Photo: Dan Randow/Flickr

Award-winning author Niki Jabbour may have a sprawling backyard garden (she’s got 20 raised planting beds and counting), but she still touts the benefits of growing herbs and vegetables in easy-to-access containers. “If I’m cooking and and I realize I need some basil or parsley, I keep some of my most-used herbs and veggies right on my back deck in containers so I can grab them really quickly,” says the author of Veggie Garden Remix, which recently picked up a 2019 American Horticultural Society Book Award.

According to Jabbour, the keys to a successful container garden are ample sunlight, proper drainage and high-quality potting mix (her secret is two thirds potting mix and one third compost). “My advice is to grow what you like to eat!” says Jabbour. “What do you use the most in your kitchen? Is it basil? Cherry tomatoes? Baby cucumbers? Pretty much every vegetable can be grown in a container, so don’t be shy about experimenting.”

Realizing that every growing situation is different, we asked Jabbour to give us her edible container gardening recommendations based on nine common scenarios. Here she shares her insights and introduces us to some wonderfully weird edible plant varieties.

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1. If you tend to kill every plant in sight…

Photo: Maggie Hoffman/Flickr

“I would first recommend a decent sized container because if you’re killing every plant, you’re probably overwatering or underwatering,” says Jabbour. “Then I would look to your growing conditions. Is your space sunny or shady? I’d match the plant to that.” For those looking to green up their black thumb, Jabbour suggests herbs like parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano and chives. “They’re very container-friendly, and you’ll really have a hard time killing them.” As for vegetables, her go-to’s for beginners are leaf lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and bush varieties of cucumbers, beans and peas. “Bush varieties grow very compact,” she notes.

2. If you’re a seasoned container gardener…

Photo: jeffreyw/Flickr

“If you kind of know what you’re doing, why not experiment?” asks Jabbour. “Try some global veggies and herbs, like tomatillos or lemongrass.” Other exciting edibles to grow in containers are bay leaves, fennel, large fruited tomatoes, eggplants and hot peppers. “It’s not hard to do, but they just need a little more fussing,” says Jabbour.

3. If you’re looking to grow something a little outside the box…

Photo: Protopian Pickle Jar/Flickr

“Seed catalogues are always full of great ideas,” says Jabbour. “My favorite thing to grow is the cucamelon, which looks like a mini watermelon, but tastes like a cucumber with a hint of lime.” Cucamelons can be grown vertically, and Jabbour recommends using netting or string to assist the crop.  “It’ll create a living wall — maybe use it to separate you from your neighbors if you’re in a condo or apartment,” she says. Jabbour is also fond of growing ground cherries in containers, which she describes as “little golden, cherry-size, tomato-y fruits that have a vanilla/pineapple sort of flavor.” Sounds delish!

4. If you’re container gardening with children…

Photo: Jorge Luis Zapico/Flickr

“For kids, it’s fun to pick a theme,” says Jabbour. “What do your kids like? If they love pizza, give them a container and let them grow a pizza garden.” Help your little ones narrow down their favorite pizza toppings (sadly, cheese is not an option). Jabbour points to things like cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, oregano and baby bell peppers. “Kids can snack on them straight from the pot or they can cut them up and put them on a pizza with the help of an adult,” she adds.

5. If you’re working with a small outdoor space…

Photo: Kristine Paulus/Flickr

“This is where I like to look around and see where things can grow, even if it’s not a ‘normal’ spot, like a wall or a railing,” says Jabbour. Get creative by bringing in trellises, netting, railing planters, wall mounted planters, or ladder-style leaning plant stands. “Leaf lettuce, culinary herbs, and even strawberries are perfect for wall planters,” notes Jabbour. “But do check your bylaws if you’re planting on a balcony, and ask about weight restrictions, too!”

6. If you lack any outdoor space whatsoever…

Photo: eren {sea+prairie}/Flickr

“It is really easy to grow things indoors with the help of a grow light,” suggests Jabbour. “You can grow things like micro greens or shoots and sprouts, which can be quite expensive when you buy them at the grocery store.” Not only are they delicious, they’re (almost) instantly gratifying, taking just two to three weeks to go from seed to harvest. “All of the culinary herbs will grow well inside, too, just make sure you have lots of light,” says Jabbour.

7. If you’re an avid home chef…

Photo: Luis Tamayo/Flickr

“I would look at your favorite recipes and see if you can grow any ingredients from them,” advises Jabbour. “I grow lemongrass on my deck because I love it, and my husband is Lebanese so I always grow za’atar.” If you’re looking to add something unexpected to your dishes, Jabbour suggests Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander. “There are lots of flavorful herbs that are just a little bit different than what you’d typically grow in your garden.”

8. If your outdoor space is a bit of a shady situation…

Photo: anneheathen/Flickr

“A lot of leafy greens like leaf lettuce, spinach, arugula and Asian greens do okay in really low light conditions,” notes Jabbour. Herbs such as parsley, thyme and oregano are also decent options if your outdoor space lacks consistent sunlight. “Just avoid anything that has to produce a fruit, like tomatoes or cucumbers,” warns Jabbour.

9. If your outdoor space receives direct sunlight throughout the day…

Photo: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr

“The sky’s the limit!” exclaims Jabbour. “You can grow pretty much anything, but stick to heat-loving vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, bush cucumbers and bush squash.” If you live in a hot climate where the sun can be unrelenting during the summer months, DIY a simple shade cloth if you want to grow those leafy greens that thrive in low light environments. “All you have to do is divide up your deck between shady and sunny,” explains Jabbour.

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