Up on the roof...

Not everyone has access to a plot of land that they can use to for vegetable gardening, but that shouldn’t stop you.  We started growing tomatoes, peppers, salads and herbs on our rooftop in NYC—and now look at us!   You can still garden by using planters, pots and other containers.

It is important to understand how much space the adult plant will require for roots and the plant. A variety of lettuces and spinach can be grown in a long planter box, even very shallow ones. Peas and beans can also be grown in a planter box.  You can place a small piece of lattice for them to grow up.  Tomatoes, peppers, carrots and onions can be grown in a deep planter pot. Read the package instructions for ideal spacing and growth of the plant before choosing a specific variety. Herbs are also ideal for growing in planters. Basil, chives and oregano can be planted in a small, shallow container that can be moved inside during the winter to extend the growing season of the plant.Vegetables that require a lot of space such as corn are not recommended for container gardening. Other limitation may include the amount of light and shade where the container will be placed. Research the varieties of the desired vegetable and choose one that will grow well in the amount of sunlight available and temperature in the local climate. 

When growing from seeds in a container it is recommended to start growing several weeks before the last day of frost is expected. This will allow the seeds to germinate and sprout before they are placed outside. Some seeds can be grown in special seed pots under grow lights and then replanted as seedlings once the weather is warm enough for them to survive. If this is more work than you want to do simply purchase seedlings in the spring and plant them directly outside in your containers.   The benefits of growing from seeds are the large number of choices available to grow, including the many heirloom varieties. When purchasing seedlings you are limited to those varieties that are available at the local nursery store.

Follow the instructions included with the seed packet or seedling when it was purchased. It is a good idea to use soil that has a timed fertilizer in it already.  Water the soil thoroughly after planting and verify the water drains effectively. Plants will not grow well in sitting water.   You can also use small seed plug planters–trays of tiny pots that you can then sit into trays of water.  The plants will wick up the moisture that is needed–just like in nature.  Plants growing in a container will need regular watering, perhaps as often as every day if the weather is hot or dry.   The soil in a container will dry out more quickly that ground soil.  Check the soil daily by pressing a pencil into the pot to a depth of three inches. If the pencil does not have any soil attached when it is removed the plant should be watered. It’s just like baking a cake!

If you use planters that are small or get wheeled carts for larger pots, you’ll be able to move them inside when the weather starts to get colder toward the end of the season. This will extend the growing season of the plants.


by Josh and Brent

Reader Comments

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Marcia L Clarke

I saw an article somewhere once (maybe "Organic Gardening" magazine?) that said you could plant your seedlings directly into the bag of potting soil, which makes it's own container. Just lay the bag flat on your patio, balcony, roof, or whatever surface, and cut X's however far apart each plant is recommended to be planted, and voila: instant "container" gardening. As I recall, the plants they showed were bell peppers. This year, my neighbor started her tomato seeds (heirloom, of course) this way, so all we have to do (once the last frost date finally gets here) is take the seedlings from the bag with a narrow trowel, and transfer then right to the garden.


Last year I shared pictures of my small third floor patio garden….I had never had a real garden, you told me that you started out that way…..well boys, I am following in your footsteps…..Waiting to hear that our offer on a house, complete with a garden plot has been accepted, I look forward to really getting into the garden next season!!! Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Beth Justus

We live in an area of Baton Rouge called Beauregard town. Last year a local church allowed our community to use some unused land they own and Beauregarden was created. It has about 20 4X8 raised beds and neighbors pay $75 per plot to cover insurance and water. It's a great meeting place for the neighbors and everyone grows organic foods and flowers and get to visit while they do.


Unfortunately, I don't remember the website where I saw it but I do remember this idea for space-saving gardening. The gardener had installed a few standard lengths (10 ft) of inexpensive guttering at various heights on the exterior wall. She used inexpensive L-brackets every couple feet along the gutter length for support. She filled the gutters with a soil mix and planted lettuces, herbs, spring onions. Clever!

Jeff townsend

One great item to use to plant herbs is a strawberry pot, it has several holes so you can plant a variety of herbs and makes it very simple to bring indoors when col weather returns. That's how I grow mine and you don't have to walk out to garden while cooking!!!


Josh and Brent,

I am starting my vegetable garden in my apartment building's roof in NYC too.

How many (Brandywine) tomato plants do you recommend to plant in a deep planter pot?

I started my heirloom tomato seeds 2 weeks ago and I already have like 80 seedlings. I do not know how many plants would fit in each pot, or should fit in a deep planter pot to grow properly.

Any suggestions?

Thanks guys!


Any recommendations for fertilizer application? Do container plants need more fertilizer or less?