How to get started with a container garden

By Nick Mediati (@dtnick) · Published March 12, 2014 at 8:00pm.

As an avid gardener, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had decently large gardens almost everywhere I lived. But just because you don’t have a lot of space doesn’t mean you can’t grow flowers, fruits, or vegetables at home. Welcome to the world of container gardening.

Container gardening doesn’t require a lot of space—an apartment balcony or small patio will do—and it doesn’t require a green thumb. And it’s a good way to get started with gardening even if you have a large yard but don’t have the patience to dig up you lawn. Here are some tips for getting started.

Many—thought not all—plants can thrive in container gardens. You can plant most any annuals (those flowering plants you typically see in flower beds) in containers, as well as small shrubs (like boxwood), some vines and trailing plants, and roses (provided you give them a large pot) to name a few.

A “bowl” of flowers can brighten up any porch or patio.

Step 1: Choose the right plants

Lettuce and other leafy vegetables are easy to grow in pots. Small fruit trees can be productive in large containers; you can also grow tomatoes, strawberries, bush beans, and herbs in container gardens. In some cases, special varieties bred for growing in containers may be worth checking out.

Before you go out and buy your plants, study the sun patterns for your growing space. Do you get a lot of sun? Do you get mostly shade? A mix of the two? Try to make sure you get plants that can best tolerate whatever growing conditions you have. For example, a tomato plant probably won’t grow well in shady areas, while many azaleas don’t particularly like too much sun.

Strawberries are easy and fun to grow in container gardens.
Strawberries are easy and fun to grow in container gardens.

In general, I’d suggest visiting a local nursery to look for plants instead of visiting a chain store like Home Depot for plants, especially if you’re new to gardening. I have nothing against Home Depot, but in general, nurseries have more expertise that will be especially helpful if you’re an inexperienced grower. Bring a notepad! Don’t be afraid to ask lots and lots of questions!

Also, check out the various seed catalogs out there. Burpee is a good place to start—it has a wide variety of plants available and is more geared toward the home gardener. If you’re a bit more experienced, I suggest checking out Johnny’s Seeds, which carries certain varieties that can be hard to come by elsewhere.

Seeds or plants?

For many kinds of plants, it doesn’t matter whether you go with buying young plants (“starts”) or starting them from seed, but starting from seed has a few advantages. For one, it usually costs less: A pack of 25 seeds may cost only a couple dollars, while a six-pack of more mature plants can cost twice that. Also, some plants—particularly vegetables and plants like sunflowers—do best when you start them from seed. On the other hand, for something like a shrub, it’s probably best to buy a young plant instead.

Step 2: Get containers

OK, so this is probably an obvious one—after all, how can you have a container garden without containers? (Don’t answer that.) But you have a fair number of choices when it comes to pots and planting containers.

One low-cost option is to buy paper pulp pots: These brownish-gray containers usually cost only a few bucks each for a medium-sized pot (around 12 inches across), and they’re lightweight and therefore easy to rearrange. The downside? they’re, well, paper, and they eventually disintegrate as paper is wont to do. That said, a paper pulp pot will last you a year or two with good drainage, and when they do break down, you can toss them in your compost pile and have them turn back to dirt. I rely on these for most of my potted fruit and veggie plants.

Plants in a variety of pulp pots.

Plastic pots are another possibility: These containers are lightweight and come in all sorts of sizes and styles, but can be unattractive.

Terra Cotta containers are more attractive, but heavy; a large dirt-filled terra cotta pot can be a pain in the ass to try and move around. Also, plants in terra cotta pots can dry out more quickly than plants in other types of containers, so they might require more frequent watering, Oh, and terra cotta is expensive. Personally, I’d go with terra cotta only for plants that you don’t plan on moving or smaller, decorative plants.

And then there are fiberglass containers: These are typically more decorative than plastic pots, and they’re lightweight, too. They can be more expensive than some other options, however, but an attractive fiberglass pot can make a nice accent in a garden.

Another consideration: Size. Some plants, like bush beans, tomatoes, and small shrubs, benefit from being planted in larger, deeper containers. Meanwhile, you can get away with planting smaller flowers and veggie plants in small containers. Also, consider how many plants you want to fit into one container. If you’re planning to cram a lot of plants in a container, go with a wider pot. Visit your local nursery and ask an employee for advice for your specific plants; they’ll be able to provide better advice for specific plants than any article on the internet can.

Basil works well in containers.
Basil works well in containers.

Whatever you do, though, don’t leave your plants in the containers they came in for any extended period of time—you’ll end up stunting their growth.

Step 3: Get your soil

When planting in containers, you generally want to go with a good potting mix instead of using regular “planting mix” or plain old dirt. Potting mixes are formulated specifically for use in containers, so they contain a proper balance of nutrients and organic material for this purpose.

Planting mixes, on the other hand, are typically meant to be mixed in with your existing soil, so they can sometimes be too potent for your plants, thus damaging them. You should avoid filling up your pots with plain dirt from your back yard, especially if you haven’t added any compost or anything to enrich it—you likely won’t get good results.

Now it’s time to get your plants in your pots—yay! Before you start, read the planting instructions for all your plants, and be sure to follow them as you go along. For most plants, you don’t want to plant them any deeper than how they came when you bought them because they may run the risk of developing stem rot. Tomatoes are one exception: They generally handle being buried deeper just fine.

Step 4: Plant!

If you notice your plants’ roots are tightly bound when you take them out of the containers they came in, don’t be afraid to break them up a bit. Using your fingers or a garden fork, gently pull apart the roots so that they are less tightly bound. You don’t have to pull the roots apart completely—just make sure there are loose ends that can penetrate into the soil.

When you situate your plants, be sure to pat down firmly around them. Don’t squish them down too hard, though—you might damage the roots.

It’s a good idea to group similar plants together. For example, if you have a group of plants that like full sun, plant them together and place them in the same spot.

Care and feeding

Water regularly.

Different plants have different water requirements, but I find that for smaller containers, watering every other day works well for most small- to medium-sized containers. For larger containers, you can go a bit longer, provided you give them a good soaking. In general, if a plant is wilting or if the soil is bone dry, you should probably give your plants a drink.

Don’t overwater, though: Your soil should be damp, but if it’s still soaked even though you haven’t watered in a while, you should probably cut back on watering. If in doubt, ask your local nursery if any of your plants require special care.

Feed your plants regularly.

Unless you bought a potting mix that comes with fertilizer in it, you should feed your plants once or twice a month. I’ve had good luck with Miracle-Gro, since it’s easy to apply and you can feed it to almost anything. If you prefer to go the organic route, get yourself a bottle of fish emulsion. It’s stinky, but when used regularly, it can give you a very healthy garden.

Watch for pests…and pesticides.

If you see holes appearing in leaves, or white fuzz forming, or anything that seems amiss, you might have a pest on your hands (or plants). If you can, cut off a sample from an affected plant, put it in a sandwich bag, and bring it to your local nursery where they can get you the right product to do away with the pest in question.

Be careful with pesticides, though, especially if you have pets or small children, or if you’re growing food. Some pesticides can be harmful to humans and animals—and in some cases, they can kill both the pests and beneficial insects. In such cases, it may be better to have holes in some leaves than it is to have ladybugs and earthworms as collateral damage in your war against earwigs.

For snails and slugs, I use Sluggo: It uses iron phosphate, and instead of poisoning snails and slugs, it constipates them. And it’s safer for use around kids and pets than other kinds of snail bait.

Worth reading

I find these books to be useful guides:

Sunset New Western Garden Book:

If you live in the Western United States and have any interest in gardening whatsoever, you need this book. It features everything from information on climate zones to planting tips to an encyclopedia of common plant varieties.

Practical Small Gardens:

This is an older book so it might be a little hard to find, but it provides inspiration and tips for getting the most out of a small garden plot.

Fresh Food from Small Spaces:

This is a great resource for getting started with growing fruits and vegetables at home; it will help you make the most of the space you’ve got.