Container Gardening

If you don't have space for a garden or you live in an apartment, or you rent and can't dig up the yard for a garden, or your soil is terrible or you have limited mobility due to a physical condition then consider using containers! The options are endless, requiring only a container, good growing conditions and lots of care. The containers used for gardening must provide drainage and adequate room. Recommended containers vary, providing a number of aesthetically pleasing options. Some suggestions are: pots, wastebaskets, buckets, waterproof bushel baskets, crates with black plastic with a few holes for drainage and washtubs. One unusual example of an great container is a 24-inch washtub with holes punched in the bottom for drainage. This container will hold: 25 bean, beet, spinach, leaf lettuce, or turnip plants, 18 endive or Swiss chard plants, 50 dwarf carrots, radishes, or bunching onions, and one cucumber, tomato, or squash. If you have limited time container gardening can be perfect because each container doesn't require as much effort as a large garden plot. Container gardens are portable (for those plants such as rosemary which need to come in every winter), and can be easily rearranged to 'resculpt' your garden should you so desire. If you don't have a patio, balcony, or other space for your contained garden consider the use of window boxes (inside or outside) or hanging baskets.

Obviously not everything that can be grown in a large container (such as dwarf fruit trees) is suitable for these containers, but herbs, some fruits (such as strawberries), and some vegetables (lettuce, perhaps a bean plant, a dwarf pepper plant) will grow in these containers. Avoid containers with narrow openings. Cheap plastic pots may deteriorate in UV sunlight and terra-cotta pots dry out rapidly. Glazed ceramic pots are excellent choices but require several drainage holes. Avoid using black containers in full sun. Wooden containers are susceptible to rot. Redwood and cedar are relatively rot resistant and can be used without staining or painting. Avoid wood treated with creosote, penta or other toxic compounds since the toxins are taken up by the plants and then by you when you eat them. One advantage of wooden containers is that they can be built  to sizes and shapes that suit the location as well as the physical limitations of the gardener. For instance if you are in a wheel chair or have a bad back. A tall container would bring the soil surface to a workable height. Wooden containers are porous and provide some insulation for soil temperature but can be heavy. Choose containers between 15 and 120 quarts capacity. Small pots restrict the root area and dry out very quickly.

The size and number of plants to be grown will determine the size of the container used. Deep rooted vegetables require deep pots. Make sure your pot has adequate drainage. In a large container your holes should be 1/2 inch across. Line the base of the pot with newspaper to prevent soil loss. In hot climates use light-colored containers to lessen heat absorption and discourage uneven root growth. Set containers on bricks or blocks to allow free drainage. Line hanging baskets with sphagnum moss for water retention. Keep baskets away from afternoon sun. If you choose clay pots, remember that clay is porous and water is lost from the sides of the container. Plants in clay pots should be monitored closely for loss of moisture.

Don't forget that one way to increase space when you garden in a container is to go vertical. There are special stands that you can buy (or make) that sit firmly in one container and contain either a hook or a fitted space to put another container in. You can also put a trellis behind your container to allow things that need to climb someplace to go. Another way to go vertical: nestle containers on the steps of a freestanding stepladder. 

Second consideration is soil, this is just as important as regular plot gardening. Make sure your planting medium drains rapidly but retains enough moisture to keep the roots evenly moist. Compost will make an excellent addition to potting soil, while it is better to make your own, you can purchase bags of compost at a garden supply center. Outdoor garden soil compacts easily, thus inhibiting root growth. If soil borne diseases are a problem in your area, consider a "soilless" potting mix. In addition to draining quickly, "soilless" mixes are lightweight and free from disease pathogens and weed seeds. These mixes can be purchased from garden centers as well. However, be careful not to use peat or pearlite alone. By themselves, these media tend to become compacted, too lightweight, and hard to wet. You may also consider adding water-absorbing polymers or "gel" that absorbs and retains up to 400 times its weight in water. Polymers are nontoxic and last for a number of years before breaking down in the environment. A great soil mix that I have had success with:

5 parts pine bark fines (1/2 inch size pieces or smaller)
1 part sphagnum peat
1-2 parts Turface or perlite
Garden lime (or gypsum)
Controlled release fertilizer (optional)

When you add your soil to your container, leave a 2 inch space between the top of the soil and the top of the container. You will be able to add 1/2 inch or so of mulch later. Gravel, Styrofoam peanuts or pottery pieces can be placed in the bottom, but are NOT a substitute for drainage holes. Most soil mixtures become compacted and root-bound over time. It is best to replace containers with fresh soil mix at least once a year or every other season. But don't throw it out, I add mine to my compost pile and recycle it. Follow the planting directions in seed catalogs or on seed packets to calculate the number of plants per container. It's usually best to place tall plants in the center or towards the back and smaller plants along the sides. Place a tray underneath the container if seepage will stain your deck or patio. Containers should not rest in standing water for long, as roots may begin to rot. Try partly filling the catch-tray with gravel and resting your container on it; it will help keep it out of standing water.

Is the sun coming from the north, south, east or west? A northern exposure produces the lowest light intensity. Although it is bright in the morning, there is never any direct sun on your plants. An eastern exposure produces some direct sun in the morning, but overall light is gentle. A southern exposure has light that is bright and long-lasting in the summer and direct in the winter. Western sun is harsh and hot. As a general rule, leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce can tolerate the most shade, while root crops such as beets and carrots will need more sun. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers need the most sun.

Since potting mixes drain water rapidly, fertilizer will be washed out of the container as you water. Lighter mixes will require more frequent fertilizing than heavier mixes. It's a good idea to use a dilute liquid fertilizer with every other watering. Liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed are great plant boosters, but remember that you need to provide your plants with a variety of nutrients. Check the labels on the products in you garden center to be sure that they contain a complete, balanced solution that includes trace elements.

The biggest reason for disappointment with container gardening is lack of water. Your pots will dryout faster than a garden plot. It is easy to underestimate how much water containerized plants will need in the heat of the summer. Water until it runs out the bottom and then allow to dry somewhat before you water again. You can kill with kindness by overwatering as well. To determine when to water, just stick your finger into the soil. Terra cotta (clay) containers and alpine troughs dry out particularly quickly because they wick water out of the soil through the side of the pot. Count on more frequent watering for these. Also the smaller your container, the more often you'll have to water. I really like the self watering pots. There is a reservoir on the bottom that has a wick in it. As long as I keep the reservoir full, the soil can draw water up through the wick. Just about every kind of plant can be grown in a container with exception of large trees. Many vegetables grow well in limited space and some varieties have been developed specially for this reason. Some of the best choices are salad vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and watermelons. Herbs make excellent container plants as they will grow outside in the summer and indoors in the winter. Here are some suggestions for herb gardens:

Salad Bowl- A half-barrel makes an excellent salad bowl. Cut and use herbs frequently and fertilize often. Suitable selections for your salad bowl include: Parsley, Chervil, Borage, Burnet, Sorrel, Calendula, Cilantro, Chives, Basil and Arugula.

Cook's Cupboard- Try planting a window box with a selection of your favorite culinary herbs. Try these favorites: Marjoram, Rosemary, Sage, Parsley, Basil, Tarragon, Chives, Thyme.

Medicine Chest- Try growing medicinal herbs in a strawberry pot. Aloe Vera, Sage, Chamomile, Thyme, Calendula, Feverfew. Wild Strawberry, Mint and Lemon Balm are all useful herbs.

Tea Pots-Use individual pots to hold a selection of leaf teas. They can be moved around easily or brought inside. Try Mint, Lemon Verbena, Chamomile, Sage or Lemon Balm.


Growing herbs indoors is a little trickier than growing them outdoors. Indoor plants need a lot of light; most of them will prefer a good 6-8 hours of natural sunlight per day, so try to position them near windows or under skylights. Watch that they aren't near a radiator or heating duct though; for some reason, there is always a heater below the windowsill you want your plant on! Plants near a heater are bad news (trust me) as they will dry out very easily and even frequent watering won't solve the problem.

Plants like their foliage to be moist (or at least, not to dry out) and heaters seem to dry it out too much. Right by the stove or oven is usually too dry a place as well.

Most herbs prefer humid surroundings, so if the air in your house is dry, keep a little water mister nearby and use it regularly. One of the best places for culinary herbs is your kitchen windowsill, where they'll get some sunlight and will be near the tap to be watered regularly. If they're near the sink, try giving them excess water from cooking, etc - wait until it's cooled down first, though! Herbs like their water to be close to room temperature - don't give them freezing water in a hot room.

Herbs which can be grown indoors include mint, basil, lavender, scented geranium, sage, rosemary, chives, sage, lemon verbena, thyme, parsley, marjoram.


More than most plants, citrus are prone to deficiencies of the micronutrients iron, manganese, and zinc. Inadequate amounts of any one of them will cause leaves to yellow while veins remain green. Therefore it is a good idea to apply these to citrus, especially those that are grown in containers at least once a year. Look for them in the "chelated" form which makes the micronutrients more accessible to citrus roots. The best time is in early spring just as new leaves are beginning to emerge.



"Good gardening is simple really. You just have to think like a plant"








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