial. For vegetables, I never use pots smaller than 25 cm wide for container vegetable gardening; 30 cm wide is preferable. These plants need space to grow, and pots smaller than this just don’t provide enough volume. For materials, I prefer glazed ceramic, plastic, or fibreglass; all hold water well and are easier to handle than clay pots. Large hanging baskets and troughs are good choices for patio or balcony vegetable gardening, too; even whiskey half-barrels will work. I’ve seen people use all kinds of cheap but effective containers—old milk cans, toilets, bathtubs, trash cans, even washing machines. Just make sure that whatever container you choose has enough volume to provide the plant with enough room to grow. Herbs can be grown in pots that are slightly smaller, though; feel free to keep them in the 10 or 15 cm pots that you buy them in for a while. When they’re big enough, move them to larger pots or a trough. You can plant more than one plant in a large pot; stuffing half a dozen herbs into a 30 cm container or a long trough would be a fine way to grow them, as long as you’re careful not to mix aggressive herbs with the less competitive varieties.

Potting soil is the root medium of choice for potted plants, chiefly because it doesn’t compact like garden soil does—potted plants need rich, well-drained soil to promote healthy root growth. Potting soil has another advantage: it’s free of the soil-borne diseases and insect pests common to regular garden soil. I incorporate a controlled, time-release 14-14-14 fertilizer that will feed the plant for many weeks. This non-leaching fertilizer becomes a reservoir backup that prevents the plants from yellowing and cuts down on maintenance.

I always say that watering is the most important job a gardener has to do. It’s a simple task, but that doesn’t mean that it can be done without thought. Since containers can’t hold much water, you may need to soak your plants twice a day during heat waves—once, thoroughly, in the early morning and once more, if needed, in the evening. Hanging baskets should be checked more often for moisture; the wind can dry them out quickly. To seal in moisture and keep down weeds, you can cover the soil with a mulch of shredded bark. As for fertilizer—I usually just add a pinch of 20-20-20 to the pot each time I water and give the plants a heavier feeding once a week. All vegetables need these extra nutrients, especially heavy feeders like tomatoes and cucumbers, so don’t skimp.

Speaking of tomatoes and cucumbers, just what kinds of plants should you be growing in containers? I’ve drawn up a list, and there are a couple of products that merit special attention.

The first of these is mesclun. This is a mixture of “instant salads” created by the French that’s really catching on in North America. The idea is wonderfully simple: a number of different greens are grown together in one pot. Sound complicated? It isn’t. All you have to do is buy a packet of mesclun seed, sow into a container, and watch the greens spring up. Every two or three weeks, when the plants reach a few inches in height, all you have to do is take a pair of scissors out, cut off the greens, and throw them into a salad bowl. You should leave about two inches of growth in the pot, since mesclun can be harvested several times. Over the course of a growing season, you can expect to harvest five or six meals—meals big enough to feed three or four people, so plan to invite another couple over each time you harvest.

The second item of note is the potato barrel, a British invention that I think is the best way to grow container potatoes. It’s a Victorian style barrel made of polymer with sliding “windows.” Instead of digging up the soil to harvest the potatoes, all you need to do is slide open a window, reach in, grab the spuds, and slide the window shut. Sweet potatoes or other tubers can be grown in this innovative device, too.

There are other benefits to growing your own vegetables. For one thing, there’s something very arresting about vegetables growing in containers; they make great conversation pieces, especially for repeat visitors who can see the plants slowly come to fruition. Plants like cucumbers have long vines that can be trained to grow around balcony railings, adding some life to your apartment.

If you’re really adventurous, you can try growing peanuts on your balcony, or figs, dwarf lemons or limes, or even coffee indoors. These are novelty crops—you’ll be lucky to grow enough beans for one cup of coffee, for example—but they’re fun to have around. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourselves, whatever you choose to grow.

Vegetables (and one fruit) That Grow Well in Containers

Leaf lettuce
Bush-type melons (in large patio containers only)

Herbs That Grow Well in Containers

Try growing oregano, marjoram, thyme, and chives in the same container as your tomatoes—these plants grow quite well together, and broiled herb tomatoes make a delicious snack.

Edible Flowers That Grow Well in Containers

Daylily flowers—especially new multiple blooms, e.g. Stella d’Oro

Favourite Herbs: Borage



Borago officinalis

Hardy annual; self-seeds readily

Height 60 to 90 cm; spread to 60 cm.

Prolific species with hollow stems, hairy ovate leaves, and blue or purple star-shaped flowers.

Try these!

Borago officinalis (common borage) is the most common variety and is widely available.


Seed borage directly into the garden or, to get a jump on the season, set out young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: After the date of the average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate some shade. Prefers sandy, well-drained soil; will tolerate poor soil. Space plants at least 60 cm apart.

Care & Nurture

Borage is easy to grow! Although borage is drought-tolerant once the plant is established, young plants need lots of water. Don't give borage too much nitrogen. 


Fresh borage leaves can be harvested continuously, like spinach. The flowers grow in clusters called racemes; harvest individual flowers rather than the whole raceme.

For best flavour: Remove the pistils and stamens (the black centre) before you eat the flowers.

Leaves: Harvest as needed by cutting from the stem.

Flowers: Harvest as they open. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

Use only fresh borage leaves—they do not store well. Borage flowers can be frozen in ice-cubes.


  • Borage is prone to aphids.
  • Any vegetable crop that needs pollination—squash, cucumbers, and the like—will benefit greatly from a nearby borage plant, because borage flowers are a favourite of bees.
  • If you choose to grow borage in a container, choose a large pot. The plants grow rapidly, so they need lots of room. Half whiskey-barrels are perfect.

To Note:

  • Borage looks much more attractive when it's grown with other plants. It looks wonderful when used as a feature plant with other culinary herbs surrounding it. The other plants can even help support the tall borage, which can be blown down by strong winds.
  • Borage is rich in potassium, calcium, and vitamin C.
  • Dried borage flowers add a lovely blue colour to potpourri.
  • Borage is often called "bee bread" because it attracts bees; indeed, borage honey is of very high quality.
  • When burned, borage may emit sparks and slight explosive sound, like fireworks. Some speculate that the potassium nitrate content in the plant is responsible for the phenomenon; others feel it might simply be the volatile oils burning off.
  • Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, borage was purportedly planted by Columbus' men on Isabella's Island.

Favourite Herbs: Basil


Ocimum basilicum

Very tender annual

Height 30 to 60 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.

Highly aromatic branching herb that forms large, lush mounds in the garden or container.

Try these!

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Basil’ is the standard, familiar green basil; it’s prolific, with nice fragrance and colour.

Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’: Nice spicy flavour, strong flavour and scent; leaves deep purple and bronze

Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’: Extra-large leaves with great fragrance and flavour; great pesto basil; originated from the Genoa area of Italy

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Dani’: Very fragrant lemon scent, especially when leaves are rubbed; an All-America Selections winner in 1998


Basil can be difficult to grow from seed. If you enjoy a challenge, start indoors from seed; otherwise, grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Two or three plants; plant up to ten if you intend to make pesto.

When: Two weeks after the average last spring frost date.

Where: Full sun, sheltered. Excellent in containers. Needs rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 cm apart in the garden.

Care & Nurture

Basil requires extra care to grow well. Overwatering can cause root-rot. Pinch off shoots to promote robust new growth and a bushy form. Basil tends to get woody when it gets old.


For the most bountiful harvest, prune flowers as soon as they appear. Basil's flavour grows much stronger as the leaves age, losing much of their delicate, sweet scent.

For best flavour: Choose young, small tender leaves for mild aroma and taste. Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Pick just as flowers emerge. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

The best way to preserve basil is to freeze it: frozen basil retains nearly 100% of its essential oils. Blanch the leaves quickly in boiling water, dry them on paper towel, and freeze them in sealed plastic bags. A short-term way to preserve basil is in oil. Wash and dry the leaves and then pack them into a clean, dry glass jar. (It's important to use a glass jar, as plastic will leach out the flavour of the leaves.) Sprinkle salt over each layer of leaves, and when the jar is full, fill it with olive oil to cover the leaves. Close the jar with a tight-fitting lid and store in the refrigerator. The leaves will keep for 7 to 10 days.


  • Here are some other basil varieties you might like to try:
    • Ocimum basilicum minimum ‘Green Globe’ is a very dense, rounded basil with a uniform growth habit.
    • Ocimum basilicum ‘Nufar’ is a new sweet basil hybrid that has shown excellent resistance to fusarium; it’s a Genovese-type basil with great fragrance and flavour.
    • Ocimum sp. ‘Siam Queen’ was an All-America Selection in 1997; it has deep-purple stems and flowers that contrast with its dark-green leaves, and its flavour is spicy with an anise-licorice scent and flavour.
    • Ocimum ‘African Blue’ has a different growth habit and leaf form from sweet basils: its leaves aren’t as smooth and have a slight bluish tone, and the leaf veins, stems, and flowers are purple; it has an unusual flavour with a sweet camphor scent. African Blue is probably the easiest basil to grow indoors because it is not susceptible to fusarium.
  • Basil seed often harbours a fungal disease called Fusarium oxysporum. Fusarium affects germination and causes sudden wilting of leaves; the stems turn brown, and the plant eventually topples and dies. The fungus can be caused by both contaminated seeds and soil, and spreads easily through contaminated soil and leaves. There is currently no way to control this disease, but some seed companies are attempting to eliminate fusarium from basil seed.
  • Basil is among the least frost-tolerant herbs. Around the greenhouse, we joke that you should never walk by basil with a tray of ice cubes, lest you freeze it. Shadier locations cause the plants to stretch, leaving them weak, gangly, and more susceptible to disease.
  • To promote leaf growth, pick off flower shoots as they appear, unless you want to harvest a few flowers, which taste like the leaves, only milder..
  • Avoid adding compost to the soil where basil is to be grown: compost tends to increase root rot problems.

To Note:

  • Smaller varieties of basil can be used as edging for garden borders. In pots or hanging baskets, basil can serve as a foil for brightly coloured bedding plants.
  • Basil's common name is derived from the Greek word for king—"basilikon." In ancient Greece, only the sovereign was allowed to cut basil with a golden sickle.
  • In India, basil is sacred, dedicated to the gods Vishnu and Krishna. It is commonly grown in pots near temples. Recognizing its importance in Indian culture, during the colonial era the British used it to swear oaths upon, much like a Bible.
  • Basil is considered a symbol of fertility in Western culture. For example, in Romania, when a young man accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it signals their engagement. In Italy, when a woman puts a pot of basil on her balcony, it means that she is ready to receive suitors—in fact, basil is referred to as "Kiss Me Nicholas" in some regions of Italy.