Have you felt any of the gardening frustrations some Productive Mama readers shared with me recently?
- I have terrible soil!
- We are active military, so I have to start all over every time we move.
- My yard is too shady for anything to grow.
- I feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
- My kids and dogs are tough on any plants I do manage to grow.
- I live in an apartment and only have a balcony.
If you have these frustrations feel familiar, container gardening may be right for you.
Growing food and flowers containers is a great place for beginning gardeners to start. Containers are mobile, work in small spaces, help protect your plants from stomping feet and nibbling mouths, and can be used no matter what kind of soil you have. With nearly endless options for containers and plant choice, you can create designs to match your style and budget.
In this tutorial, I’ll share a step-by-step approach to creating your own container garden. For even more container ideas, join me on Facebook (https://facebook.com/gardensthatmatter/videos) for a series of live videos on container gardening, Mar. 27-31 around noon Eastern each day.
Let’s Start with Design Ideas
Before we jump into the action steps, I want you to start thinking about ways to combine plants and containers. When you’re putting together your garden plan, use these classic design principles to create something delicious and beautiful!
Use pots with a similar shape, color, or pattern to tie together a variety of herbs and veggies.
Look for ways to highlight differences. Pair coarse textures with lacy ones or choose bold, contrasting colors. Since most leaves are green, containers with a single “other” color (like yellow marigolds and pear tomatoes) will have nice contrast naturally. You can also bring in outside elements to provide contrast to your plants and pots.
Look for ways to balance your design in plant or container combinations. Symmetry creates a feeling of stability, while asymmetrical designs feel more dynamic.
Using appropriate-sized pots helps with plant health and a balanced look. An extra tall plant can look (and be) top-heavy, while a small plant in a huge container looks pitiful. One rule of thumb for size is to choose a tall plant that’s no more than 1-2x as tall as its container.
To fill in space while waiting for a larger plant like a tomato to grow, use fast-growing greens that you can eat as you thin them out.
Rule of Three
Three is the magic number! Artists, designers, and architects around the world use groupings of three (or five or seven) to add visual interest to their creations. How might that look in your container garden? Three examples…
- Thriller-filler-spiller – Choose a large thrilling plant for the center. Tuck medium sized fillers and trailing spillers into the edges of the planter.
- Small-medium-large – Group three individual plants in coordinating pots of varying sizes.
- Triangle plantings – Place your plants in triangles of height or spacing. As plants fill in, the triangles will be less obvious but still draw your eye around the grouping.
Now let’s dig into the step-by-step!
- Make a plant wishlist.
What do you want to grow in your container garden? Start with plants you eat often or herbs you love.
If you’re a beginner, start small to avoid overwhelm. Focus on 2 or 3 plants first. You can always come back and add more plants or more containers!
Look up the sunlight needs and spacing suggestions for each plant. Write these down, along with any other notes you want to keep in mind. You can usually find this information in a seed catalog or with an online search.
- Choose a location for your containers.
Observe your outdoor spaces throughout the day. When are they sunny and when are they shady?
Most vegetables grow best in a sunny location.
- Fruiting crops, like tomatoes, need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight to produce well..
- Root crops, like carrots and radishes, and many herbs can get by with 6-8 hours.
- Leafy crops, like kale or lettuce, can grow in 4-6 hours of sunlight.
When you’ve selected your sunny spot, take a few measurements to understand how much room you have to use. Be sure to allow plenty of room for walkways, since some plants in your containers will spill over the edges.
- Pick your containers.
Gather up containers you’ve used in the past and anything you could “up-cycle” for growing. Decide what plants will fit in each container and make a shopping list for any other containers you need to buy.
When buying/finding containers, look for one with these qualities:
- Large enough for the main plant(s) and a couple companions. To estimate this, check your notes about plant spacing. Because you’ll be adding water and nutrients as needed, you can plant a bit more densely than in the ground. For example, a 24” planter could work for a tomato and several trailing nasturiums. You could plant a few each of carrots, radishes, and loose leaf lettuces in a 14” pot.
- Drainage holes on the bottom. You must have a way for water to drain from the soil. If you love a container that doesn’t have a drain, you drill one or use it to cover a smaller pot that actually holds the plant. This allows you to remove the plant to water it.
- Made of material that works in your climate and situation. Terra cotta pots and moss-lined hanging baskets will dry out quickly. Wooden planters hold moisture well, but they’ll decompose over time. Plastic pots are lightweight and may tip over, but they are also easy to move).
- Colors and shapes that will help you create contrast and/or repetition. (See examples above.)
Think outside the planter box!
You can get creative with upcycling plastic storage bins or adding a cover to a 5-gallon bucket.
Here’s an example of a tomato we grew in a 20-gallon toy tub. (https://www.gardensthatmatter.com/how-to-grow-tomato-container/)
For another option, try out purchased or homemade polypropylene “grow bags.”(http://www.gardeners.com/how-to/why-grow-bags-better/7620.html )
- Purchase soil mix.
Plan to spend a quarter to a third of your budget on high-quality soil mix.
For best results, use a sterile soil mix created especially for containers. These mixes usually hold moisture while draining well. They are lightweight, so easy for plant roots to move through and good for your back if you want to move a container later.
I like organic mixes with coconut coir (more sustainable than peat moss), vermiculite, and compost.
Skip the water crystals.
Have you seen the super-absorbent hydrogels you can add to soil? Studies (https://puyallup.wsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/403/2015/03/hydrogels-3.pdf) have shown that simpler practices like mulch and protecting plants from wind can save more water than using the water crystals in your soil mix. Plus, some of the hydrogels break down into carcinogenic and neurotoxic substances. In my veggie garden? No thanks!
- Shop or forage plants and/or seeds.
Use your plant list to find sources through your friends, favorite local garden center, farmer’s market, or seed catalog.
Look for compact varieties and plants that have been bred specifically for containers.
Next, choose “companion plants” for your star veggies. These will benefit your plant and add interest to your containers.
Starting from seed is usually the least expensive way to go. You may need to water several times a day to keep the soil evenly moist until they germinate. Then, you can shift to deeper, less frequent watering, as you’ll see in #6.
Want instant gratification or a jump start for a short growing season? Opt for seedlings or container-grown options.
- Optional: Add a watering system and/or mulch.
Depending on your climate, your plants will likely need to be watered every day or two in summertime. If you travel or want to make it easier to maintain your containers, setup a simple watering system now.
You can find unglazed clay ollas (http://permaculturenews.org/2010/09/16/ollas-unglazed-clay-pots-for-garden-irrigation/) for a low tech version of drip irrigation. Or you can rig up a system with tubing and drip emitters that is connected to your faucet with a timer. You could irrigate a row of similar-sized pots by looping soaker hose through them.
If you’ll hand water instead, consider adding a wand or watering can with a shower-head nozzle to provide a gentle stream of water for your pots.
Mulch will help you conserve moisture and money on your water bill. Add an inch or two of compost, bark mulch, shredded leaves, or straw (not hay…it’s seedy!) to keep your soil cooler and slow down evaporation at the surface.
If you’re ready to commit to container gardening, consider investing in self-watering planters. (http://www.treehugger.com/lawn-garden/5-self-watering-planters-easy-vegetable-gardening.html) While these pots are usually more expensive, they have a water reservoir that ensures your plants have a steady supply of water.
- Arrange containers and fill with soil mix. Water well.
The containers will be harder to move with wet soil mix and plants, so set them as close to their final destination as possible.
Wait, don’t I need to add gravel or something to the bottom of my pot?
Nope! As long as you have adequate drainage holes in your pot, it will drain best if you fill it completely with soil. (Here’s the science behind it. http://gardenprofessors.com/container-planting-intuition-vs-reality/) To keep the soil from flushing through the drainage holes, you can use a piece of mesh or a large potter piece to help keep the soil in the pot while letting water out.
Is there a way to use less mix in a big pot?
Yes! If you have really large or deep pots, your plants may not need all that space to grow this summer. You can save on soil by using a lightweight filler at the bottom. I’ve heard of people using upside-down empty plastic pots, pine cones, water bottles, or even styrofoam peanuts packed into bags or hose.
- Plant your seeds or seedlings.
Plant according to directions on the seed packet or at the same depth the seedling grew at originally. Water them in well.
- Use a slow release or liquid fertilizer to feed your plants.
Each time you water, nutrients leach out of the container. Since your plants aren’t in the ground where bacteria and fungi are constantly cycling nutrients, you’ll most likely need to play this role by adding fertilizer.
Look for an organic option in a slow-release or liquid form. Follow the fertilizer directions to determine how much and how often.
- Water your plant regularly.
If you invested in an optional watering system, this step may be simple for you. If not, check your pots daily and water when they dry out. Check by pushing your finger a few inches into the soil. You want soil that is moist but not soggy.
If you do have a wet spell, be sure your plants don’t get waterlogged. Move them inside or into a sheltered area for a few days to dry out if needed.
- Harvest veggies when they’re ready!
- At the end of the season, move perennials inside and/or compost annual debris and store your pots until next year!
Now, I’d love to hear from you! Have you tried container gardening before? What plants would you add to your beautiful, edible pots? Tell me in the comments below!
Amy Landers is a nature nerd, writer and mom of three boys. She’s been gardening and composting for more than 25 years. Through GardensThatMatter.com, Amy and her husband Colby teach families how to grow beautiful, bountiful gardens together. They share step-by-step lessons, garden tips, interviews with successful gardeners, and stories from their own small homestead. They share both the successes and the messes to help other families grow gardens that matter.