Whether you’re growing indoors or outdoors, containers are a common way to spice up a garden. Many gardens are grown completely in containers, and in many cases this can be more effective than planting straight into the ground. With a container you have much more control over the soil your plants live in, and that can make growing plants significantly easier and in some cases even possible.
With that in mind, not all containers are created equal, and there are a few things you need to keep in mind when using them. Today, we’ll help you out and teach you everything you need to know about container gardening. By the end of this, you’ll be a pro container gardener, and know exactly what types of containers to use for your garden.
Why Container Garden?
Before we jump into the specifics let’s take a minute to look at why you might want to start a container garden in the first place. Here are a few of the top reasons why people start container gardening.
Containers give you a lot more control compared to planting straight into the ground. You have complete control over the soil, water, nutrients, and location. This also means that you are responsible for all that care, which can mean a bit more work.
Containers can take up as much or as little space as you like. This can limit your plant choice if you’re trying to grow in a very small space, but even small windowsills are perfect for container gardens.
Containers give you the option to start an indoor garden. As a container can be placed anywhere, your whole home potentially becomes a garden. This is great for those that lack outdoor space, or just want extra space to grow.
Lastly, containers can often give you the option to grow plants you otherwise might not be able to. Since you have full control over the environment, you can tailor your care to grow plants that would otherwise not survive in your climate.
Key Considerations Of A Container
When choosing a container there are a couple of key things to keep in mind. You’ll notice that many of these are influenced by your choice of plant so it’s helpful to already have an idea of what you want to grow in mind before you pick a container. Later in this article, we’ll look at specific containers that you might be interested in as well as talk about some popular plants to grow in them.
Material is probably the first thing you notice. The thing is that there are endless options here, and nearly anything can be used to house your plants. There are tons of inspiration posts out there that show gardens grown in everything from mason jars to shoes, to old toys, so the options really are endless. If you’re the creative type you can really shine here, but using a pre-made solution is far easier and a perfectly valid option.
What matters in most cases here is that the material promotes proper drainage. Things like clay are porous and leach water out of the soil, while materials like plastic will not. This can make it more difficult to prevent over-watering as the water has fewer places to go. We’ll talk about later how you can promote drainage in containers that are naturally poor at it.
Another consideration is how heavy the material is. A large pot full of soil is heavy, and a material like concrete only makes that more so. It’s best to move your pot to the final location before filling it, especially if it’s made of a heavy material. Don’t embarrass yourself like I did and have to remove soil to move your pot!
Size is another important consideration that’s mainly going to be decided by your plant. The larger the plant the more room it needs to grow and the larger your container will need to be.
The size will be a limiting factor in your plants’ ability to grow. The larger your pot, the more room you’ll plant will have to grow, and it will naturally tend towards that limit. You can also pick a smaller pot if you wish to limit the size of the plant. This works great for things like herbs which can be grown in small batches, or allowed to spread in larger containers.
You also want to consider the root profile of your plant. Plants with deep roots need big, deep containers to grow properly. Conversely, others might have shallow but wide root profiles which also need a large pot but one that is wider rather than deep.
Drainage is another key concern that can make or break your plant. At the minimum, you’ll want your container to have drainage holes in it in most cases. There are ways to get around this, but it’s a bit more complicated and risky and typically something done in non-traditional containers. This allows water to escape so that it doesn’t sit in the soil and rot your plants’ roots. Other pots, like clay mentioned above, will actually wick water away from the soil which can help prevent this as well.
Luckily, the majority of store bought containers designed for plants will come with drainage holes already. The concern here is when using non-standard containers as you’ll need to make your own holes or take other precautions.
Note that if you’re planting outside in hot climates too much drainage can be a bad thing. In very hot, dry climates you’ll naturally see water move out of the soil more quickly, so you may want to limit the amount of additional drainage you add.
Prepping Your Container
Once you have your container there are a few steps you can take to make it the perfect home for your plant.
Wash Your Container
The first step I always take before planting in any container is to give it a quick wash with water and soap. I do this for new containers, but it’s especially important if you’re re-using old containers. This makes sure that there are no pests or bugs clinging to the container that can cause damage to your plant later. I also recommend doing this if you move a pot inside say over the winter to prevent any hitchhikers from getting into your home.
Fill It With Soil
The next step is to pick a quality potting soil to use in your container. You’ll want to look specifically for potting soil designed for containers as most general-purpose garden soil will not have proper drainage when compacted into pots. You’ll notice this in the weight of the bags if you compare; potting soil will be significantly lighter as it’s far less compact to allow for proper drainage.
You should also keep your choice of plant in mind when picking out your soil. While standard potting soil will work for most plans, there are a handful that need special soil. Cacti and succulents are just one example of plants that typically needs special, well-draining soil that better mimics their natural habitat.
Add Drainage Rocks (optional)
An additional step for deep pots is to fill the bottom few inches with rocks. This will help with drainage, but also save some time/money as you’ll need less soil. This is also key to making non-traditional containers good homes for your plants. A few inches of rocks at the bottom of a mason jar for example gives excess water a place to go that isn’t sitting in the soil. If your container lacks proper drainage then this goes from being optional to essential.
Choose a Good Location
The last step before you plant is to choose a good location for your containers. The great thing about containers is you can often move them if you change your mind, but it is less work to start in a good place.
The most important consideration for location is going to be light. We have a full guide on plant lighting you can check out, but it all comes down to your plant’s type. Most indoor plants are looking for lots of bright, but indirect light. This often means you’ll want to place them in a southern or easterly facing window.
You also have the option to use grow lights. These are a great way to supplement a lack of natural light, especially if you’re trying to grow in winter when natural light is often less intense.
Outside of lighting, the second biggest issue for container grown, indoor plants is temperature changes. You want to avoid any areas that experience large temperature swings. This includes areas near drafty windows/doors, or heating/cooling vents. These areas can stress your plants, and stunt their growth.
Before you plant, you’ll also want to pre-moisten the soil. Give it a hefty dose of water to uniformly moisten the soil. After this, you’ll be ready to plant your plants! How you do so depends on your plant specifics, so make sure to either research or, in the case of seeds, read the packet for instructions.
What Plants Are Best In Containers?
As you might be able to tell, almost any plant can be grown in containers under the right conditions. Some will be more difficult than others, but not impossible. The key is simply to have the right container that can grow the plant.
That said, the larger the plant you’re trying to grow the more difficult it will be to prepare a container for it. Something like a watermelon is very large, and consequently needs an extremely large container to grow effectively. Similarly sized fruit and vegetables will also be difficult to grow in containers.
Some of the easiest plants to grow forbeginners are herbs. Herbs on their own are typically very easy to grow, and very resistant to poor care, which translates well into container growing. Herbs are also very forgiving in that many of them will grow in small spaces and small pots. Even some of the smallest pots at the hardware store will grow herbs, just not as much as a larger pot will. This makes herbs a very popular choice for small-space gardening like in apartments where only a few small pots will fit.
Outside of that, many fruits and vegetables will grow perfectly well. Generally, the small ones will be easier as they will need less room and therefore a smaller container. Things like green onions, or small berries are great candidates for container growing.
Almost every type of houseplant will grow well in a container also. If you’re looking to get some color into your home or outdoors, container growing plants is a great way to do so. All of the same rules as above apply in terms of container sizing and drainage.
Different Container Types
Now that you know all there is to know about container gardening, let’s take a look at a few popular containers. I can’t possibly list all the containers you could try, almost anything can be used, so I’ll just touch on a few of the more popular variations.
Wood is a very popular choice for containers, and can be painted to fit anyone’s taste. Wood should be properly finished to prevent it from rotting and protect it from the elements. Wood is also nice as it’s fairly easy to build custom containers like planter boxes, so it allows a lot of creativity.
Clay (terra cotta)
Terra cotta and clay is one of the most popular container choices for many types of gardens. These types of pots come in a range of sizes and are very cheap to buy making them a great choice. They’re also quite porous, which means they will leach water from the soil helping to prevent overwatering. Be careful with these as even a small impact can shatter them.
Another popular choice, cement can also be decorated to fit anyone’s taste. Like clay, cement is also slightly porous, so it can help prevent overwatering. One thing to remember is cement is heavy, so make sure you place it before you add the soil, or may be very difficult to move after.
Plastic is another widely available and cheap material. Unlike clay, it is not porous so it’s a good choice where overwatering is not a concern like in dry, hot climates. Plastic also comes in a variety of colors and styles and is easy to customize with paint.
Lastly, there are a number of other containers you can make/use from glass to metal and everything in between. There are lots of examples outthere, so if you’re feeling ambitious there are many fun projects to try.
How To Water Plants In Containers
One of the trickiest pieces of care for container gardens is watering. Water is essential for plants, but too much of a good thing can be harmful. That’s why it’s important that you’re not watering too much too often.
In general, you want to test your soil and water when the top 1-2” is dry. You can do this by simply sticking your finger in and seeing if it feels moist. Some plants want a little more/less than this, but it’s a good rule of thumb. If the soil is still wet then it’s a good idea to wait another day or two to water.
When you do water, make sure to water deeply and thoroughly saturate the soil. If you have drainage holes a good tip is to water until you just start to see water begins to leak out of them. This ensures that the soil is sufficiently moist but not overly soaked.
Once you water it’s a good habit to check every few days to see if the soil has dried out. For most indoor plants you’ll probably end up watering about 1-2 times per week.
That’s just a rule of thumb though and can be influenced by the specific plant and the environment it’s grown in. Plants in direct sunlight in the hot summer often need more water than those in the shade. Keep that in mind, and opt to frequently check your plants rather than try to guess when it needs water.
Containers are an excellent way to grow plants and in some cases can be better than planting straight into the ground. Hopefully you feel confident about container gardening, but if you don’t feel free to reach out. We’re always happy to help fellow gardeners!