The Bountiful Container: Gardening in small spaces

I’ve been gardening for almost fifteen years. I started with flowers, added herbs and vegetables, then a few fruits, then a lot more. I’ve gardened in plots and pots and raised beds. I’ve drooled over bedding plants, spent too much on whatever was my obsession-of-the-moment (bulbs! daylilies! gooseberries! ornamental grasses!), and have certainly read my fair share of plant books and magazines.

By this time, I’m somewhat jaded about most gardening educational materials — I find they are often at one extreme or another: either an all-around reference that is about as exciting to read as The Merck Index, or beautiful but vapid plant-porn packed with color photos of planting schemes and “outdoor rooms” that can only be reproduced in Southern California!

However, I give a rave review — and two green thumbs up — to a recent find on container gardening: The Bountiful Container by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey (2002). This book was suggested last spring by a reader named Beth in J.D.’s overview of square-foot gardening. It will find a permanent place on my gardening reference shelf, despite the fact that I don’t plan to grow anything new in a container in the foreseeable future. (Although this book just may have changed my mind.)

A Great Gardening Book

The Bountiful Container beats most gardening books hands-down in several key areas:

  • It focuses on growing plants that give a beginning gardener the most “bang for the buck”, plants that are both edible and decorative and can be grown with limited space: vegetables, herbs, a small selection of fruits, and edible flowers.
  • It is splendidly organized and easy to read, and has a great index, too. The Bountiful Container is full of practical information that covers the entire life span of the crops: choosing varieties, planting, watering, fertilizing, dealing with potential pests and diseases, tips for success, and the much anticipated harvesting and using/eating. Included are recipes and craft projects to make with your harvest. Bits of historical flora-lore are tucked in here and there for fun.
  • The level of detail is just right for almost any skill level, and the writing is pleasant to read and easy to understand. There are five full pages of instructions on the best ways to grow potatoes, and two full pages on radishes. (Radishes!) The information the authors provide will practically guarantee success compared to the somewhat generic and unhelpful lack of detail on the back of most seed packets.

When J.D. writes about our crop gardening, inevitably there are questions (and some audible moaning) about the possibilities of growing in containers. Container gardening can be much more than a clay jar of strawberries or a cherry tomato in a hanging basket!

Who might need to do their farming in a pot? Anyone without a yard (think apartment with a balcony) or who can’t dig up the yard (some renters). Those who are transitory and want to take their garden with them, or those with really bad growing conditions (such as poor soil).

Containers can also supplement a traditional garden, providing a handy pot of herbs just outside the kitchen door, an experimental area for kids to have their own garden, and allowing tender plants to be moved according to the season. For example, I have a bay laurel tree than lives in the herb garden until October, when I move it to a sheltered porch for the winter. [J.D.’s note: I am the one who moves it, and it’s heavy.] And my mint is in a pot to keep it from taking over!

Sowing the Seeds of Success

The Bountiful Container is specifically tailored for success growing edible crops in containers. The book teaches:

  • How to choose suitable varieties (chosen for compactness, hardiness, etc).
  • About increased watering and fertilizing requirements for container-bound plants. This is the biggest commitment for containers — they must be watered daily and fertilized regularly.
  • How to stake or trellis to help plants grow vertically and guard against wind damage.
  • Why you shouldn’t even try certain plants in containers (corn, melon, cabbage etc).
  • How to combine plants for a pleasing effect, to stagger harvest, and how to choose plants with similar water/sun/soil pH needs.

Although growing in containers will never give you enough produce at one time to can 16 quarts of spaghetti sauce or 30 pints of green beans, it’s just the thing for small-scale pick-and-eat farming.

One actual weekend harvest from August 2006 — not from containers.

I award The Bountiful Container bonus points for a number of reasons. First, most of the information is applicable to traditional in-the-ground gardening, and the thorough treatment of topics will teach even experienced gardeners a thing or two. (Although be sure to adjust watering and reduce fertilizing schedules if not growing in containers.)

Next, the authors don’t care if your containers are simply old 5-gallon buckets! They understand that some container gardens are for looks and others are for sheer practicality, but like most true gardeners, they think any growing, healthy plant is a thing of beauty, no matter what it may be growing in.

The book also covers low-impact pest and disease controls — the authors advocate the least toxic approach possible. The sizeable section on herbs is better than most books I’ve read devoted solely to the same topic. If you are just starting your garden and are considering growing herbs (in pots or the ground), I heartily recommend checking it out.

The Bountiful Container was written by Oregonians, but location-dependent issues are covered in detail, such as choosing the right apple for a warm-winter climate, how to protect your container plants from deep freezes and strong winds, and which plants need to go inside for the winter or be harvested before frost hits.

I love the very specific hints about which plants to begin growing from seeds versus when to buy plant starts. This is a much-misunderstood topic. Seeds are cheap, but they are not always the smartest investment.

Theme Gardens

McGee and Stuckey politely assume you know practically nothing, then explain it clearly and concisely. But they also assume you can decide for yourself which plants you want to grow, so they don’t offer many “paint-by-numbers” gardens. If you want a book that tells you exactly what to plant in what kind of pot so it looks just like the picture, you would be better served with Bob Purnell’s Crops in Pots.

The authors do offer a handful of “Theme Garden” plans. These plans, either in one container or a grouping of smaller pots, list specific plant varieties and how to arrange them. For example, “The Lemonade Party” on page 218 combines a Meyer lemon tree with lemon verbena, lemon-scented geraniums, basil and thyme, with yellow begonias, nasturtiums and violas. (The flowers are all edible.)

For the more serious cook, “Country Kitchen in the Round” (page 98) uses six pots to pack in one precious tomato plant, basil, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, nasturtiums, parsley, peas, peppers, rosemary, bush beans, a pepper, sage, summer squash, and culinary thyme! Early season and late season crops are rotated to make the most of the space.

Two Small Weeds

This book does have two shortfalls that should be noted:

  • Since it is ostensibly about container gardening, you will not find crops such as corn, watermelon, butternut squash, asparagus, and many more, including most flowers. (Luckily, these authors have produced other books, which I may have to investigate.)
  • This book has no photos, only pen-and-ink sketches. Since I associate these with mail order gardening ripoffs (which never look as good as promised), I was initially put off by the lack of photographs. But the solid information soon won me over. In their defense, it would be difficult to photograph such an arrangement as the “Country Kitchen” described above; by the time the eggplant, pepper and tomato plants are fruiting, the peas and lettuce would be done and gone.

Although J.D. often advocates borrowing books from the library, The Bountiful Container is one I know I will refer to throughout the entire growing season, so I’m glad we found a used copy to purchase (for $11.50). Maybe when I’ve learned its contents by heart, I’ll pass it along to a gardening friend. They’re bound to enjoy it as much as I have.

Further Reading

For more information on growing food in containers (or smalls spaces), check out:

Now’s the time to get your garden space ready. The danger of frost is passing in many parts of the United States. Garden fairs and plant sales have begun to pop up like weeds. Get out there and grow some food!

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There are 25 comments to "The Bountiful Container: Gardening in small spaces".

  1. Hannah says 13 April 2008 at 05:48

    My mum would absolutely love this book. She gardens like there’s no tomorrow in a small patch in our backyard. Our dog likes to eat the beans that stick out of the chicken wire fence she set up around it, but in the past couple of years she’s moved into gardening in smaller areas.

    I’ll definitely recommend this to her!

  2. Mira says 13 April 2008 at 06:24

    Thanks Kris, this is a very timely post. I’ve been trying to venture into container gardening but have not gotten very far. You are soo right about the resources out there; some of them have just fueled my intimidation of gardening.

    I just planted some tomatoe seeds in small cups on my window sill. That’s the most I’ve done in 5 years of wanting to grow my own veggies 🙁 . I have space for a garden but it just seemed very intimidating to me. I’m going out today to see if I can find this book because I’m eager to get started!

  3. Moneyblogga says 13 April 2008 at 07:10

    That’s a great post! Thanks. I love the reference to plant porn 😉 That is the perfect description for pages and pages of luscious-looking greenery that I, for one, don’t have a hope in hayle of growing here in my neck of the woods. Bad climate and bad soil. Just bad everything. Hmmmm … plant porn.

  4. bakednudel says 13 April 2008 at 07:22

    Thanks for this review! I was enthusiastic until I got to the part about ‘written by Oregonians’. I understand that you say they cover location-dependent info, but this is the reason I don’t bother to look at most gardening publications.

    I live in North Carolina, have a deck that faces due south, gets sun all day all year, and is next to a paved parking area. We’ve been in an exceptional drought for almost 2 years–although the lessened the restrictions last week, so I can water with a hose. I’m pretty sure the temp frequently is over 100 degrees. And I hate cacti!

    I was hoping to try a tomato plant and some green/red peppers in 5 gal buckets this year because I know they like the sun.

    I’ll probably try this book for inspiration from the library, but if anybody has any suggestions about southern-heat-tolerant gardening I’d appreciate it!

    PS – and the bugs! I’m always sad because the flowers look so nice when I buy them, but within a couple of weeks–it’s all over.

    PPS – It’s on reserve for me at the library, looking forward to it! Thanks again for the rec.

  5. Diatryma says 13 April 2008 at 07:25

    I plant my peppers in containers because a) I am lazy and not about to dig up the yard and b) I park back there, as has every tenant since my landlords lived here when they were young, and cars leak. I’m not eating oil-grown peppers. Nonedible things, or at least things I don’t eat, go in the ground; if I plan to eat it, it gets clean dirt.

    The problems I’ve had are from other organisms– I lost a few plants, mostly ornamental pots, to plant thieves last year; this year, I’m putting the big one further back and the little ones will be high up or tied down. I also had squirrels digging in the pots, which led to an interesting, “Hey, that’s not a tomato leaf! What– that is a walnut tree,” moment.

  6. Ruth says 13 April 2008 at 07:57

    I LOVE gardening in containers! When we lived in an apartment, my entire harvest was out of pots and buckets and baskets and anything else that would hold dirt. Our patio looked so nice with all of the green growing things on it that our landlord made comment when we moved that he’d have to start asking tenants to grow plants like we did.
    I also love containers for adding to your garden in the ground. Its great to add some height and interest, AND when you’ve got people coming over, one of those pots from the garden with a bit of plastic and a decorative towel underneath makes a lovely centerpiece for a table. Great post, and great review.

  7. Frugal Dad says 13 April 2008 at 08:01

    Thank you for mentioning my own square foot gardening project. It has been a lot of fun, and an activity that I can involve both of my kids. Bountiful Container sounds like a book I will check out – it sounds like a great companion to my Mel Bartholomew book on square foot gardening. My wife and I have been contemplating some container planting for things that tend to overtake the square foot plots – peas, tomatoes, etc., and for heavy fruits that need more room to grow.

  8. leigh says 13 April 2008 at 08:39

    oh, i love our little deck container garden! i have been container gardening for a couple of years now with moderate success compared to gardening in the ground. i really enjoy it.

    @bakednudel- i am also in that area. i have a SSE facing deck on the corner of the building, and a little lake out back. i am growing raspberries, garlic, peas, carrots, tomatoes and lettuce. i also have snapdragons because i think they’re pretty. so far they are all doing well, especially the peas. the lettuce is new to me, and i planted it to grow in the shade of the tomato plants. but i have tried the others in years past and they’ve been ok in the heat.

  9. di says 13 April 2008 at 09:14

    I wanted to say thank you for the various book reviews you’ve posted, gardening or financial. I read your post, go to my library’s web site, and place a hold on it. I have a nice steady stream of books to read!

  10. Schizohedron says 13 April 2008 at 09:24

    By this time, I’m somewhat jaded about most gardening educational materials – I find they are often at one extreme or another: either an all-around reference that is about as exciting to read as The Merck Index, or beautiful but vapid plant-porn packed with color photos of planting schemes and “outdoor rooms” that can only be reproduced in Southern California!

    You know, this might mean you’ve got enough knowledge and experience to write a good, well-sourced, introductory e-book on practical home gardening that falls between those extremes. You’re a fine writer, you have several great photos (vs. the hand-drawn illos in the book under review), and you have a live garden from which to take examples (and even more photos). I say “introductory” in lieu of another hook that might pull folks in; this moniker might be attractive to first timers, and going with an inexpensive e-book would make it less threatening than buying one of those massive plant-porn tomes with only about 10 useful pages for that person’s growing conditions. Plus, you could add a few recipes from your garden’s bounty.

    Just my two cents; don’t mean to be telling anyone what they ought to do. But I recall a writing teacher once telling me that when some writers feel like they aren’t getting anything more from their reading material, it’s a sign they have a partly to fully formed idea waiting to take shape in words.

  11. Grace says 13 April 2008 at 10:08

    LOL– YOU may not borrow the book from your local library, but you should. Oregon, and especially Portland, has the greatest libraries in the country!

  12. Di says 13 April 2008 at 11:35

    Like bakednudel I have a full sun, south facing back yard but mine is is Southern California. Drought is also a problem here, and I am very environmentally conscious. Looking for idea’s for fruits, veggies, flowrs that grow well in FULL sun (literally ALL DAY, no relent in the back). I Have a couple of containers, lemon tree, and a satsuma tree.
    All help appreciated for this wannabe gardener

  13. Funny about Money says 13 April 2008 at 16:05

    Thanks for the lead to what sounds like a great book.

    One of the neighbors in my area has converted an old decrepit wheelbarrow (yard sale find?) into a container garden. What a neat idea! When the plants are done, you can roll the whole thing over to the compost bin!

    Last fall he had a pumpkin vine growing in it. The plant draped fetchingly over the sides of the wheelbarrow and you could see the bright orange gourds. Very pretty!

    About moving large container plants from one microenvironment to another as the seasons change: I’ve put mine on those inexpensive wooden plant dollies that you can get at Home Depot–the ones made of a few slats attached to four casters. They don’t last forever, but they will hang in there for two or three years. They hold the plant pot up off pavement, forestalling stains, and they sure do make it easier to move the plant under shelter when need be.

  14. elena says 13 April 2008 at 16:56

    I really enjoy and look forward to your wife’s, Kristen?, well written guestsposts. Adds nice balance and fresh perspective to your blog. I still refer to her bird food article for ideas.

  15. Michelle says 14 April 2008 at 08:14

    Another great way to garden is to incorporate attractive food plants into your landscaping. Our flower beds include asparagus, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, and catnip for the little hooligans. 😉

  16. sally says 14 April 2008 at 08:40

    I second the recommendation of this book. A couple of years ago, as a complete newbie gardener, I bought this book and started a small container herb garden on my 3rd story apartment’s balcony in Austin, TX. Despite the somewhat (ahem) different climate between Oregon and Central Texas, I found their instructions on target and have had great success.

    If you have put off starting an herb garden until now, believe me, it’s much easier than you think.

  17. Stephen Popick says 14 April 2008 at 08:42

    My wife has caught the sq-foot gardening fever. Now she’s looking around for all sorts of pots and containers for more plants.

    Here’s to a green, and yummy, summer

  18. Movingonup says 14 April 2008 at 11:12

    Thanks Kris! I will be looking up this book. I like the blogs about gardening. Thanks.

  19. Shanti @ Antishay says 14 April 2008 at 19:08

    Oh, this is a great post! Thank you 🙂 I have a sizable deck with my apartment and I really want to start a garden. I need to look into container gardening! I told my friend that I wanted to start a tiny herb garden and maybe have a tomato plant and she said, “So, basically, you want a spaghetti garden.” (!) I’d never heard that before 😛 This makes it look like I have a lot more options, and I must investigate. Again, thanks!

    And Kris – your writing is beautiful and funny. Thanks for contributing now and again 😀

  20. sg says 16 April 2008 at 16:02

    This was the first book I purchased when I started dreaming up my container garden about a year ago. After reading and re-reading this book too many times, I finally have a good start on a true herb and veggie garden – all in containers on the patio! This book is my default for reference, although I found Sarah Cunningham’s “Great Garden Companions” very helpful as well. I am also concerned about how my plants will do in the intense Southern California heat this summer, but I went a little overboard and am currently in the early stages of growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, strawberries, snap peas, cucumber, zucchini, green beans, beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, chard… I could go on, but I think I sound crazy enough! Anyway, “The Bountiful Container” has created a monster… 🙂

  21. SMB says 17 April 2008 at 11:46

    I bought this book years ago when I was renting a house, and haven’t looked at it in ages. You’ve convinced me to take it back off the shelf! 🙂

  22. Carter Jefferson says 02 May 2008 at 13:49

    I found this review quite fascinating, but imagine my surprise when I saw that the author is somebody named “My Wife.” If that person has an alias more like most people’s names, I haven’t found it. But if “My Wife” would like to do reviews for the Internet Review of Books, he or she should get in touch with me. It probably won’t make “My Wife” rich, even slowly, but the possibilities for fame and fun are quite high.

  23. Cindy Rae says 03 May 2008 at 06:03

    The book also has a few sections on attracting wildlife to small outdoor areas (instructions on a simple hummingbird container garden, for example).

    It’s quite a coincidence — I just reviewed the same book on my own blog recently.

    Moneyblogga – you can grow plants in good soil with containers. You can also roll them inside at night and back out during the day when your weather is too cold.

    bakednudel – you can put up some shade on a side of your outdoor space to shelter plants to a certain extent, but you’re not going to get away from the need for water. However, a couple of containers won’t take much water.

  24. RTW says 29 September 2008 at 11:04

    Thanks for the advice– very informative and helpful post!

  25. SFaith says 11 February 2010 at 13:34

    I love plant porn! Some of my favorite gardening books fall into this category. Lots of gorgeous pictures of lush plantings I can never hope to replicate. I can just sit in my comfy chair and be transported to a better garden than the one I tend.

    I do think I would also like this container gardening book. I have a fascination with growing edible things in pots on my porch. Mostly, this doesn’t work because the porch is too shady.

    I continue to grow my beloved pineapples in pots so I can drag them in when the fruit begins to ripen to protect them from the raccoons.

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