Easy Ways to Grow Vegetables

    Container gardens can provide healthy produce and fresh herbs all summer long

    A person holding freshly picked tomatoes from a container garden Photo: Getty Images

    Whether you’ve been growing vegetables in your yard for years or—like many people—started last summer as a way to get fresh produce more easily during the COVID-19 pandemic, gardening can be a satisfying and healthy pastime. Plus, you can grow some produce and herbs in minimal spaces without having to do a lot of kneeling and bending, which can be hard on your joints. These tips will help simplify the planting and care of your garden.

    Get the Benefits

    Vegetables are filled with plant nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. And homegrown veggies can be picked at the peak of ripeness, when they’re bursting with flavor—and you may be inspired to eat more of them. Most of us don’t get enough produce. For older adults, who should get 2 to 3½ cups a day, eating more vegetables is linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases.

    More on Growing and Eating Vegetables

    Gardening may not be extremely strenuous, but it “still enables someone to grow something and be physically active,” says Naomi Sachs, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s department of plant science and landscape architecture. A case in point: In a 2021 study in JAMA Network Open, among older women, even light physical activities like gardening were linked to a lower risk of mobility limitations, such as not being able to climb stairs.

    Growing plants may help reduce stress. And being out in the sunlight allows your skin to absorb vitamin D and may even help improve your sleep.

    Containers Make It Simpler

    If you have arthritis or don’t move like you used to, using containers or pots is a less demanding way to grow plants. You can place them on benches or tabletops so that you don’t have to kneel and bend as much. And if the pots are light enough, you can move them to catch the sun and bring them indoors in bad weather, says Leonard Githinji, PhD, an associate professor at Virginia State University who studies sustainable agriculture. Individual containers also protect plants from pests, particularly if you use store-bought potting soil rather than dirt from your yard. Pots are even preferable for some plants, such as mint, that spread rapidly and can crowd out other plants in garden beds, says Julie McConnell, a horticulture extension agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

    Tips for Potted Plants

    Plenty of herbs and veggies can be grown in containers. Consider these pointers.

    Plant According to Season

    Some vegetables, like peppers and tomatoes, grow best in summer. Others, like greens and broccoli, thrive in spring and fall months.

    Be Wise About Size

    Pick containers that are big enough to give plant roots plenty of room, McConnell advises, and allow for drainage. Veggies that will fit in 1-gallon containers include two or three carrot plants, three to five green onion plants, or two lettuce plants. A 2-gallon container will hold a cucumber or cherry tomato plant, or one or two pepper plants.

    Give Them Sun

    Most vegetables need lots of sunlight. Leafy greens like spinach generally need at least 5 or 6 hours of direct sunlight. Tomatoes and peppers typically require closer to 8 hours and no less than 6.

    Feed and Water Them Right

    You may need to water plants in containers a little more often than those in the ground because they have limited space from which to draw moisture, McConnell says. The soil should be slightly damp but not soggy; stick a finger a few inches into it to check. Githinji recommends adding fertilizer once every two weeks or so.

    Get Help

    If you have specific questions or need help with a problem, call your local cooperative extension office.

    Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2021 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Catherine Roberts

    As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob