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Container gardening is an easy way to grow vegetables, flowers, and even some shrubs and trees, and it’s a perfect alternative to an in-ground garden. It’s also a great option for newbie gardeners or people who’d like to expand their green thumbs, but just don’t have the time for a traditional garden.
As with in-ground gardens, the secret to successful container gardening is to apply a few gardening basics aimed at creating a healthy environment for your plants. In this guide to container gardening, I’ll give you some simple tips to help you master your own containers.
Regardless of past gardening experiences, the first thing you’ll want to do is take a few moments to plan out your garden.
Think about the type of plants you’d like to grow and whether or not they’ll need sun or shade, or a mixture of both. Then, take a look at your available space. Will the light conditions match the plants’ needs or will you need to move your plants to follow the sun?
Consider watering. You’ll want to place your containers where they’ll be easily reached by a hose, or close enough that using a watering will not become burdensome.
If you’re thinking about a prefabricated raised bed, make sure to measure your space for size. And don’t forget about railings. Planters that sit on or over railings make great container beds.
Check your space for windiness and general exposure to the elements. This will help steer your decision on the type of container to choose.
Lastly, if you’re new to gardening, are a concerned brown thumb, or just simply have a harried schedule, I would encourage you to start small, expanding as you master your gardening skills.
When it comes to containers, the possibilities are endless and can range from the simple to the complex. Really, anything that can hold soil can become part of your container garden. However, before you go out and fill every pot, barrel, tub, or pail in your possession, there’re a few things you’ll want to consider.
Type of Plant
What you’re planting will influence your container choice. Oftentimes, people associate container gardening with veggies and herbs, but there’s no need to limit yourself to edible plants. Annuals, perennials, and even some trees and shrubs can be planted in containers.
However, different plants will have different requirements and you’ll need to take these into consideration.
If you need a little plant inspiration for your container, then check out my post on 28 great container plants. You’ll find something in there to get you started!
With edible crops, veggies with shallow root systems, such as lettuces or radishes, can easily be planted in window boxes or railing planters. On the other hand, larger crops like tomatoes, squashes, or potatoes need larger pots to accommodate their expanding roots.
Think – the larger the plant, the larger the pot. If you’re planning on several different types of crops, it might be worth investing in a raised bed system. Need some extra storage? Pick one that has shelving underneath.
Annuals are not going to be as fussy about their containers. Perennials and shrubs and trees, however, will not die out at the end of the season, so they’ll need pots big enough to accommodate their continuous growth.
And don’t forget about hanging baskets. They can be an ideal option if you have limited space, and not only can they hold beautiful displays of annuals, but they can also be used for some veggies.
Regardless of the plant, your outdoor containers need good drainage. If the container you’ve chosen does not have a drainage hole, you’ll need to fashion one yourself. And make sure to place the pot so the drainage isn’t blocked.
You’ll want to consider the material of the pot. Clay pots dry out faster and will require more frequent watering. Plastic pots, on the other hand, retain more water. Whereas dark colored and metal pots will retain more heat. Eyeing up a windy spot? You’ll need a sturdier pot
If you’re keeping the plant over winter, don’t choose a thin-walled container. And look to one that is non-porous, as porous materials may crack and break with temperature and moisture fluctuations. For more information on containers, check out my post on plant pots.
Lastly, you’ll want to consider aesthetics, especially when it comes to your flowers and shrubs. Displays can range from the opulent to the whimsical, to everything in between. If your imagination needs a little push, take a look at some designs from Garden Design.
Eyeball or measure your area to give yourself an idea of how much space you have to work with. Don’t purchase more plants than you can reasonably accommodate, both space-wise and time-wise.
If you want your plants healthy and fruitful in their abundance or foliage, you need to make sure the container is large enough to accommodate the plant when it’s full-sized.
Don’t overcrowd your plants by putting too many in one pot. This may stress the plants, as they’ll have to fight for nutrients and water, and will mean more work on your part to keep them healthy.
Your plant may not care if its pot is blue or white or striped, but it will care about the soil it’s in.
There are many choices when it comes to container soil, and although you can certainly make your own soil mixture, if you’re just starting out, buying a commercial product is probably your best bet.
Your soil should have good airflow and good drainage, yet be able to retain enough water to sustain your plants. Do not use garden soil. Garden soil is meant for in-ground gardens and is too heavy for containers.
In general, an all-around container soil will serve you well. If growing edibles, you can look for one specific to vegetables. There are organic options as well.
With perennials and shrubs, you’ll want to add some new soil each year to freshen up the existing soil. Although not a hard and fast rule, many gardeners, especially with edibles, will change the soil each year with annual plants.
If you’ve had any type of problems, such as fungus or insects, or a concern about the soil condition, it’s best to toss out the old and put in fresh. And if you’re changing the type of plant – for example, putting in edibles where you had flowers last year – change the soil. With tomatoes, change the soil each year.
Watering is one, if not thee, most vital task you have when it comes to maintaining your plant’s health. The type of plant, the type of pot, and the weather conditions, will all dictate your watering schedule. In general, plan on watering more often, perhaps even daily, during the peak summer months. Container gardens dry out quicker and require closer water monitoring than in-ground gardens.
As the season progresses, your plants will use up the nutrients in the soil. To keep them lush and full and growing, you’ll want to fertilize them.
Fertilizers can be all-purpose or they can be specific to the type of plant you’re growing. Organic options are also available, which can be ideal if growing vegetables or herbs.
Make sure you’re always following the application instructions on the fertilizer bottle, as over-fertilization can damage, and even destroy, your plants. If unsure, less is more, so dilute the fertilizer even further than the instructions call for.
When it comes to applying fertilizers, you have a couple of options. You can mix in a slow-release fertilizer as you’re filling up your soil, or you can use a water-soluble fertilizer. A slow-release fertilizer will release nutrients slowly over time – usually 30 to 60 days – after which it will need to be reapplied.
Whereas, as the name indicates, water-soluble fertilizer is mixed with water and then applied to the plants. Here, the nutrients are delivered directly to the plant’s roots. Water-soluble fertilizers usually require more frequent applications, but you have more control over the amount of fertilizer released.
Deadhead flowers as the season progresses to encourage blooming and fullness. With some plants, you’ll need to prune any dead or damaged stems.
Although container plants aren’t as susceptible as in-ground gardens, keep an eye out for any signs of disease. Similarly, watch for weeds or pests. Treat or remove any plants showing signs of insect damage or disease.
In general, keep an eye on your plants to make sure they’re progressing as expected.
End of Season
For edibles and annuals, remove any dead vegetation and empty the pot of soil. In a later post, we’ll talk about options for used soil – including reusing. Once emptied, wash out your pots with a 10% bleach solution and let them dry thoroughly.
Storing your pots and containers indoors is best, but if that’s not possible, keep them somewhere they’ll be off the ground and place a waterproof covering over them. This is especially important for containers made of porous materials, such as terracotta or ceramic pots, as moisture can cause these pots to crack or become damaged.
Wood, fiberglass, plastic, or other non-porous materials handle the elements better, but you’ll want to keep them covered or in a low light area, as even the winter sun can cause fading.
Winterizing Plants Outdoors
If your plants will be hanging out through the winter, then you’ll need to provide added protection to winterize your plants. There’re a few options here.
First, if you know your plant will be staying outdoors during winter, it’s a good idea to layer the inside of the pot with styrofoam, before putting in the soil. This will help insulate the plant’s roots. You can also insert a smaller pot into a larger pot for an added layer of insulation.
If you have several plants staying outdoors, you can group them together, placing the cold-hardiest plants around the exterior and the less hardy ones on the interior. Place straw bales around the perimeter, or wrap the group in bubble wrap, old blankets, or some other insulating material.
Pots can be wrapped individually with bubble wrap, burlap, or old blankets. It’s not necessary to cover the plant itself, as it’s the roots you want to protect.
If you live in a moderate or warmer temperature zone that does not have harsh winters, but does experience frosts, cover your plants with burlap or a frost blanket at night when the temperature dips. Remove the covering during the day when the temperature warms so you don’t overheat your plant or cause it to begin budding early.
Plants tend to require less watering during the winter months. If in a more temperate zone, you’ll need to adjust your watering schedule as needed. In colder climes, water the soil enough so that the plant won’t dry out if the temperature rises above freezing. Otherwise, dormant plants don’t usually require any additional watering during the winter.
If you have a tender perennial – perennials that cannot tolerate the cold – the plant will need to be brought indoors. Prior to doing so, move the plant to a shadier area for about a week so it can adjust to the lower light setting.
Well, there you have it, an easy guide to container gardening. Remember, a small space or limited time is no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of gardening. By following this guide, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the benefits of outdoor plants.
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And remember to always have fun when discovering your green thumb!