Cheat Sheet for Container Gardening

If you are like me, you love to sit outside with friends and family and enjoy your outdoor spaces. One of the best ways to pretty up your porch or patio is with potted plants. But, if your gardening skills are like mine, you may not know how to create a beautiful collection of foliage and flowers.

Below are some tips and suggestions that I have cultivated from various sources on how to achieve great results with container gardening.

Choose the Right Container First

Make sure to pick the right vessel since, according to The Spruce, each type of container has pros and cons:

  • Clay or terracotta containers are attractive but breakable and easily damaged by freezing and thawing. In Northern areas, most need to be stored in a frost-free location to prevent cracking and are not suitable for hardy perennials or shrubs that will be kept outdoors year-round.
  • Cast concrete is long-lasting and comes in a range of sizes and styles. These can be left outside in all weather. You can even make attractive ones yourself. Plain concrete containers are very heavy, so they are difficult to move and not suitable for using on decks or balconies. Concrete mixed with vermiculite or perlite, or concrete and fiberglass blends, are much lighter. For a lighter pot with a concrete look, go with hypertufa.
  • Plastic and fiberglass pots and planters are lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and available in many sizes and shapes. Choose sturdy and somewhat flexible containers and avoid thin, stiff ones — they become brittle with cold or age.
  • Containers made of polyurethane foam weigh up to 90% less than terracotta or concrete containers, yet they look remarkably like their much-heavier cousins. Polyurethane foam containers resist chipping and cracking and also insulate roots against both hot and cold temperatures, making them a good choice for potting plants that will stay outside year-round.
  • Wood is natural-looking and protects roots from rapid temperature swings. You can build wooden planters yourself. Choose a naturally rot-resistant wood such as cedar or locust, or use pine treated with a preservative. (Don't use creosote, which is toxic to plants.) Molded wood-fiber containers are sturdy and inexpensive.

Drainage is Vital

Ensure your containers have the appropriate drainage because, states The Spruce, quite often too many garden pots that are sold simply don't have enough drainage. You can often increase drainage, by drilling, punching or carving bigger holes. However, sometimes it's just easier to buy a pot that does have enough drainage. The minimum size for a drainage hole is 1/2 inch in diameter for small or medium-sized pots. For larger sized containers, look for at least an inch in diameter.

It is a myth that by adding gravel, pot shards, or stones to the bottom of your container garden, you will increase drainage. Some people even say you don't need drainage holes if you put these things in the bottom of your pots. Unless you’re a really attentive container gardener, who can water perfectly, or you have a plant that likes wet soil (and there are some that do), you need holes in your pots -- preferably lots of them.

Deciding What to Plant

Sometimes the hardest part is deciding what you want to plant and what type of container to use. Good Housekeeping has the following recommendations:

• Use single, large containers for outdoor decoration, but also consider arranging groups of pots, both small and large, on stairways, terraces, or anywhere in the garden.

• Clusters of pots can contain a collection of favorite plants — hen-and-chicks or herbs used both for ornament and for cooking, for example — or they may feature annuals, dwarf evergreens, perennials, or any other plants you'd like to try.

• Houseplants summering outdoors in the shade also make a handsome addition to container gardening. Window boxes and hanging baskets offer even more ways to add instant color and appeal.

• One easy guideline for choosing the plants to combine in a container is to include "a thriller, a spiller, and a filler." That translates to at least one focal-point plant (the thriller), such as coleus or a geranium with multicolored leaves, for example, combined with several plants that spill over the edge of the pots — such as petunias, bacopa, creeping zinnias, or ornamental sweet potatoes. Finally, add the fillers, which are plants with smaller leaves and flowers that add color and fill in the arrangement all season long. Good fillers include salvias, verbenas, ornamental peppers, and wax begonias, as well as foliage plants like parsley or licorice plants. You may also want to include a plant for height, such as purple fountain grass. Add a trellis or pillar to a container and you can use a vine to add height to the composition. You'll need a total of five or six plants for an 18- or 24-inch container, for example

The Spruce suggests that when you are choosing plants for your container make sure that they will play well together. This means that all the plants in one pot should all require the same amount of light and moisture. If you combine plants with different needs, some of them will not thrive. So, for example, if you have a plant that requires full sun, you want all the plants you choose for that pot to also require full sun. If you have a plant that likes to dry out between waterings, you don't want to put it in a pot with plants that like it wet. To find out what a plant requires, either check the plant tag or if there isn't one, ask a salesperson. If all else fails, try to look it up on the internet.

Planting your Containers

When it comes to planting the containers with your chosen plants, flowers and herbs, follow these steps, provided by, when you are ready to plant:

1. Regardless of what you are planting (as stated earlier) you always want to make sure that there are enough holes in the bottom of the container to allow for proper drainage.

2. Next, fill your container with a high quality, organic potting mix. Then plant your transplants or seeds accordingly in your container.

3. Make sure your plants are secure and covered with enough soil to keep the roots fully covered.

4. You can also mix in an organic fertilizer at the time of planting transplants to replenish any nutrients they may have lost while planted in such a small container. You can mix in a granular fertilizer into the soil around the plant, and then water.

5. Fertilizing frequency depends on the type of plant you are growing. Plants, like tomatoes, tend to be heavy feeders, and naturally require more nutrients. Research how often you should be fertilizing your plant of choice.

6. Once your plants are nice and cozy in their container home, you’re finished! Make sure to water regularly and feed, according to schedule.

7. You’ll want to keep an eye on the roots in your container garden. Sometimes, a plant can outgrow the container in which they are planted. When this happens, they can become root-bound, which restricts the amount of nutrients the roots can absorb. You will know when this is happening, because the plant will easily slide out of the container, and the roots will be wound around each other very tightly. If your plant becomes root-bound, do not fret. Simply buy a larger container, and replant it in its new home.

Now you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits, and flowers, of your labor.


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