Lately I’ve been getting back into the garden only to find that I no longer have the option to grow more gardens in-ground, and so I’ve been playing around with my container gardens more and more. They’re easy: I can move them, and I know exactly how much water and nutrients the plants receive. Container gardening has just been one of those things that offers convenience as well as sustainability.
So with my newfound obsession with my container gardens, I reminisce of my beginning days in the garden, the time when I did nothing but container gardens. And over the past 10 years, I’ve played with many different arrangements. In the end, there is still one self-tested method I use every time I plant a container garden.
It Starts with Location: Where to Keep Your Container Garden
One of your first considerations — and one of my own — should be where to put your container garden. The location you choose can end up as the determining factor of what kinds of planters you’ll be using, as well as the plants you’ll be putting in. Check the sunlight exposure of the area you’re planning on using for your container garden. If it gets over 4 hours of direct sunlight per day, you’ll want plants that can handle full sun. Shady areas are great for shade plants, and even some part sun plants.
While it isn’t absolutely necessary to place your plants near a water source, it’s an option. Some of my own containers are near my garden hoses, and for the rest I use a heavy-duty watering can. There are other options for watering your container garden, like self-watering devices and other garden tools.
Play around with the look of your space and think about how many containers (and how big) you’ll use. This will help you see how much room you have to work with. The freedom with your container garden’s location lies in the mobility you get with potted plants.
You can move your container garden around, bring it inside, and switch up plant combinations at will.
While location is important, remember: you really do have some flexibility with containers that in-ground gardening can’t give you, which makes container gardens perfect for a beginner.
Choosing Pots and Planters for Your Container Garden
Ultimately, the containers you use will depend on what you’re planting. Think about what you want to plant. With almost anything you’ll want to defer to a well-draining planter. A good rule of thumb to follow on container size is that it should be at least twice the size of the root ball. With these two things in mind, below is a list of types of planters fit for your container garden.
- For houseplants like pothos, aloe, or wandering jew plant, choose clay or plastic pots with medium depth, and plant according to root size.
- For cacti and succulents clay, glass, plastic or other materials are good choices, and you can keep it a bit shallower than houseplants. Make sure there are plenty of drainage holes.
- For herbs and flowers plastic pots, wood, and composite material are my go-to’s, and I give my plant babies a nice deep planter for their long roots (terra cotta clay pots can work, but I find they dry out too quickly for these types of plants).
- For fruits and veggies large containers will be your best friends. You’ll want containers that have plenty of room for the plant’s root growth. Focus on adequate drainage, too.
As you can see the options are limitless. Even if you’re planning your container garden according to a color scheme, season decor, or another aesthetic purpose, just keep drainage needs in mind, as well as accommodating the plants’ growth, and most containers will do.
That being said, it is worth noting that you can also repurpose almost anything that will hold soil into a container garden. Five-gallon buckets, old work boots, baskets, broken pots, dishes, hats (my mother once planted flowers in an old hard hat), the possibilities are endless with container gardens.
A repurposed PVC pipe serves as container garden for my carrots.
Choosing plants for your container garden
After you’ve decided on the perfect planters for your container garden, it’s time for you to choose your plants. Ahhh…Now we’ve gotten to my favorite part! I love shopping for gorgeous new plants and flowers, but you should consider planting seeds, too. I love the satisfaction of watching a container of soil fill up with growing sprouts!
If you do decide to take a shopping trip, follow this simple guideline to ensure you bring home only happy healthy plants:
1. Pay attention to your garden zone.
Already know your garden zone? Great! These days a lot of plant tags will include the nursery website along with basic care instructions. Browsing the plant page online can give you more detailed information. Suggested gardening zones should also be included, giving you an idea of how your container garden will hold up in your climate.
If you’re unsure of your exact zoning, check with the USDA reference site and follow the instructions to look up your garden zone. Take this information with you when shopping for plants, and you can use the plant tags to see how your chosen plants measure up.
If you’re planting seeds in your container garden, the seed packet will have a graphic that color-codes all the garden zones within the U.S. The packets also show planting times and growth measurements.
Many seed packets have all the info you need to get them started, printed right on the back.
2. Whatever plant you choose, take the time to check the roots.
Go ahead, it’s okay! I promise. I do this all the time: I find my plant of choice, pick it up and turn it upside down. I let the root ball slide out just enough for me to get a good look. I check for any roots that look mushy or unhealthy. I also check for signs of fungus or disease — on the roots and in the soil. If you find unhealthy-looking roots, the soil looks or smells bad, or the plant is so densely root-bound it takes the shape of its container, it’s a good idea to choose a different one.
Even if your plant is root-bound, if the soil and roots look healthy, you can still have success planting it in your container garden.
3. Check the sunlight and moisture needs of the plant.
The store labels that are stuck in the soil offer adequate information for starting your container garden. Match your plants’ sunlight and water needs to the location you chose. If you want to place plants around the kitchen, for instance, go for low-light houseplants.
Equally important are the moisture needs of your container garden. Hardy drought tolerant plants don’t need to be watered as often as moisture-loving plants. These labels are handy little things, even when planting an indoor container garden. Again, the plant tag in the soil should tell you how wet it likes to be.
Many of the plant tags you find will give you adequate information on care.
When choosing multiple plants that will be in the same container, make sure they all have the same sunlight and water requirements. Don’t plant cacti with moisture-loving plants, or full sun plants with shade lovers. Keep your container garden balanced.
Choosing soil for your container garden
Most of the time, choosing a good growing medium for your container garden is quite simple. Most potting mixes are good options, and they’re also instant gratification for your container garden plans. But there are almost as many options to choose from as there are planters for your plants. From DIY to soil mediums made just for starting seeds, there’s really no wrong way to choose your soil.
As with choosing a container, choosing your soil should boil down to three factors:
- Nutrient-dense soil for herbs, flowers, fruits and veggies will ensure optimum growth and health.
- Sandy soil with aerating compounds like perlite are great for cacti, succulents, and desert flowers and plants who like dry soil.
- Coconut fiber, vermiculite, and well-draining media can be used for starting seeds.
Following these three guidelines for your container garden soil can help you decide on the best option for what you need. You may also consider starting your own compost pile, as this is a great way to reduce your food waste and build nutrient-rich soil for your container gardens. Make a pile in an out-of-the-way area of your yard, or you can opt to purchase a composter or build your own compost.
A healthy compost is a great option for using in your container garden.
Similarly, you can choose a few different packaged soils and make your own custom soil blends. I love using a good quality potting soil mixed with a little bit of compost, worm castings, or manure depending on my plants’ needs.
Try a variety of packaged soils to find what works best for your container garden.
Overall, your soil will determine how much and how well your container garden thrives. So experiment with different soils and play with the ratios of your soil mixes. Gardening is exploration at its finest, and experimenting with your soil will lead to a better understanding of your container gardens.
Planting your container garden
Now comes the hands-in-the-dirt part of creating your container garden. This is where your creativity can come alive with how you arrange your plants in their containers and how you arrange your container garden in its new spot. Have your plants handy, as well as your soil and containers, a bit of water to moisten your soil as needed, and a trowel, gloves or just your bare hands! You can mix it up by creating seasonal container gardens, too.
Start by adding your soil of choice to your container by filling it so that the bottom of the container is covered up. This should be anywhere from 3″ to 6″ depending on the depth of your plants’ roots. This provides a nice base for the plant to sit.
Remove your plants from their store containers, and separate roots and shake off excess soil (do this right over the container to save some soil). Then place the plant in your container. If you’re combining a variety of plants, you’ll be playing around with arrangement here. If you’re starting from seed, go ahead and fill your container up to 1″ below the top and add 1 – 5 seeds per container, depending on what you’re growing and the size of your container.
Once your container garden is planted, give it some water to moisten the soil and help the plants establish themselves. Let your plants rest a bit, then you can go ahead and get creative with arranging your container garden in its respective location.
Now you can sit back and enjoy your new container garden!
Container gardens offer pleasing looks that are easy and low maintenance.
Gardening is food for the soul — research has proven the health benefits of being in nature, and starting your own garden can help you get in nature and grow something rewarding.
Have you started your container garden yet? What kinds of plants are you growing?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.