6 Essential Tips for Container Gardening

published May 9, 2019
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For many apartment dwellers, growing flowers and veggies inside containers is the only way to have a home garden. And having a home garden is awesome!

  1. Spending time in the sun after being trapped at work all day can cheer you up.
  2. Growing your own food, herbs, and flowers is rewarding.
  3. Getting your hands dirty will make you feel closer to nature.

Plus, container gardens can be as small or as big as you want. You can start with one pot and gradually add more as you become more confident (and more addicted to growing!). Maybe start with flowers and work your way up to veggies, or dive right in and do them all at once. There is no wrong way to grow a container garden—as long as you keep these six tidbits of advice in mind!

1. Choosing the right pot size is crucial

It might not come as a surprise, but everything hinges on the pot when container gardening. A too-small selection will crowd your plant’s roots and stunt its growth. A massive pot with a teeny-tiny plant will dry out quickly because it leaves too much bare soil exposed to sun and wind. In general, you’ll want shallow pots for short plants and deep pots for tall plants.

2. The right pot material is just as important

If you are growing a strictly non-edible flower garden, you have the freedom to use any old vessel you want as long as it is the correct size for your plant. Anything from a wooden crate to an old vase you found at a thrift shop to a simple plastic IKEA pot is fair game.

When it comes to veggies, you need to be more discerning. You don’t want your pot leaching anything nasty into the soil that will be absorbed into your food. Terra cotta is a fine option here, as are food-grade plastic buckets if you want to go big. (Ask the bakery at your local grocery store if they can give you some—they get frosting in giant tubs.) Fiberglass, resin, or concrete pots will do just fine as well. For wooden beds and window boxes, use only untreated lumber.

One more thing: If your vessel didn’t start its life as a planter, you’ll want to drill some drainage holes in the bottom to keep root rot and disease away.

3. Think about location before you plant

One of the nice things about container gardening is that your garden is portable—you can move plants to a shadier spot on harsh summer days. But while that’s true for cute little pots, most outdoor plants are of a substantial size, and terra cotta and ceramic get heavy fast when you add soil.

Good luck lugging your five-gallon tomato plant bucket (plus damp soil and unwieldy tomato cage) around your patio in the August heat. Set your pot where you want it to go and then add the dirt.

4. You cannot forget to water

Here’s why: Soil dries out more quickly in containers than it does in the ground. Containers warm more quickly because they sit higher above the ground and the soil is generally less compact, so it can’t hold as much water as a regular garden.

You’ll find you need to water your container garden more often than a traditional garden, so keep an eye out for wilting leaves. Of course, always test the soil before you water: If it’s still damp, hold the hose for another day.

5. Know what not to plant in containers

Technically, you can grow anything in a container that you can grow in the ground. But there are some things you probably don’t want to grow in containers. Corn, for example. You’ll fit one, maybe two, stalks in a large pot, so your ultimate ear harvest just isn’t a great return on investment. Potatoes, too, are a challenge: They need to be planted at least a foot deep and still need some room for growth below that. It’s also advisable to mound the soil about the stem as the plants grow, which is not very feasible in pots.

As far as non-edibles go, you may not want to plant perennials in containers unless you plan to keep them as permanent fixtures of your container garden for years to come. Perennials have larger and deeper root systems than annuals (which survive for only one growing season), so they also require big pots. Potted perennials are more expensive than annuals, too, so they’re not a great investment if you plan on sending them to the compost heap and the end of the season no matter what.

6. Consider attractive groupings

Container gardens look better when you group plants of varying heights together. Planting small plants at the base of a tall plant also prevents the soil from drying too quickly. When choosing plants to group in one container, make sure that they all have similar sun and water requirements.

For flowers, consider bloom times. Some plants stop flowering once the cool of spring is gone; others will power through until fall. For veggies, pairing plants with similar harvest times will keep things convenient, especially if you want to use the pot for a second round of crops later in the season.

You might also consider grouping plants by function—a medley of herbs all in one pot is always handy near the door. The helpful book Edible Spots and Pots by Stacey Hirvela recommends lots of well-suited vegetable companions, like radishes and arugula or tomatoes and basil.