Text and images by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.
Gardening is one of my favorite hobbies and has become such a source of happiness over the last six years. That’s right, it’s been six years since I planted my first container garden on the balcony of my second floor apartment. I was determined to make it work even if it was only a few herbs, lettuce, peas, chiles, and a cherry tomato plant.
Alas, it was almost a complete failure. I planted too many herbs in the same pot. The lettuce was horribly bitter. The chiles and cherry tomatoes both had blossom end rot (more on that later). Only the peas were a success that year. I was tempted to feel defeated, but I turned my failures into lessons and have continued to be more successful each year.
I can’t say I’m a Master Gardener, but I’m working hard to become one. I’ve talked with seasoned gardeners. I’ve read forums and researched articles online. I’ve chatted with the horticulturists at my local nursery. And I keep trying and keep planting. I wouldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I am on my way there. I hope you find my advice helpful and chime in with your own knowledge. Sometimes I think gardening is a team sport!
Now, back to the particular topic of this post: Container Gardening. I no longer live in a second floor apartment, but I still rely on containers to expand my growing area — and I like the way they look lining the back of my driveway.
It’s amazing what you can grow in pots! Containers can add a lot of interest in a landscaped yard, make apartment landings more beautiful, and make things cheery indoors.
As I’m sure you can guess, comprehensive information about container gardening is more than I can fit into this single post. So consider this an overview. We’ll cover prep, planting essentials, and miscellaneous tips to get you started.
Bonus: the information in this post applies to both vegetable container gardens and decorative ones (sometimes gardens can be both!). And it applies to indoor gardens as well.
The first step is to plan. This might be the first time you’ve ever thought about a container garden, or you may have been planning since last October. But either way, it’s not too late to start!
Secret #1: Ask yourself a few questions about your container garden.
- What do you want to plant? What kind of pot or container will you need?
- When should you, or when are you going to plant it? (If you’re me, then the answer is: at the last possible minute!)
- Where will your container garden be — indoors, outdoors, patio, deck, porch? Where do you live? Does your climate affect what you can plant? Is it arid and dry? Is it humid?
- Why do you want to plant this garden? Will you cook with the herbs and veggies you grow? Is it part of your outdoor decor?
- How often will it need to be watered? (Again, think about your climate. And think about your busy lifestyle — how much watering do you have time for?) How will your garden work into your summer vacation schedule?
I always start with deciding what to plant. This year I decided to plant three kind of cucumbers, Serrano chiles, several kinds of small tomatoes (yellow pear, grape, and cherry), rosemary, thyme, two kinds of mint, four varieties of basil, chamomile, lettuce, and potatoes.
And there are loads of other plants that do well in container gardens, like carrots, strawberries, edible flowers, onions, eggplant, and bell peppers. In fact, if the pot is deep enough you could theoretically plant almost anything in a container.
Make a list, do some research, ask questions and plan out your space. Remember that seedlings are much smaller than full-grown plants, so you’ll need more space (meaning: a larger container) than you might think. I know this from experience and overzealous planting!
The beauty of container gardens is that practically anything can turn into a pot for a plant. Secret #2: I say pot, but almost any kind of container will work. I’ve seen old metal washtubs, plastic laundry baskets, wood crates, tires, wine barrels, and other snazzy boxes and colorful containers — all used successfully as planters. Choose what you like best and suits your taste.
There are a few other considerations to think about when choosing a container. If you live somewhere windy, you might want to purchase a pot that is heavy and sturdy with a base that is wider than the top so it doesn’t tip over.
Terracotta is a long-time favorite, but sometimes I turn to plastic because it’s (almost) indestructible and lighter to lift. If you don’t have a space with full sun, and the plants need to be moved around, smaller containers (or larger ones on casters) will be your best best.
Also keep in mind that vegetables need deeper pots in order to develop a really strong root system. Deeper pots = more soil. Bring a calculator along with you when shopping for supplies so you can easily calculate how many quarts to buy or how many cubic feet that equals.
Some herbs will have long roots as well, but can usually tolerate shallower pots usually. Lettuces and cabbages are often pretty as well as edible, and can tolerate shallower planters as well.
Frankly, you just kind of have to ask and look around a bit for advice on specific plants.
Also, now is a good time to start mentioning drainage. Most pots come with good drainage systems built in. If not, you can easily drill or punch holes in the bottom to allow for that — we’ll talk more about the importance of drainage in a minute. Also, the holes allow enough oxygen to reach the roots, which is another essential for optimal root health.
Okay. You’ve selected your plants and containers, now it’s time to talk about the essentials that all plants need.
First up, soil. Secret #3: Don’t be tempted to transfer dirt from your yard into the pots you’ll be using for your container garden. It might include unwanted organisms and insects, weeds, or other materials that could harm potted plants or impede proper growth and plant health.
Instead, plan on buying a good potting mix from a local greenhouse or home improvement store. It removes all the guesswork for you and includes nutrients and proper pH levels plants need.
Let’s take a look at what typical bagged potting soil contains.
Potting mixes include a combination of several soil amendments, different materials such as peat moss, mulch, vermiculite, perlite, and sometimes sand. Potting mixes are formulated to aid in aeration and proper drainage.
- Dried Sphagnum (Peat) Moss — increases the soil’s capacity for storing water and nutrients
- Mulch — pieces of bark or wood chips that conserve moisture and help keep soil healthy
- Vermiculite — a mined, naturally occurring phyllosilicate that absorbs water and improves aeration in soil. It can be difficult to find and has received bad press over the years because it was contaminated with asbestos from a mine in the US in 1990. Some gardeners don’t use it because over time it tends to break down, though it never dissolves. (This is the same stuff you’ll see in the bottom of fireplaces with gas logs.)
-Perlite — naturally occurring, looks like little styrofoam balls, holds water very well, prevents soil compaction. If using by itself, use extreme caution and even wear a mask to prevent inhaling it. (See why a premixed soil is so handy?)
Some gardeners like to have more control over their soil, so they mix their own from various amendments. Worm casings, compost, coffee grounds, and other organic materials are commonly used.
Here I’ve mixed high-quality top soil (too heavy on it’s own) with perlite and vermiculite.
If you want to buy vermiculite or perlite (or both) check first at some of the big box and home improvement stores. I had a trickier time finding perlite. I found it at a farm supply store. If you’re an urban dweller, you might find it more difficult.
I’ve heard it said that it’s difficult to over-water container gardens. I think that’s right for the most part. Secret #4: Typically, watering container gardens once a day is enough, and water will drain off when there is too much. (Read further on for more about that.) The only real problem with over-watering a container garden is the chance that vital nutrients will be washed away with the excess water.
It goes without saying that you want to guard against under-watering. If you forget for a few days, the plant might not suffer too much, but it’s better to make sure watering becomes a daily habit.
Make it as easy on yourself as you can. For example, if you’re a city apartment dweller with a rooftop garden, consider a barrel to collect rain water so you don’t have to lug gallons of water up and down stairs every day. Or, if your container garden is part of your landscaping and you have a sprinkling system, place the containers near the sprinklers and let them do the watering.
This is the perfect time to cover the subject of drainage. Sounds like fun, right?
First I’m going to dispel a well-known garden myth that I used to believe. That is the practice of filling the bottom of your pots with gravel. Secret #5: While it seems like this would be a great idea to help with drainage, the opposite is actually true. Good, aerated soil will drain just fine on its own. And there’s more of a chance the pots will become waterlogged with the gravel than without.
The same goes for adding pot shards to the bottom of your pot. In effect, the pot’s depth is shortened and drainage impeded. Contrary to what you might think, the soil won’t wash out of the holes in the bottom of the pot either. Proper soil ends up acting like a sponge that will release water when there is too much and retain it as needed.
Secret #6: Not much needs to be said about sunlight except that A) it’s very necessary, and B) part of your planning process should include which plants need how much sun.
I choose mostly full sun plants because of where I place my garden containers. If you have a small area that receives sunlight for most of the day, that’s going to be fine. If you have a shaded patio or balcony, find shade-friendly plants.
Different plants have different nutrient requirements. This is a part of gardening that is as fun as it is infuriating. Secret #7: I choose a potting mix that has fertilizer mixed right in. That makes things easy for me. Some people don’t like that and want more control, and that’s fine too. Research online or ask someone at the nursery to help. (I find they often really enjoy talking shop.)
There are so many different kinds of fertilizers and nutrients you can purchase or add yourself. You can buy liquids that are mixed in when watering or powders that are mixed in with the soil when planting. There are stakes or pellets that release fertilizer slowly into the soil with each watering. And there’s your very own kitchen compost. It just depends on what you like and can keep track of, because you don’t want to fertilize too much either.
For containers, I tend to use epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) and bone meal. This is because it’s the same stuff I use in my big vegetable garden, and I typically have some on hand.
MORE TIPS & INFO
Okay, we’ve covered basics, and hopefully you’re making plans to head to the garden shop. Moving along… In this section, I’m including miscellaneous bits and pieces I’ve learned over the years.
- When growing tomatoes and peppers in a container garden, even with a really good potting mix it’s possible that there isn’t enough calcium or other nutrients in the soil. These have to be replaced often or a plant disease called blossom end rot will occur. The fruit looks just fine until you turn it over and the bottom is darkened and rotten.
This happened to me my first year of container gardening. Sigh. I lost everything.
Bone meal or other fertilizers containing calcium should be added to the planting hole when you place the tomato or pepper seedling (and some other plants too) to help prevent this. Once it happens, it can’t be reversed easily.
- Save the plant tags or seed packages — they often contain information about the frequency of watering, fertilizing, light requirements, and climate zones.
- Add water and mix it into the soil before adding the seedling.
The soil will absorb quite a bit of water, and I find it helps the plants acclimate to their new home a little better and that I have less run-off when I water again immediately after planting.
- Find out which plants will do well together and which plants are container hogs. (I’m looking at you, mint!)
It’s kind of fun to plant themed pots. For example, if you have a large enough pot, you might plant a cherry tomato with some cilantro and a small chile plant, and some onions around the perimeter (salsa!). Or maybe a pot with herbs you might use in French cooking, like rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic.
- Don’t be afraid to use cages or stakes for plants that like to climb or vine.
I’ve added large tomato cages to my cucumber pots because I know they will climb and branch out for straighter cucumbers. It also provides extra stability. In my second floor apartment, I planted peas in a long, narrow planter along the railing and allowed the peas to climb the railing. It looked pretty and my kids had fun going out every day to pick fresh peas for a snack.
- Make your garden accessible.
One reason I’m such a fan of container gardens is that it’s easy to place plants I use in my daily cooking by my back door, so I can run out quick and snip a few herbs during dinner prep.
- When planting tomatoes, remove bottom leaves and plant a little deeper to give the roots a good chance to take hold.
- When re-potting a seedling, loosen the root ball just a little bit, but don’t cut or tear roots off of the plant. If the root ball seems too large for the container you’ve chosen, swap it out for a larger one.
- Remove “suckers” from in between the branches so the plant can put energy into the main stem. I usually only do this at planting and in the first few weeks. I’ve actually heard this might be another myth, but I still do it sometimes, especially if there is a lot of greenery and very little blossoms or fruit. But if it seems too tedious, skip it and chances are your harvest will be just fine.
Okay. Basics have been covered, and you even know some of my favorite tips. Design Mom Readers, now it’s your turn. How does your garden grow? In pots? In the ground? What are you growing this year? And what are your favorite container gardening tips?
P.S. — Want to know more secrets? You can find all of my Living Well posts here.