Growing fruits and vegetables doesn't have to be reserved for those who have a large outdoor space.
Container gardens are a great way to utilize your green thumb - especially if you live in an apartment or condo.
Container gardening is the practice of growing plants in containers rather than in the ground. Although many people use containers to plant flowers, they also can be the perfect home to fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Choose your seeds
If someone plans to grow a garden this year, now is the time to pick your seeds, says Lyndsay Ploehn, Purdue University Cooperative Extension's agriculture and natural resources associate educator for Porter County.
"Whenever someone is choosing edible plants to grow, I always suggest planting what you like to eat," she said. "It's a great way to 'theme' the garden."
For instance, Ploehn says, she enjoys eating salads, so she would suggest lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, chives and peppers.
"If I enjoyed making my own pizza, I would suggest basil, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and onions," she said.
For families who want to teach their children about gardening, Ploehn suggests colorful vegetables, such as white or purple radishes, potatoes or Swiss chard.
"You can grow almost anything in a container," she says. "It really just depends on the size of the container and the variety of fruit or vegetable."
Those gardening with containers for the first time may have better luck with certain types of vegetables, fruits and herbs, however.
"For root crops such as carrots and potatoes, containers are great because the soil is loose, which is easier for the plants to grow in and easier to harvest," Ploehn said.
Sharon Taylor-Raduchel, president of the Lake County Master Gardeners Association, has experience growing plants in containers on her patio because she lives in a townhome and is unable to plant vegetables and fruits in the ground.
"Each year, I'll do various peppers such as banana, jalapeno and red or green, and tomatoes such as heirloom and cherry," she said.
For those who live in apartments and have patios, Taylor-Raduchel suggests growing herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, sage and rosemary. She recommends growing what you like and will use.
"Having the containers within eye range from your outdoor grill is also helpful and you will be surprised how often you will use them," she said.
Growing blueberries in a container also is possible, though Taylor-Raduchel suggests using a larger container.
"The blueberry bush gets pretty big, but it's fun to try," she said.
Select your containers and soil
Containers do not always have to be clay or plastic pots, though those are the most common. Hanging baskets, homemade boxes and buckets can work as well.
The most important characteristics of containers are the size and drainage. Before planting, check to see how deep the roots grow of the vegetable or fruit being planted.
Most plants need a minimum of 6 to 8 inches, though some vegetables require room for root growth of at least 12 inches, according to the Department of Horticulture at Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.
The container also must have a way for water to escape, such as a hole in the bottom.
Once you have a container, you need a location.
Ploehn suggests placing them on a patio that has access to direct sunlight for part of the day. The Department of Horticulture at Purdue adds that most vegetables require a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day for good production.
Check the seed packets to see what the plant requires - some thrive in full sun, though others must have partial or total shade.
Know your soil as well. Some plants require certain types of soil, Ploehn says.
"Blueberries require acidic soil," she said. "If the gardener has mostly alkaline soil, they can easily grow their blueberries in a container where they can control the soil pH."
Don't be tempted to place the plants outside too early, as well.
Taylor-Raduchel says frost can kill many plants, so if a late Spring frost occurs, bring the containers inside for the night or cover them to prevent damage.
"With some plants, you have to start the seeds inside where there is adequate light or use a grow light, and then put them outside in containers when it's warm enough," she said.
Maintain your garden
Although container gardening can be on a smaller scale, it can be just as much work.
"I would suggest starting small so the gardener doesn't get overwhelmed," Ploehn said.
Vegetable and fruit gardening are considered higher maintenance, she says, so be prepared to tend to the containers several times a week.
"Containers will require more water and fertilizer and are still prone to pests," she said.
Purdue University recommends inspecting plants frequently for pests and disease symptoms. Hand-picking insects off the plants may work in controlling smaller pest populations. To discourage pests, remove dead leaves, flowers and overripe fruits.
If using a pesticide, make sure the chemical is labeled for use on all plants in the container, the university recommends.
There are several alternatives to using a pesticide as well, such as using natural vegetable or mineral oils or spraying the plant with a mixture of mild detergent and water. Doing a quick search on the Internet will provide several suggestions.