How to Start a Container Garden

container garden with vegetables

Are you a green thumb living in a concrete city? Start a container garden. Is your yard too small for a traditional garden? Start a container garden. 

You can enjoy just about any plant in your container garden, including juicy cherry tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and soothing lavender. So gather up your hanging baskets, ceramic urns, and plastic pots, and let’s get gardening. 

What is a container garden?

A container garden is a garden grown in containers. It’s an excellent way to exercise your green thumb if you don’t have a yard or enough space for a traditional garden. 

Your container garden can be a beautiful arrangement of terra cotta pots or a spunky display of rainboots sprouting daffodils. As long as the container holds soil, drains water, and has enough space for the roots, you can grow plants in nearly anything. 

Container gardens can have different uses, too. Maybe your container garden only grows toppings for your veggie pizza. Or perhaps you want an herb garden for the kitchen. Decorative flower pots never hurt either. You can have your pick among a variety of plants, including: 

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Herbs
  • Flowers
  • Succulents
  • Non-flowering plants
  • Trees and shrubs

How to build a container garden

various container gardens made of wood planks
Shadowgate | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

It doesn’t take much to build a container garden. Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • Plants with similar sunlight requirements
  • Containers with drainage holes
  • Permeable landscape fabric or window screening 
  • Potting mix
  • Garden trowel
  • Water
  • Slow-release fertilizer

Step 1: Pick your containers

It’s time to get those creative juices flowing. Will your container garden feature masterful pottery or have a thrifty, second-hand vibe? Will you use small pots, large pots, or a mix of both? Whether you’re growing petunias in clay pots or window boxes, the right container should have the following: 

  • Drainage holes 
  • Enough space for the roots to grow
  • No history of holding toxic chemicals

Caution: If you need to drill drainage holes in your container, do so with care. 

When choosing your container, remember to consider its weight (which includes the soil and plants). The great thing about container gardens is that they’re portable. If you don’t like your container garden’s current spot, you can easily move it. But if the container is large and heavy, it may be challenging to relocate it. 

Another factor to consider is the container’s material. Material often affects the container’s weight, durability, and ability to retain the soil’s moisture. 

MaterialTraits
Terra cotta pots (clay)–Porous and dry out quickly;
frequent watering may be necessary
–Although sturdy,
they can break if dropped
–May chip or crack
when exposed to freezing
and thawing temperatures
–Excellent for drought-tolerant
plants and keeping roots cool
Metal pots–Offer an industrial look
–Can heat the soil and
damage the roots. 
Concrete pots–Are weather resistant 
–Can be used for
year-round container gardening
–Heavy and difficult to move
–Provide good soil insulation
Cloth pots–Are an excellent choice
for limited storage space
(they fold flat)
–Help prevent overwatering
–Typically made of flexible,
lightweight polypropylene blends
Plastic–Durable
–Frost resistant
–Lightweight
–Keeps soil moist
–Dark colors plastic
may heat the soil
Wooden pots–Have a beautiful,
natural look
–Prone to moisture
problems. Install a sheet of
plastic inside the pot
to protect the wood

Step 2: Find a location

This part is easy. Most plants don’t grow well in the shade, so look for an area that receives plenty of sunlight. You’ll also want to find a location where your container garden can be the main attraction. 

Once you’ve found a sunny spot, keep track of how many hours of sunlight it receives a day. Don’t guess; otherwise, you’ll probably overestimate. 

The total hours of sunlight will help you determine which plants will grow best in that location. 

Step 3: Choose your plants

various plants and flowers in separate containers
Lori L. Stalteri | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Container gardens come with a whole catalog of plant choices. But there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing your green friends: 

  • Don’t mix and match sun requirements. The plants you grow should be compatible with the location’s daily hours of sunlight. 
  • Don’t mix invasive plants with other plants. Invasive plants are competitive and will weaken plants they share a pot with. 
  • Take note of your container’s size and the plant’s expected root growth. Growing plants with vast root systems will be challenging if you only have small containers.
  • Consider companion planting. When growing near each other, some plants benefit one another while others are better off not growing together. For example, some gardeners choose not to interplant onions and beans because onions stunt the growth of beans. (Interplanting is the practice of planting different crops between one another). 
  • When growing traditionally large plants, such as trees or shrubs, grow cultivars specific to container gardening.  

Pro Tip: A popular flower arrangement involves a “thriller, filler, and spiller.” The thriller is a tall focal point that grows from the container’s center. Fillers are mid-sized, mounding plants surrounding the thriller and hiding the soil. Spillers are typically trailing vines that cascade down the container’s sides. 

Step 4: Buy potting mix

Next, you need to buy your potting mix. In most cases, an all-purpose potting mix will work just fine. But if you have a plant that requires excellent drainage or a specific pH level, use a potting mix that satisfies your plant’s particular needs. 

When shopping for your potting mix, avoid grabbing a bag of potting soil. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing. 

Potting soil may or may not contain soil, while potting mix contains no soil. Potting mix is sterile, which means it won’t introduce fungi, diseases, or other pathogens to your container plant. 

Step 5: Cover the drainage holes

You don’t want soil draining out of your container garden after each watering. Cover the drainage holes with permeable landscape fabric or window screening to help filter out the water. 

Step 6: Add the potting mix and fertilizer

Fill your containers with potting mix within 1 inch of the container’s top. Next, stir slow-release fertilizer granules into the potting mix, referring to the product’s directions for measurements. 

Step 7: Install the plants

Next, remove the plants from their nursery pots. Gently tease the roots if they’re entangled together. 

Dig holes in the soil large enough for the roots. Settle in the roots and cover them with soil. Arrange the plants however you like. 

Step 8: Water the garden

Give your plants a housewarming gift with a nice drink of water. You’ll know you’ve quenched their thirst once the water starts spilling out of the drainage holes. 

If you notice the soil sinks and settles below 1 inch from the container’s mouth, add more soil. 

Maintenance tip: Container gardens often dry out quickly, especially on hot summer days. Depending on the container’s size and material, you may need to water multiple times a day. You can test the soil’s dryness by pressing your index finger 2 inches into the soil. If the soil is dry, it’s time for another watering. 

Step 9: Maintain with regular feeding

The potting mix will quickly lose its nutrients to hungry plants and water drainage. To keep the plant well-nourished, add liquid or water-soluble fertilizer once a week at a diluted concentration. 

What plants can grow in a container garden?

A container garden may fit in small spaces, but that doesn’t mean your plant options are small. A container garden can grow a variety of plants, including: 

Vegetables

vegetables garden in a raised bed
normanack | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Ready to try vegetable gardening in your apartment complex? These veggies grow well in container gardens:

  • Bell peppers
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Chard
  • Chili peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes 
  • Zucchini

Fruits

ripe strawberries in a container garden
Ewen Roberts | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

You may not be able to grow a giant fruit tree. But if you stick with cultivars specific to container gardens, you can harvest some delicious fruits, including: 

  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Lemons
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

Herbs

4 herbs in a small wooden container garden
Oregon State University | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Growing an herb garden in your kitchen is a great way to inspire new recipes. Here are some savory herbs for your containers: 

  • Arugula
  • Basil
  • Lemon balm
  • Mint 
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme

Flowers

young girl using a phone to taker a picture of a pink flower in a container garden
Kelly Sikkema | Unsplash

A container garden can add beautiful charm to your landscape or front porch with the right flower arrangement. Make a splash with: 

  • Chrysanthemum
  • Coreopsis
  • Foxglove
  • Geraniums
  • Hosta
  • Lavender
  • Marigolds
  • Petunias
  • Primrose

Succulents

succulents in a small container
leoleobobeo | Pixabay

Succulents are easy on the eyes, and they’re easy to maintain, too. Consider the following for your container garden: 

  • Agave
  • Aloe vera
  • Donkey tale
  • Ghost plant
  • Hens and chicks
  • Jade plant

Non-flowering plants

non flowering plants in a container
daryl_mitchell | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Adorn your containers with stunning foliage with these non-flowering plants: 

  • Autumn fern
  • Caladium
  • Croton
  • Dallas fern
  • Lady fern
  • Sunset fern

Trees and shrubs

potted hydrangea next to a house
Jason Bachman | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Create a stunning showstopper by growing a small tree or shrub in your container garden. Remember, you’ll need to plant a cultivar specific to container gardening. Here are some options: 

  • “Blue Star” juniper
  • Boxwoods
  • Hydrangea
  • Japanese maple
  • Olive tree
  • Rhododendron
  • Roses
  • Starry magnolia

What are the advantages of a container garden?

Sure, growing a garden out of beautiful (or spunky) containers is fun, but what are the advantages of gardening this way? Here are some benefits that make container gardening so favorable: 

✓ It’s an easy DIY gardening project.
✓ It’s a helpful option for gardeners living with little to no yard space.
✓ Container gardening is budget-friendly.
✓ Container gardens can enhance the beauty of your landscape.
✓ The garden is portable, which means you can shake things up with ease.
✓ You can make your container garden easily accessible for plant picking.
✓ The right arrangement can minimize back and knee bending during maintenance.
✓ A container garden has less potential for pest and weed damage than a traditional garden.
✓ The potting mixture is easier to control than in-ground garden soil.
✓ You can grow your container garden just about anywhere, as long as your plants receive enough sunlight. 
✓ You can rearrange plants whenever you feel like it.
✓ Competitive plants with invasive qualities grow well in a container garden because they can’t disturb other plants.
✓ Container gardeners are easier to maintain than an in-ground garden. 
✓ Depending on the plant type, you can bring your container garden indoors.
✓ Old objects can be recycled and turned into containers, such as milk jugs, tubs, and wooden half barrels.

What are the disadvantages of a container garden?

Despite its many advantages, a container garden does have a few drawbacks: 

✗ Proper irrigation may prove challenging. Containers can dry out quickly, which leads to frequent watering. Or, if drainage is poor, the containers may become waterlogged and harm the plants. 
✗ Although container gardens can grow many plants, they can’t grow all of them. Some plants will have more success in an in-ground garden. 
✗ If you wish to grow giant vegetables for your county fair competition, a container garden is likely not the way to go. 
✗ You might not be able to produce certain plants without a large container.

FAQ about container gardening

1. How do I care for my container garden in winter?

As the temperature begins to drop, your container garden may need a little help to prepare for winter. The best winterization regime will depend on the plant you’re growing, but here are a few general tips to keep in mind: 

Move tender trees, shrubs, and vines indoors. 
Hardy potted plants can remain outdoors, such as evergreens. 
Cover outdoor plants with cloth or burlap at night. Be careful not to damage the plant. 
Transplant perennials to a garden bed or bring them indoors. Another option is to bury the container in the ground. 
Toss annuals –– they won’t be returning next spring. 

2. Can I grow plants from seed in a container garden?

Growing plants from seed can be a fun option for your container garden. Who doesn’t get a kick out of watching their green babies sprout? 

Growing seeds is ideal if you want a plant that doesn’t transplant easily, such as carrots or beets. On the other hand, opt for a nursery plant if you have a short growing season or want to enjoy your plant right away.

3. Can gravel at the bottom of the container help with drainage?

Improving a pot’s drainage with a bottom layer of gravel is a gardening myth. Here’s why: 

Soil retains moisture like a sponge, which means it doesn’t begin to release any water until it’s fully saturated. As the soil absorbs water, the water collects near the soil’s bottom, right above the gravel. The soil won’t release any of this settling water until the soil is completely saturated. 

Filling the bottom of the pot with gravel results in a smaller container. The roots will have less room to expand. The roots also will be closer to the collection of water at the bottom, increasing the chances of root rot. 

If the pot didn’t have the gravel layer, the roots would have more space to grow, and the moist soil would be further away from the roots. 

Highlight your garden with pristine lawn care

A carefully arranged container garden can boost your curb appeal. But it won’t make much of an impression if an overgrown, patchy lawn is stealing the show. Hire a local lawn care professional to rev up the mower, edger, and weed eater so your container garden can start turning heads. 

Main Photo Credit: Markus Spiske | Unsplash

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.