Over the last decade, plant breeders and seed companies have risen to the challenge of tight spaces and busy schedules and given the small-space gardener many excellent choices for fresh produce right outside the sliding glass door.

Visions of balcony gardeners cutting up eighteen cherry tomatoes in order to make a respectable BLT, or supplementing a microscopic chile relleno with three cups of Spanish rice are in the past. Most of these varieties have been specifically selected in terms of growth habit and production – giving you respectably sized vegetables on smaller plants.

For those who feel an instinctive need to move beyond houseplants and add something more to the dinner conversation (like dinner itself), here are some of the varieties I heartily recommend, with links to get your hands on them:


‘Garden Babies’ lettuce (Renee’s Seeds) – Hands down my absolute favorite lettuce. I’d grow this beautiful butter lettuce whether I had a tenth of an acre or ten. Tight heads, grows quickly, makes a container look like a million bucks, and the superb texture and taste that is indicative of high-end salads that cost you a lot more than a packet of seeds.


tomato-superbush-f‘Super Bush’ tomato (Renee’s Seeds) – Another big winner from Renee’s. This variety gives you plenty of those Campari-sized tomatoes, but takes all the hassle out of tomato growing. Stems are thick and do not need staking – making them a terrific option for resident gardeners who hate wrestling with tomato cages.

‘Dolce Fresca’ compact basil (Park Seed, Territorial Seed) – A 2015 All-America Selection, this basil doesn’t turn into a gawky teenager as soon as you turn your back. The texture is tender, the taste is right on the money, and keeping a couple pots going means that you can alternately harvest one and prominently display the other.

‘Picklebush’ cucumber (Burpee) – I have been a fan of this older variety for many years – and love the fact that vines stay compact and manageable. The fruit is a perfect pickle size but can be picked earlier by foodies who like to serve their own cornichons at dinner parties where cornichon is considered a food group.


'Picklebush' is perfect for countertop pickles

‘Picklebush’ is perfect for countertop pickles

‘Numex Easter’ pepper (Park Seed, Totally Tomatoes) – Boy have I enjoyed this All-America Selection National winner over the last few years. It is such a productive, beautiful plant, and the rainbow-colored medium-hot peppers dry so well that it will always be a staple in my container garden or as an edger in the front of other garden beds.


Vegetables can be ornamental as well as edible. Nu-mex Easter packs a spicy punch both in the garden and on the plate.

Vegetables can be ornamental as well as edible. Nu-mex Easter packs a spicy punch both in the garden and on the plate.


‘Wonder Wok’ Simply Salad (Burpee) – This is a fun new series from Ball Horticultural, which also includes ‘Kale Storm’ and ‘Alfresco Mix.’  The seeds are mixed, pelleted, and five or six will make an eight inch container an edible delight.  ‘Wonder Wok’ is a mixture of mustards, kale and bok choy. Quite frankly, I’m concerned that it might be too attractive to actually harvest.   Edible containers at their best.


Now that's just fun. (Courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company)

If this doesn’t inspire you to start heating up the wok, I don’t know what will. (Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company)


‘Honey Nut’ butternut squash (Renee’s Seeds)- Vertical gardening makes the most out of the space you have – and ‘Honey Nut’ butternut squash eliminates the waste that many of us see when preparing a large squash for one or two people.  Cut in half, ‘Honey Nut’ is a perfect portion for two, giving you all the sweetness and fall pleasure of butternut squash without leftovers that might be forgotten.  Plus, the vines are extremely prolific and you can harvest them successively through the season.  I love this squash and consequently am trying the baby spaghetti squash that has been newly released by Renee’s this year.

Honey Nut Butternut Squash

‘Honey Nut’ baby butternut squash. Perfect size. Perfect taste.



'Pink Icing' blueberry. (Photo credit: Brazelberries)

‘Pink Icing’ blueberry. (Photo credit: BrazelBerries)

Bushel and Berry® (Fall Creek Nursery, Stark Bros) – Want berries? If you’ve got a sunny patio, you might want to try one of the numerous compact BrazelBerries® out there. They’ve got cute names that are easy to remember like ‘Jelly Bean’ and ‘Raspberry Shortcake,’ but there’s nothing ‘cute’ about the amount of fruit they produce whilst maintaining an attractive size. An added bonus of growing berries in a container is the ability given the home gardener to move containers for optimum light levels, and easily monitor and control soil pH – that minor detail of soil chemistry that spells the difference between berry bliss and berry blah.  My favorite – ‘Blueberry Buckle’ – colors red in the fall, and in a gentle Zone 6b winter, keeps those leaves only to be covered with blossoms in the spring.  Small plentiful berries.

Bonfire Patio Peach (Edible Landscaping) – This one is a stunner. First off, it’s red. Right there you’ve got something fun on your hands. Two, it produces edible peaches (though better cooked/processed than fresh). Three, it’s hardy. Four, it’s widely available right now. Looks great as an anchor in the border too – so if you ever move, you can take it with you.

Pixie Grape® (Stark Bros, Territorial Seed) – Want some table grapes without creating a monster on that balcony? Pixie Grapes come in several varietals from Cabernet to Riesling. You won’t produce enough to make wine, but definitely enough to satisfy the fruit plate a few times. Fruits earlier than traditional grapes and tops out at a height of just 18 inches.


I like to mix edibles & drinkables with ornamentals. Here, gin pairs nicely with a mandevilla, a bit of coleus and some breath-freshening parsley.

I like to mix edibles and drinkables with ornamentals. Here, gin pairs nicely with a mandevilla, a bit of coleus and some breath-freshening parsley. Enjoy yourself out there – there’s always room for a bit of fun.

When you’re planting up pots of edibles for maximum ornamental value, it’s often wise to use ornamental container shrubs in large ‘anchor’ pots to center your display and provide eye-candy when you’ve just harvested a good deal of the visual interest. Think along the lines of good, compact foliage with high interest such as ‘Poprocks’ spirea or the evergreen presence of a variegated boxwood.

Yes you can grow 100% edibles, but I find that a bit of stunning flower and foliage puts the garden package together and wraps it in a big fat ribbon. Furthermore, weighting those plants toward the evergreen side of the plant material spectrum makes for winter interest when the edible season is over.


As with any potted garden, your plants will rely on you more heavily than will their cousins in the ground. Adequate water on a daily (sometimes twice daily) basis is crucial. Once a plant wilts and loses leaves, it takes a long time to recover – and so does your desire to continue watering a dried up has-been of a plant.

Don’t let that happen, and remember that feeding your plants on a regular schedule will also ensure success. Fertilizer isn’t necessarily about shaking green pellets out of green tubs – there are plenty of organic options for the gardener who doesn’t want to artificially super-size his veggies. I use Espoma’s Garden-Tone for my container vegetables. It’s easy to use, gentle, and gives them extra nutrients in a very acceptable 3-4-4 formulation.

Grab a pot. Your container garden is just a season away.

signature Marianne Willburn