It is all too common for people living in apartments, rental properties or houses with small or no outside space to feel that their gardening options are limited, but this is no longer the case thanks to the humble but incredibly effective container garden. Planting in containers as oppose to planting directly in the ground is a popular, effective and versatile way to create your own garden no matter what your space limitations may be, this means that growing plants is no longer restricted to large spaces and having your own private garden.
We have created this guide to help you get your container garden started so whether you are a complete gardening novice or a green-fingered enthusiast looking for some tips and tricks, you have come to the right place.
Before you head out to your local garden centre in search of plants or seeds, there are a few things you need to do to get your container garden started properly. These 3 steps will make a huge difference to the success of your garden so if you put the extra time in now and you will reap the rewards later.
Consider the Area & Sunlight
First of all, choose the area you want your container garden to be in. Think about the sunlight the area receives so you know how much light your plants will get during the day and when in the day the sun will be on them. This information is key as different plants have different light requirements so you can now begin to think about which plants will best suit your environment and this will increase the likelihood of your garden thriving.
Choose the Containers
Choose the size and type of containers you would like to use. Generally, it is best to choose the biggest containers you are able to use as plants do better in larger containers due to there being more soil, more water and more nutrients. The type and shape of the container depends on what you are planning to grow; deep containers are good for growing tomatoes and potatoes whereas wider, shallower containers are good for growing things like lettuce.
The most popular containers are made of plastic or fiberglass, these are sturdy, lightweight and come in a vast range of sizes, shapes and colours. The containers should be thick and sturdy as these will handle the change in seasons better than the thinner options. The traditional choice for containers is terra cotta but these are heavier and are breakable so take care if you choose these. Also, you may want to put plastic liners in terra cotta pots to avoid moisture being absorbed into the clay from the soil. There are many container options available, if you are limited on space you may decide to use fabric containers.
Other container materials include concrete, polyurethane foam and wood. Concrete can be very heavy so is good if you are setting up your garden in a permanent location, polyurethane is chip resistant and can help insulate roots and if you choose wood, go for one that is rot-resistant such as cedar and make sure you avoid wood that has been treated with creosote as this is toxic to plants. It is best to avoid metal containers as they conduct heat which exposes the plant roots to temperature fluctuations.
Remember that you can get creative with your container choice, if you want your container garden to have a unique feel and a bit of personality why not upcycle some old boots, toys, desks or drawers? The ideas are countless because ultimately anything that can hold soil and has drainage can be used for the container garden so use your imagination.
We mention drainage as this is an extremely important aspect of the garden. Whatever containers you decide on need to have drainage holes. Drainage holes allow water to escape, prevents stagnant water from building up and keeps air circulating through the pot. Ensuring the excess water can drain also reduces the risk of root rot. If the containers you choose don’t have holes in them, or have too few holes, it is a good idea to drill some small holes in the bottom. If the pot you choose has large holes you may want to place a coffee filter, newspaper or something similar over the hole in order to prevent the soil from falling out while still allowing the water to drain.
Choose the Potting Soil
The soil you use is very important because it is what will hold the moisture and nutrients for your plants roots. There is a big difference between compost you use in the garden and compost you use in a container so choose a high quality potting soil to start your garden off on the right foot. Potting soil is formulated specifically for use in containers and should be lightweight and easy to break apart so look for this when picking a soil, avoid garden soil or topsoil as the density of these can cause root rot for plants in containers.
We cannot stress the importance of the soil you choose enough, soil is the foundation for growing your plants so high quality is essential. Some people decide to create container gardens because the soil in their traditional garden is low quality or not suitable. Unfortunately, for several reasons you can’t just take your container outside and fill it with garden soil. For the best results, we recommend choosing high quality, sterile potting soil.
Consider mixing some slow release fertiliser into your potting soil to give your container plants a nutritional boost. You will need to fertilise them often as a plant in a container does not have access to the natural nutrition found in gardens etc. so this nutrition needs to be added in the form of fertiliser but we will talk more about that later.
Seeds or Seedlings?
Now you’re almost ready to start planting you just need to decide whether you want to grow your plants from seeds or buy seedlings. Both have advantages and disadvantages so it is down to your own preference. To help you decide, we have listed the pros and cons of each below:
A seed is a small, hard fertilised grain.
- Cheaper than seedlings
- There are a wider variety of options available
- Great option for plants that germinate quickly such as beans
- Riskier as seeds are more sensitive to environmental changes
- Planting lots of seeds could result in needing to remove some seedlings once sprouted to avoid overcrowding
- Seeds take longer to grow
A seedling is a young plant that has already sprouted from a seed.
- Give you a head start
- More resistant than seeds
- Require less maintenance
- More restricted in available options
- Some plants don’t do well when transplanted from one pot to another
It’s Time to Pick Your Plants
Once you have decided whether you want to grow the plants from seeds or buy seedlings, it’s time to decide which plants you would like in your container garden. Think about the climate, how much sunlight the area will get and the size of your containers and choose plants according to that. If you are designing your container garden for decoration choose a mixture of heights and colours, if you are planting an edible container garden choose herbs and vegetables you will consume.
Almost any herb, flower, shrub, vegetable and even small trees can be grown without issue in containers. When choosing your plants, have fun with the combinations. If you are not sure about different plants and their requirements, appearance etc. this information is available on plant tags and seed packets or you can talk to the staff at your local garden centre who will be very knowledgeable and happy to help. Below are some popular ideas:
Herbs and Vegetables
When it comes to vegetables, the amount you plant in one container depends on the size of the plant, for example one large container can hold several broccoli plants or just one tomato plant. Keep an eye out for dwarf forms of larger vegetables such as tomatoes or squash as these are better suited to containers and allow you to grow more. Whether you want to plant lettuces, parsley and chives for a wonderful salad combination or peppers, carrots, garlic and basil or maybe even edible flowers, the choice is yours and it’s all possible with container gardening.
Another common option for a container garden, particularly one you want to enjoy for a long time is perennials and shrubs. These are hardy plants that look great and do well in containers, some options are daylilies, ferns, hostas, lavender, European wild ginger, sedges and dwarf conifers to name a few.
If you would like to create a container garden that looks great all summer, you have countless options available. Marigolds, geraniums, coleus, wax begonias and scarlet sage are all fantastic selections and will bloom all summer long. You could even add some perennials to this for some foliage too.
Plants to Support Wildlife
Maybe you want to support and attract local wildlife with your container garden, in which case be sure to add some pollinator plants. Research your local wildlife and choose species that attract them. A good starting point may be native wildflower species.
Time to Plant
Now you have everything you need to plant your container garden, if your pots are large it is best to fill them with soil in the place you want them to stand so you don’t have to try moving them when they are full and heavy. Before you get started consider which plants you want in which pots, ensuring they have enough space and room to grow. Follow our easy planting steps below to get your container garden started:
1) Ensure your containers have holes in the bottom, if the holes are large use a coffee filter to prevent soil from falling through them.
2) Fill the containers up to 2 inches from the top with the selected potting soil
3) If using seedlings, carefully remove the plants from their pots.
4) Dig holes in the potting soil that are just bigger than the roots of the seedlings.
5) Place the seedlings into the holes and fill in with potting soil but do not press the soil down as you want to keep it aerated, the original soil from the seedling should now be about 1 inch below the surface.
6) Water the containers (water until you see water beginning to drain through the holes in the bottom).
If you have decided to plant seeds rather than seedlings you may want to first plant the seeds in a tray with seed compost and move them over to your containers once they have grown into seedlings. This gives you more control over the seeds and their environment.
Container Garden Maintenance
As with all aspects of gardening, there is no “one size fits all” so adapt these maintenance tips to suit your plants.
- You should water your plants thoroughly but how often you do this will depend on multiple factors including the pot size, plant size and weather conditions. As a general rule, vegetables require watering more often than ornamental plants and the soil on all plants should never completely dry out.
- Fertilise your plants often (every few weeks is a good starting point) as the soil in a container loses nutrients through the excess water that drains. Think of the fertilizer as a kind of food for your plants as it is necessary to keep them healthy and supports their growth.
- Trim off dead flowers and leaves every few weeks to stimulate flower growth and decrease the occurrence of certain plant diseases.
- Monitor your plants for insects and diseases, if you see signs of these you should identify the culprit and take the appropriate action. You can help prevent pests by cutting back dead vegetation, removing diseased plants and introducing desirable insects such as ladybugs that will help keep pests away. If you have noticed there are pests around, use a natural deterrent rather than harsh chemicals. Certain herbs such as basil can help to repel pests and garlic plays a role in repelling beetles and snails.
Why Invest in a Container Garden?
Gardening is once again increasing in popularity, particularly as more and more people want to grow their own food. There are a whole host of reasons you may be considering starting a container garden, whether it’s because you don’t have the outdoor space for traditional gardening or maybe you’re not sure gardening is for you and you just want to give it a go without undertaking any big tasks. Whatever your motivation, there are a wide range of advantages to creating container gardens from space to convenience, below we’ve listed some of the top advantages people experience with their container gardens.
- Easy way to get started with growing your own plants
- Freedom to grow any type of plant wherever you want
- Offers a simple way to keep certain plant species separate, for example keeping mint which is very invasive away from your other herbs
- Allows you to move the plants around as it suits you
- Container gardens are visually pleasing and can instantly brighten up spaces
- Container gardens experience reduced problems with weeds, pests and diseases
- Planting and maintaining your container garden can be turned into a family activity
- A container garden is very versatile
Top Tips for Ensuring Your Garden is a Success
Embarking on a new project can feel daunting but these tips will help everything go smoothly with your new garden.
- Take care choosing the soil. The soil used in containers is more important as a container can magnify soil-related problems
- Partially moisten the potting soil when you are filling the container initially as this will help when watering your plant in the future
- Putting gravel in the bottom of the container does not increase drainage so don’t do this
- The best time to water your plants is early morning
- If you live in a hot climate, choose lighter coloured containers to help keep the roots cooler
- Choose dwarf varieties if possible as this allows you to plant more in the same area
- Fertiliser is important, make sure you give your container plants a small amount of fertiliser often
- To help retain soil moisture, add a layer of mulch to the top of the potting soil
- Keep in mind that plants in containers are more vulnerable to temperature changes
The Best Plants for Container Gardens
We’ve already mentioned that almost any plant will do well in a container garden but if this is your first gardening experience you may want to choose tried and tested plants. Of course, the best plants depend on your space and the climate. For hot, dry climates try lavender, geraniums or agave. If, on the other hand, your plants won’t be getting much sunlight try woodland plants, ornamental ivy or ferns. If you’re keen to grow food try leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach.
You can mix and match plants in a container but try to limit it to three plants to avoid it looking messy. Also make sure the plants that you put together in one pot have the same requirements in terms of light and soil. If the plants you put together have different needs they will not all thrive so choose carefully. When putting multiple plants in one container think of it like this:
1) Thriller. One plant is the focal point, it is larger and will be the centrepiece.
2) Filler. Add smaller plants around the centrepiece, these are the fillers that will make the container more attractive.
3) Spiller. Finally add plants around the edge that will spill over the sides, depending on your other plant choices some options could be strawberries, petunias or ornamental sweet potato.
If you’re planting food; tomatoes are a good centrepiece option with herbs or small veggies as fillers and squash or pumpkin as the spillers.
Handling Plant Loss
First of all, you will lose some plants and that is completely normal so don’t become disheartened. This is simply a part of gardening. If you are beginning to notice your plant looking a little worse for wear then you can either cut it back and hope for healthy regrowth or you can pull out the plant and replace it with another. What you choose to do will depend on the condition of the plant. Generally, it takes a few weeks for a plant to come back healthy and happy after being cut back so you could try this first to see what happens. If you want to, you could remove the plant and place it in another pot so you can care for it separately in the hope it rebounds.
If you think your plant is dying and it is showing signs of disease, immediately remove it from the container and either quarantine it or dispose of it.
What Are You Waiting For? Start Container Gardening Today
You now have all the information you need to create a beautiful, thriving container garden. It doesn’t matter how much or how little space you have, a container garden is an attractive alternative to traditional gardening that can bring versatility, colour and even delicious home-grown food. You can start creating your container garden right away and maintenance of your plants is easy. Most of all, be sure to enjoy the experience of creating a garden and don’t forget to appreciate the sights and smells when your plants bloom.