A Field Guide to Container Gardening

Last update: April 26, 2020

Container gardening lets you grow vegetables, herbs, flowers and more, even if you don’t have a lot of in-ground space. When you grow in containers, your gardening horizons expand considerably. You’re able to grow plants that normally wouldn’t thrive in your area. You’re also able to control how much food and water the plants get. A container garden can be a good option if your in-ground soil is no good, if you don’t have a lot of room or if you’d like to move plants indoors for the winter.

What Is Container Gardening?

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Quite simply, container gardening is growing any type of plant in a vessel or pot, rather than in the ground. With a container garden, you’re able to grow vegetables, flowers and even trees even if you don’t have a lot of ground space.

Container gardens aren’t only for gardeners who have limited garden or ground space. Planting in a container also allows you to experiment with plants that wouldn’t normally be suitable for growing in your area.

For example, according to the University of Illinois Extension, when you plant in a container, you are better able to control the quality of soil the plant receives. You’re also able to control the amount of water the plant’s roots receive more easily.

Growing plants in a container also means that you can grow a plant that would normally not thrive in your area due to temperature levels. For example, even if you live in a temperate area where the temperatures drop below freezing in the winter, you can plant a lemon or other type of citrus tree in a pot. The tree can live outdoors during the heat of summer. You can move the container and the tree indoors to keep it warm during the fall and winter.

Container Gardening vs In-Ground Beds

One of the biggest benefits of container gardening over gardening in the ground is that you pretty much always know what you’re going to get with a container. Before you can create an in-ground bed, you need to test the soil to make sure it’s the right pH for what you want to grow and to make sure it’s not contaminated.

Even if in-ground garden soil is the right pH and doesn’t have lots of pest, fungal or bacterial issues, it might not be very good soil. Unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area with sufficient topsoil, it’s like that the soil in your ground is subsoil.

Subsoil is likely to be nutritionally deficient. It’s also likely to be compacted, meaning you’ll have to work hard to till it and break it up, so that your plants can live happily in it.

You also have better control over the amount of light and water your plants get when you grow in a container versus in the ground. If you choose a garden spot in the ground, whatever amount of sun that spot gets is the amount of sun your plants will get.

It all depends on where you live, but in some areas, surrounding buildings and trees mean that most in-ground garden spots are very shady. Those areas aren’t suited for growing most types of vegetables or certain types of flowers. You’ll be better off planting in containers and putting those containers on a sunny patio or balcony, rather than in the soil.

Some in-ground areas might simply be too wet for plants to thrive. If you have heavy clay soil, that soil is going to cling to water, potentially choking your plants’ roots and leading to root rot. When you grow in a container, you might have to water more frequently than in the ground, but you are also less likely to have a plant drown from too much water.

What’s Different About Container Gardening?

One of the biggest differences between container gardening and in-ground gardening is the type of soil you use to grow your plants. The most important thing to remember when starting a container gardener is that you need to use container soil, also known as potting mix, and not soil you dig up out of the ground.

There are several reasons why garden soil is a no-go in containers. For one thing, it’s not designed for cramming into the confines of a pot or container, as Bonnie Plants points out. If you fill a container with garden soil, add your plants, then proceed to water often, you’ll end up with a compacted clump of soil and some very unhappy plants.

Container soil is also typically sterile, meaning it’s a healthier option for your plants. Since it’s not really soil, it doesn’t contain the bacteria or fungus that is often found in garden soil. Many container mixes include added fertilizer, so you plant gets a good dose of nutrition right from the start.

Not all potting mixes are the same. Some are designed for certain types of plants, such as cacti and succulents, and container additional materials to meet the needs of those plants. Since succulents need well-drained, sandy soil, most potting mixes made for them have more sand than an all-purpose potting mix.

While you can buy potting mix at a garden center fairly easily, it’s also pretty easy and cost efficient to make it yourself.

The video above shows you how to mix together a lot of container mix using a combination of peat moss, manure or compost, perlite, which helps improve drainage, lime, and epsom salts. You can also mix in coarse sand or vermiculite in place of the perlite.

Types of Containers

Containers come in a range of sizes and materials. Pretty much any type of material is fine, from wood to plastic and from terra cotta or clay to metal.

But, some materials are more durable than others. For example, terra cotta is a popular type of material for plant pots. But it’s rather fragile and is susceptible to changes in temperature. If you leave an unglazed terra cotta pot outdoors during a freeze, the pot can easily shatter.

Metal containers are more sturdy, but they also tend to absorb a lot of heat in the summer, meaning they can fry your plants if you’re not careful. Wood can rot if not well-cared for and plastic can retain too much water. There are pros and cons for each material. It’s up to you to choose the one you like best.

No matter what material you end up going with, your containers need to have drainage holes. Otherwise, the soil will get water-logged and the plant will be more likely to rot. You can try knocking or drilling a hole in the container yourself if you find a style that doesn’t have one.

Which Plants Are Good for Containers?

Most plants will do well in a container, provided the container is large enough and provided you give the plant enough water, light and food. Some plants might be easier for beginning gardeners to grow in containers than others, though.

For example, herbs and lettuce greens are usually easy plants for beginning gardeners. Both do well in the confines of a container and typically produce high yields with a little effort.

Many popular garden vegetables are also easy to grow in containers. Tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers do well in pots. Just make sure to pick a big enough container for them. Plant one plant in a container that’s at least 5 gallons in volume.

Most types of flowers and shrubs can grow in a container as well. You can also grow some trees in a pot. If you are going to grow a tree in a container, choose a dwarf variety.

If you’d like to learn more more about container gardening and the specific needs of certain plants, we have plenty of articles to help you out. Take a look at the sidebar to find all the articles we’ve got on the topic.

Photo by StillWorksImagery licensed under CC0

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