Sure, a more traditional garden may be a raised bed, but containers have several advantages. You can bring your favorite plants indoors before cold weather, for one, and you can move your garden around to capture more or less sunlight, for another.
Of course, if you live in an apartment or townhouse, a container garden might be your only option. Don’t worry—you can still experience the joys of gardening in whatever outdoor space you have, whether that’s a patio, a balcony, or even a little door stoop.
Let’s look at the best plants to grow in a container garden and then how to set up and maintain your containers.
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THE BEST PLANTS FOR CONTAINER VEGETABLE GARDENING
The sky is practically the limit for what you can grow in a container garden these days thanks to seed companies creating dwarf, micro, and container varieties of our favorite fruits and veggies.
Here’s a quick overview of what you can grow in pots and containers:
- Herbs – Rosemary, basil, sage, oregano, thyme, and other herbs make the best starter plants for a container garden. Grab a container at least 10″ deep. Herbs can still do well in a shaded spot on your patio or balcony (or in a sunny windowsill).
- Root Vegetables – Radishes, carrots, and beets are great container plants. Look for a container that’s at least 6″ deeper than the expected length of the taproot you’re growing and wide enough to give the roots plenty of room to swell side to side.
- Salad Greens – You can easily grow your favorite leafy greens on a shaded patio or balcony since they don’t need too much sun to produce leaves for you. Small plants like lettuce, arugula, and spinach only need a pot that’s 6″ deep, while kale and Swiss chard will need a pot at least 12″ deep.
- Potatoes – A large container or grow bag (anything at least 18″ deep) is actually my favorite way to grow potatoes.
- Annual Fruiting Plants – You can grow cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, summer squash, and more in a large container if you have a sunny spot. Fruiting plants need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight so they can have the energy to form flowers and then fruit.
- Bulbs – Garlic and onions grow really well in smaller spaces. Look for a container that’s wide so that you can plant several staggered rows.
- Perennial Fruiting Plants – Containers are great places to grow strawberries, blueberries, and even blackberries. Strawberries can grow in only 6″ of space, but the other berries will need something at least 18″ deep.
- Flowers – Of course you already know that you can grow flowers in pots, but I recommend mixing some flowers in with your edible plants. Flowers will attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden. Easy-going sweet alyssum, pansies, and violas are my favorite flowers to plant around the edge of a container.
Learn more about growing these different types of plants in containers.
FIND THE RIGHT CONTAINER FOR YOUR CONTAINER GARDEN
The Ideal Container Size
Think of the root ball of the plant when it’s mature to find the right size pot or container. Herbs and leafy greens have more shallow roots, while most fruiting plants will need something that can hold 5 gallons at minimum. Even smaller fruiting plants like peppers will need a large container or pot that is 12” to 18” in diameter and just as deep.
If you want to grow in a smaller container, look for micro or dwarf varieties of your favorite plants. These more compact versions are ideal for anything smaller than a 5-gallon container.
I personally prefer to buy larger containers so that I can grow several plants together. Growing lots of solitary plants in smaller pots means watering each pot individually and more frequently.
The Best Containers & Materials
Finding the right type of container for your garden plays a major factor in your success. Make sure whichever pots and/or containers you use have at least one good drainage hole so that excess water can easily drain out of the bottom.
Terra Cotta Pots
Large terra cotta pots are great for container gardening because they help absorb excess moisture in the soil and prevent root rot.
Plastic pots are easy to find and inexpensive and should last for a couple of years. I learned the hard way to steer clear of planters with a hidden water reservoir at the bottom. These pots claim to conserve water, when really all they do is create a swampy mess that will give your plants root rot. Drainage holes over self-watering containers and reservoirs any day!
Large Ceramic Pots
If your favorite ceramic pot doesn’t have a hole in the bottom, leave the plant in a plastic container that you can lift out of the ceramic pot to water and then replace. You can also try drilling a hole in the bottom using a drill bit made for ceramic tile/glass. (I tried this with a beautiful little pot from Ikea but ruined the drill bit after making just one drainage hole. Be warned!)
I made some beautiful concrete containers using old plastic pots as a mold. The one downside is these containers will likely be too heavy to move indoors over winter when they’re filled with soil. Also not the option for you if you move apartments frequently.
Wine barrels and old whiskey barrels can have a great second life as garden containers thanks to their generous size.
A 5-gallon bucket or 10-gallon bucket makes an easy container for large fruiting plants. While this isn’t the most attractive option, it’s inexpensive and super practical. Don’t forget to drill drainage holes.
A 15-gallon grow bag is a great option for large plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes.
There are lots of fun stackable containers out there if you want to step up your container garden game. My favorite option is a Garden Tower, which can grow as least 50 lettuce plants (or even strawberry plants!) at a time. It also turns your kitchen scraps into nutrient-rich compost for whichever plants are growing inside its pockets. Planters like this one make growing lots of healthy plants in a small space a breeze.
You can find so many different sizes of steel tubs online or in hardware stores, everything from tubs meant to hold ice to large animal feeders. Most are wide enough that you can grow a variety of plants in the same space. The only downside is you’ll have to drill several holes in the bottom.
THE BEST POTTING SOIL FOR CONTAINERS
Use a high-quality potting mix like Fox Farms Ocean Forest, Coast of Maine Premium Potting Soil, or Espoma Organic Potting Mix. Don’t fill your container garden with raised bed soil mix or garden soil from garden centers, which are a little too heavy for containers. Potting mix is ideal because it contains peat moss, which retains moisture while also providing good drainage.
STEPS TO SET UP A CONTAINER GARDEN
Follow these simple steps for container garden success:
Make sure the pot or container you’ve chosen has at least one good drainage hole. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) When you’re growing in containers, it’s really important to make sure excess water can easily drain out of the bottom. Use a drill to add a hole every 4″ to 6″ if needed.
Place containers before filling them, especially if they’re large. If you plan to grow fruiting plants, make sure to set them somewhere they’ll receive full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours per day). If your container will be on a covered patio or porch, pick the side that will allow your plants to get morning sun and late afternoon shade.
Fill your container almost to the top with potting mix.
Add an obelisk trellis to the container if you plan to grow a vining plant so it’ll have a sturdy structure to climb. You can find obelisk trellises in all sizes to fit your container, but make sure to add them before planting so that you don’t disturb any roots. Micro and dwarf varieties typically don’t need support, but it’s a good idea to have some stakes and twine on hand in case they begin to lean over.
It’s time to plant! Larger containers allow you to grow several plants together, so don’t be afraid to interplant with other things that have similar needs as far as hours of sunlight and water. Plants can support each other and conserve resources. Add some herbs (chives are great and will even repel pests!), low-growing filler flowers, or short leafy greens around taller plants. Remember, bare soil dries out fast, so fill ‘er up!
Planting more shallow-rooted plants around your large container plants helps keep the soil cooler and retain moisture (which in turn retains nutrients). If you’re not interested in interplanting, I recommend adding a layer of mulch or compost on top of the soil. This is especially important for plants like blueberries that like their soil to stay on the wetter side. I use small pieces of bark sold for orchids to mulch my potted plants. They look great and don’t attract pests.
HOW TO WATER CONTAINER PLANTS
Before we look at different ways to deliver regular water to your container plants, let me just say that the size of your container will have an impact on the frequency with which you need to water. The soil in smaller containers will dry out faster than in larger ones, but overall, containers need to be watered more often than in-ground beds and raised beds.
Check the soil moisture in your container gardens frequently. During dry, hot periods, you might find yourself needing to water as often as every day.
Let’s look at three great watering options for your container garden.
Watering Option Number One: GrowOya
If your container is large enough, you could grab a small GrowOya and plant it in the center of your container. Arrange your plants in a circle around the GrowOya. This is a great way to give plants the deep watering right at the root zone that keeps them super happy; it also prevents overwatering since the roots only take up as much water from the porous vessel as they need.
All you have to do is keep the vessel filled with water, which means adding more water every couple of days or so. During the long summer, this can save you a lot of time (and water).
Watering Option Number Two: Watering Can or Hose
The reliability of this method all comes down to you, my friend. If you choose to go this route—which involves no setup as long as you’ve got a hose bib and a watering can or a hose with a nozzle—you’ll need to make watering your plants part of your regular routine so that they never get stressed out. I recommend first thing in the morning, if possible.
Aim your water over the plant roots instead of the leaves. A long watering wand allows you to get right to the base of the plants without bending. Water long and deep until water comes out of the drainage hole.
Overwatering does not have anything to do with how much water you pour into a container (assuming water has a way to leave the container through the bottom). Overwatering occurs when you give your plants water too often. This is why it’s important to know a plant’s water preferences and only water when the top of the soil has dried out a bit (how far down depends on the plant, but it’s generally 1″ to 2″). This holds true for your houseplants, as well.
Watering Option Number Three: DIY Drip Irrigation
This option is not the most attractive, but it’s a great way to keep a large container garden watered while you’re on vacation. I’ve left my plants for 3 weeks at a time and returned to find them thriving and clearly in love with the deep, consistent water from the soaker hose.
You’ll need four things to set up an automated drip irrigation system: a regular garden hose, a soaker hose, landscaping pins, and a watering timer. Attach the timer to your hose bib and set it to run for about 10 minutes every couple of days (the exact duration and frequency will depend on your climate).
Attach the regular garden hose to the timer and run it to where your container garden is. Group your containers in a long line or clump and then thread the soaker hose throughout your contain garden. I like to loosely wrap the base of each plant and then hold the hose in place with landscaping pins. Connect the open tip of the soaker hose to the garden hose. (Quick tip: Place plants that need the most water near the beginning of the soaker hose, where the pressure might be highest.)
Set this system up at least a week before you plan to leave so that you can run a couple cycles and observe whether your plants’ watering needs are being met.
HOW TO FERTILIZE CONTAINER PLANTS
Plants grown in containers lose nutrients quicker than those planted in larger spaces. If you’re just growing herbs or leafy greens, you can add some compost and/or worm castings every couple of months.
If you’re growing flowers or fruiting plants in your container, you’ll need to put a bit more effort into maintaining the nutrient level in your garden. Start with all purpose granules like MicroLife Multi-Purpose organic fertilizer when you’re planting. After four to six weeks, switch to liquid fertilizer. MicroLife Maximum Blooms is a great option for fruiting and flowering plants. Make sure to follow instructions on the fertilizer label.
LETTUCE HELP YOU GROW
Home gardens don’t have to take up a ton of room to be productive and beautiful. With proper care, you’ll soon be pulling your first harvests from your container garden.
The best part is your little container garden can actually become a small ecosystem that supports local wildlife, especially our pollinators! We need so many more of these gardens, especially in urban areas, so send this to all your friends along with pics of your new container plants.
Let us know what questions you have about container gardening. We love helping you set up your own growing spaces and become confident home gardeners. If you’re ready to set up your garden for the next growing season, now is the perfect time. Click here to start growing with us!