Gardening 101: Container Gardening

Gardening 101: Container Gardening

This weekend I planted a very special part of my garden: the pots of succulents that grace my front steps and the kitchen pot garden that I keep on my back deck.  Why?

Container gardening gives you options that you might not otherwise have in gardening:

  • Plants that can be moved with the sun
  • Plants where you want them, whether there is dirt or not
  • Plants to experiment with
  • Plants even when you have very little space.
  • Plants replaceable for seasonal color.

How to Get Started:

Start with your Pot.  Think where you’ll be putting your container.  If it’s exposed to a day of full sun, a light fiberglass pot with reflect some of the heat while retaining moisture.  Inexpensive plastic pots will degrade in the sun, terracotta and wood will lose moisture quickly.  Another alternative, though heavier to move about, would a glazed ceramic pot or stone container.   These pots will need to be emptied and stored somewhere inside if you live in an area with freezing temperatures in the winter time. Personally, I choose the fiberglass. The light weight makes them easier to move and maintain. If you can find a self-watering option, always take it.

Your pots need drainage holes in them.  If you fall in love with a pot that contains no holes, consider it merely a decorative sleeve.  Purchase a liner pot with holes to plant and place inside this gorgeous container.  Remember, though, to lift the liner out at least once a week to drain any water out of the bottom of your pretty container.  If that sounds like it would be too hard to do.. pass on the pretty and find something with drainage.

Ofcourse, containers can be creative or very basic too.  Two stacked 5 gallon buckets can make a great self-watering container.  Drill a large-ish hole in the bottom of one container, and slip some nylon stocking over the neck of a funnel and slide that through the hole into the bottom bucket. Put enough water in the bottom bucket to reach up to the bottom of the top bucket.  When this planter is filled with soil, it will wick necessary water through the funnel and up to the roots.  Extra moisture will run down through the funnel and drain into the bottom bucket.  Just remember to check the water levels there every couple days.

Do not plan on gardening with lots of small pots.  Small pots will stunt the growth of the plants in them and will need a lot more watering.  As we continue, watering, you’ll see, is the biggest challenge of growing in containers.

After you’ve picked a container, it’s time to fill it with soil :

But first. Did you choose some terracotta planters? They are classic and relatively inexpensive; making them hard to resist. Before you plant them, stick all terracotta planters in a tub or play pool… something larger than they are.. filled with water. Soak the terracotta overnight so it has time to absorb water completely. I said earlier they were thirsty beasts. This will start you off on the right foot.

Choose a light weight container potting mix. These will typically be a blend of compost and peat moss. While you’re soaking any terracotta planters, split open any bag of potting mix that contains peat moss and pour a gallon or so of WARM water into the mix. Peat can be strange when it comes to the temperature of water it absorbs. It LIKES warm water (think heated by the sun) and will soak it up; cold water typically runs right through peat.

So take the time to pre-moisten your pots and your soil. You’ll be glad you did.

Next day, if your pots are not self-watering models, line the bottom of the pots with 2-3 layers of newspaper, some old nylon stocking material, or a single layer of landscaping fabric. You are looking for something fine enough to let water drain through that will not let soil also drain out of your pots. Fill the pots with soil, leaving about a 2″ space at the top.  You need this space for watering, though you might also add some mulch there later.

You’ve Got the Dirt Filled Pot, Let’s Plant it:

Almost anything you can plant in the ground, you can plant in a container.  The limitation, of course, is the size.  So look for any hints that a plant might be appropriate for container gardening.  If you’re determined to grow fresh tomatoes on your apartment balcony, Here at C’Side has a list of appropriate container-grown tomato plants.

As with any other type of gardening, give your new plants a little bit of fertilizer, a healthy drink of water, and plant them at the same depth as they have been growing (except for tomatoes).  They will thank you for this with a productive season.


The hardest thing about container gardening is getting the watering perfect.  With hot sunny summer days, it’s hard to over-water a container but it’s challenging to get enough water at the right time and get the soil to absorb it.  Some of my tricks:

  • Fill several gallon milk cartons with water first thing in the morning and set them out in the sun.  Let them warm to ambient temperature.  In the afternoon, water all the plants.  In the evening, drain away any water that drained into saucers beneath them.
  • During challenging heat waves, empty the ice from my freezer (or buy a couple small bags of ice) and “mulch” the plants with the ice cubes.  These will melt slowly, cooling the soil and giving it sips of water it can absorb.
  • If you haven’t had a rain storm in a while,  get that tub (or play pool) out and load as many pots as I can into it.  Using the garden hose, gently create a “rain fall” that washes dirt and dust off the plants while filling the tub with water.  Let the pots soak for 6-24 hours recreating that slow soaking rain that’s so healthy for plants.
  • Remember the larger the pot, the less frequently you may need to water, but the more deeply you will want to water.  Be less concerned about the surface soil moisture; stick your finger down 3-6″ into the soil and check for moisture there.  (is it cool?  then it’s moist.)

So what are your tips for gardening in containers??  Ways to adapt everyday items to grow in, watering tips, plant care?  Leave your questions and thoughts in comments.