sOUTh and ABOUT: Spring Tips for a Successful Container Garden

By Jodi Prout

Jodi is a South Loop resident, a certified Cook County Master Gardener, and an urban planner for the City of Blue Island, one of Chicago’s southern neighbors. She loves growing a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes, peppers and herbs on her patio garden. She loves having everything so accessible and being able to pick as needed. She is somewhat obsessed with heirloom tomatoes and the history and story behind each variety. 

Dreaming of growing your own fresh, organic veggies, but have limited outdoor space? Here’s some good news! You can grow a surprising amount of fresh food in your patio, deck or balcony. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Containers. Sub-irrigated planters (SIP) are efficient and allow you to grow more in a smaller space, while using less water. For the DIY types, they are easy to make and can take a variety of shapes and sizes to fit your needs. Tutorials can be found online, including at For a quick and easy option on wheels, buy an Earthbox or City Picker.

Traditional containers work too and many herbs prefer them. If using traditional containers, be sure to choose a large enough size (at least 5 gallons for tomatoes) and keep in mind that you will probably need to water twice a day during the hot summer months. Smart Pots are a great and lightweight option and can even be used for small fruit bushes or trees.

Earthboxes on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. Courtesy of the Chicago Master Gardeners.
Earthboxes on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. Courtesy of the Chicago Master Gardeners.

Soil. Use a high quality, nutrient rich, organic potting mix. When growing in containers, you need a growing medium that is light, loose and fluffy. Stay away from gardening soil, which becomes too dense when used in containers. I recommend Dr. Earth, but other brands work well. If you go the SIP, City Picker or Earthbox route, you’ll also need a small bag of dolomite (garden lime) and organic dry fertilizer (Be sure to read the instructions).

What to grow? The possibilities are limitless. Heirloom tomatoes are considered by many to be the gold of the garden and make an excellent addition to a balcony or patio garden. In the same large sized SIP or an Earthbox, you can actually grow tomatoes, peppers, basil and cilantro.  Beans and cucumbers are easy to grow in containers when grown up. A trellis or even a balcony can be used for your vining plants to grab onto. For a simple option, try a mixed kitchen herb garden. The bottom line is grow what you like to eat.

Challenges. Growing in the South Loop brings additional challenges to consider when planning and caring for your container garden.

  1. Which side and floor of the building is your growing area located on? This will determine the amount of sun you get and what you can grow. If you’re mostly in the shade, you’re options will be limited.
  2. The wind can be wicked along the lake and even worse on higher balconies. Extreme wind can snap your plants and even prevent fruiting by knocking off the flowering buds. If wind is an issue, you will need to screen or support your plants to protect them. Wind can also cause your soil to dry out more quickly, so be sure your plants get enough water.

Nutrients. Traditional containers require frequent watering, which results in the leaching of nutrients. These nutrients need to be replaced on a regular basis. An organic dry fertilizer is ideal for containers.


Local seedling sales

o   Peterson Garden Project Plant & Bake Sale, May 9-11

o   Wicker Park Plant Sale, May 10-11

o   Paseo Garden’s Mother’s Day Plant Sale, May 10-11

o   Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Plant Sale, May 17-18