Tips on How to Start a Container Garden

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Sooner or later, every gardener has the same problem: The yards and beds become filled, and you run out of space. So then what are you going to do? Container gardening is a way to expand your garden while also creating a portable display for your viewing pleasure throughout the year.

If you have a small yard or no yard at all or if you live in an apartment or condo, then gardening can be limited. However, container gardening allows you to still have that rewarding garden experience, even if only on a balcony, patio or courtyard. It's also a great source of enjoyment for children and the physically challenged. If you rent, then you can take your garden with you when it's time to move.

Always feel free to fully immerse yourself in the flower beds. It always feels like honest work, and you can see the results fairly quickly. And with container gardening, there is an additional artistic reward that seems all the greater by the compact size of those smaller plantings: They become the jewels of the yard, with lush foliage and stunning colors.

Plant containers have become a passion for millions of people. With them, you can step out the kitchen door and clip a sprig of basil or thyme for a morning omelet. Another benefit is that containers are portable. You can rotate them to showcase what is blooming in a particular month, and you can have your favorite plants close to where you spend your time on the patio and porch.

What Do You Want to Grow?

Most people think of flowers when they think about container gardening. While flowers do make good candidates for containers, you should also consider dwarf fruit trees, evergreens, vegetables, ornamentals, berries and shrubs for your containers. Even grasses, which can be invasive in flower beds, are happy in containers. Let your imagination run wild. Think about combining artistic pots and plants for themed garden containers.

Choosing Pots and Planters

Many gardeners will select containers based on style and price. You should also consider the weight, size, shape and scale of the containers. Heavy containers are difficult to move, but lightweight pots, while they may not remain stable if you live in windy area, do not pose that problem. So choose thoughtfully.

Hanging baskets are another garden opportunity for your porch or balcony. There are many varieties available. The wire bodied baskets can be lined with sphagnum moss or coco-fiber matting to contain the plant root ball and retain moisture.

Boxes and troughs are available in wood, concrete and various types of plastics. Line them up to form a barrier or safety wall at the edge of decks or on steps that have no railing. Troughs can be inserted into metal frames to make a window box or an architectural element along a wall or fence. Half urns, with one flat side, are another good way to conserve space on a small balcony or terrace while adding a splash of color.

The shape of each container should complement the planting and the surrounding containers. If you are doing a group of containers, choose a large one first, then several small and medium containers properly sized for a grouping.

Smaller containers will hold less potting mix, dry out faster and offer fewer nutrients for the plant. Plus, they will heat up faster in summer months, offering less insulation for the plant. If you choose large containers, then consider their weight. Also consider whether they will remain in one place or if you will need to move them frequently.

Soil and Potting Mix

Container gardens are best grown with potting mixes that contain little or no soil. Modern potting mixes are engineered to drain well, stay loose and not become compacted. The proper mix will be dense enough to anchor roots securely but light enough to handle easily in large containers. Planting mixes purchased from most commercial sources will be sterile, minimizing the danger of plant disease and insect infestation.

You can save money by blending your own mix if you need 15 cubic feet or more of mix. The University of Florida suggests this blend:

  • 6 gallons sphagnum peat moss
  • ¼ cup lime
  • 4 ½ gallons vermiculite or perlite
  • 4 ½ gallons compost

Mix thoroughly in a wheelbarrow and add fertilizer according to the manufacturer's directions.

Flowers, Vines or Grasses

In containers, there are unlimited possibilities with flowers, vines and grasses. For inspiration, take a walk through your local nursery. Perennials usually flower only once in the summer, so it's best to mix them with annuals that bloom continuously during the spring and summer seasons. Petunias are one of my favorites for hanging baskets. They can be used as fillers, spillers and thrillers to make baskets come alive with color. Beyond flowers, you can consider bulbs, vines and grasses. Finding vertical plants, like flax and mondo grass, will add eye-catching height and drama to your arrangements.

Herbs and Vegetables

Just about any vegetable or herb you grow in a bed can be grown in a container or hanging basket. I like combining herbs and vegetable plants in the same pot. Bush beans with rosemary or lettuce with sage are two combinations that are considered "companion plantings" that in some way benefit each other. Companion planting can help in the growth of others by attracting beneficial insects and repelling harmful ones. Here's a list of some companions:

  • Basil with peppers or tomatoes
  • Chives with carrots or tomatoes
  • Nasturtiums with cabbage or cucumbers
  • Roses with garlic or onions
  • Strawberries with bush beans or lettuce
  • Parsley with asparagus or tomatoes
  • Beets with cabbage, onions or lettuce

The decision to plant with seeds or from established plants is largely a question of cost/time. If you have the time, then seeds can save a significant portion of the expense in the garden. The bigger the seed, the easier it is to germinate and start at home. Tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and basil are easy to start from seeds. Plants like dill, oregano, rosemary and thyme, however, may be easier to buy already grown, particularly for beginning gardeners or people who can't commit a lot of time to their gardens.

Container gardens add wonderful colors and fragrances to your outdoor areas. Putting your new green creations near your front door welcomes friends and visitors, and putting it by your back door gives easy access to herbs and vegetables for cooking. Get started with container gardening and see what a joy it can be for you.

Last Updated: January 19, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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