How to Start a Container Garden

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I’m going to tell you everything you need to know and more about how to start a container garden. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to gather your materials and start planting!

Gardening is a fun hobby! It can also be quite productive when growing your own food as well as culinary and medicinal herbs. Being able to supplement your dinner with a salad you’ve grown yourself is an amazing feeling, and it tastes better than store-bought!

You don’t need any previous experience or expensive equipment to get started container gardening. In fact, containers are a great way to get started in gardening. You can learn about the plants you’re growing and have them anywhere you want them!

Small container garden attached to a wall.

What is a Container Garden?

Container gardening is growing plants in containers instead of in the ground. The containers can be any size as long as it provides an enclosed space for the plant to grow. There is usually little to no contact between the soil in the container and the ground.

Why Should I Start a Container Garden?

Ok, we know what container gardening is, but why should you bother with it? The pros far outweigh the cons on the reasoning why.

Not Enough Room – Maybe you don’t have enough space in your yard to actually dig up an in-ground bed. Do you have an in-ground pool that you just don’t want to get rid of? Plant a container garden around it on the concrete.

Indoors – Perhaps you want to grow something inside. With enough light (be it from windows or grow lights), water and fertilizer, you can grow pretty much anything indoors.

Container garden on an apartment balcony.Apartment – Do you live in an apartment? Use your balcony or patio as a place to set up your container garden. No balcony or patio? See #2 above for indoor growing!

Overwintering – Some plants like peppers can survive the winter if you bring them indoors. You can’t bring in plants that are in the ground. Plant them in containers and bring them in when the weather turns cold to continue your harvest.

No Weeding – One of the best things about container gardening is the fact that you have no weeds growing around your plants. Unless your containers are collecting weed seeds from the air, or birds are depositing them in the container, you shouldn’t have to worry about weeding your container garden.

Control Soil-Borne Pests – Pests in the soil (such as nematodes) can often destroy your plants from the root. In a container, there’s nothing to worry about!

Overcome Soil Issues – Pests aren’t the only thing that can do harm to your plants from the soil. The soil itself can spread disease to your plants. There’s little to no chance of that in your container garden.

Gardening for Beginners – Maybe you are brand new to gardening and want to learn small scale. Container gardening is a great way to dip your toes into the gardening pool without jumping in cannon ball style! (Also, be sure to check out these great tips for beginner gardeners!)

Additional watering may be necessary for plants in container gardens.Supplemental Growing – You could already have a huge garden plot and raised beds galore, but you still feel like you want more plants! Containers are a great way to supplement your gardening efforts and maximize your yield.

There are surely more reasons to grow in containers, and I’m positive you’ve thought of at least one I’ve missed. Feel free to leave me a comment and tell me why people should be container gardening.

In the meantime, let’s look at the cons of container gardening.

  • More Frequent Feeding and Watering – You’ll need to fertilize and water your container garden more often than a traditional bed.
  • Smaller Amounts Grown – You won’t get the same high yield of produce with a container garden.

But if those are the only cons to gardening in containers, it wouldn’t (and doesn’t) stop me!

How to Start a Container Garden

Aside from the desire to grow your own food or some really pretty flowers, what do you need to start container gardening?

Find a Workspace

Let’s face it, while gardening may be fun, it is also messy business! Find yourself a good spot in which to work with your plants and soil so when that mess is made, it is easily cleaned up.

If you work in the grass or in another bed, you can simply leave the soil where it falls. When working on a harder surface, you might want to scoop the excess soil up and add it back to the pot or put it back in the bag for your next planting.

Feeling really creative and productive? Build your own potting bench! Epic Gardening has FREE plans for 65 different DIY potting benches for you to choose from.

Do you have somewhere to store bags of compost, fertilizers, tools and spare pots? Trust me when I say you will find yourself accumulating such things over time!

Workspace and tools are required to start a container garden.

What Tools Will I Need?

When starting a garden with containers, it is not essential to go out and buy lots of stuff (tools, containers, plants, fancy gizmos, etc), although a good set of gardener’s tools and a watering can will always serve you well. You can just put those on your wish list. In the meanwhile, just use your fingers and a recycled milk jug if you need!

Don’t be afraid to ask friends, family and neighbors for any old pots and containers they might have, and also to save seeds for you. You’ll be surprised just what you might end up accumulating with this method when starting a garden!

 

What Container Types and Sizes Should I Use?

Various sizes, shapes, and materials of containers can be used to start a container garden.One of the best things about your containers when starting a garden like this is that you don’t have to use containers specifically designed for planting. Your containers can be literally anything. If it can hold soil and you can punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage, then you’re in business!

Obviously, the size of your containers will depend on what you intend to grow in them. The larger the plant, the larger the pot you will need. If you are growing multiple smaller plants, you can plant them together in a large container, as well. Just remember that if you have to move the containers around at all, the larger the container, the harder it will be to move.

Bonnie from The Not-So-Modern Housewife has some great information on how to select containers for your container garden.

Should I Put Anything in the Bottom of My Containers?

Ballast is the stuff you put in the bottom of your pot. There are a number of things you could put in your containers as ballast.

Is it totally necessary? No. But if you’re planting lots of smaller plants in larger containers, it will definitely save you a ton of soil.

  • Recycle – Use empty water bottles, soda cans, or packing peanuts.
  • Natural – Add sticks, rocks, or pinecones (just realize what may break down and lower the soil level over time).
  • Inserts – You could put some of these planter lift inserts inside your containers, or you could make your own using these plastic plant saucer drip trays.
  • Favorites – Some of my favorites include sweetgum balls (because there’s no other use for the annoying little suckers) and lava rocks.
Planter lift inserts can be used as a ballast in your containers.
You can find these plant lifter inserts on Amazon and at Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Adding a ballast to your container will reduce the amount of soil you need to use. Be sure you’re using enough soil for the type of plant you put into that pot. You don’t want a root system that runs out of room to grow.

After you’ve put your ballast into your growing container, I would recommend adding a layer of weed barrier fabric. This will keep the soil mix from falling down between the cracks, but still allow excess water to drain.

Potting Mix and Soil

This is the one area where a lot of people argue. Some people will tell you that you need a very specific type of potting soil while others will tell you, “Any soil will do” for your container.

That cheap bag of dirt at the home goods store? It’s cheap for a reason. It has little to no nutritional value for plants. You can use it, but be prepared to add fertilizer, compost and other additives to enrich the soil.

If you have access to a local compost heap (or even a friend who has a compost pile), good, rich compost will be great for your plants! Mix it with equal parts vermiculite (or perlite) and peat moss (or coconut coir) and your plants will love it! The nutrients in the compost will feed your plants while the vermiculite and peat moss will help retain enough water for the roots without the fear of root rot.

One of the biggest questions I’ve heard is “Can I reuse container garden soil?” The answer is yes, you can, but you’ll need to add nutrients to rejuvenate the soil. Some people recommend boiling the soil or using hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the soil, thus making sure any disease or pest problem is taken care of prior to reusing the soil for new plants. Then mix the old potting soil with some new mix, and throw in a handful of an organic, all-purpose fertilizer.

What Can You Plant in Your Container Garden?

Seeds

Seeds can be purchased online, from catalogs, garden centers, and even dollar stores. If you are planning on keeping some seeds from your crop to grow the following year, then you might want to consider buying heirloom seeds.

Hybrids don’t always produce well in subsequent years if they produce at all! Those that do are very likely to be nowhere near as good, or as high yielding as the original plant. Sometimes you don’t even get the same variety of fruit.

If you do start from seed, be sure you’re not overcrowding the container. Follow the directions for each type of seeds to ensure you’re planting them far enough apart. Thin seedlings out that end up too close together.

Plant starts can be a great way to start a container garden.

Plant Starts

Personally, this is the way I would go for larger plants (like tomatoes and peppers), but for smaller crops (like radishes and chives) you could “dust” the surface of the soil with the seeds and then lightly sprinkle a thin layer of soil over that.

You can even start your own seeds in seed starting trays, and then transplant them into the containers as plant starts.

Katie uses plant starts for growing tomatoes in grow bags.

What Herbs are Good for Container Gardening

Herbs in general are relatively easy to grow in containers. You can grow herbs in containers for an indoor kitchen garden or a patio garden just outside of your kitchen. Ease of access from your food prep area to your herb garden will make adding fresh herbs to your cooking much easier!

  • Our sage is doing wonderfully in our container garden.Basil is one of my favorite herbs to grow in containers. It grows quickly, and if you keep it trimmed (and use those trimmings when you cook), the plant will become short, full and bushy with lots of side-shoots full of leaves.
  • Chives are probably my favorite herb overall! They do great in containers or in the ground, and they grow so prolifically when you keep them trimmed. I love fresh chives in pretty much any savory dish.
  • Mint will completely take over your garden, so containers are a great way to keep them in check. This is one herb that could seriously become a problem if not tamed in a container!
  • Oregano can be very prolific, so containing it in a pot is a great idea. A container will be completely full of oregano in just a season.
  • Parsley is another great example of an herb you can grow year-round in containers. Plant them in 4-6″ pots, keep them in temperatures between 50-90°F, and water generously in the summer months.
  • Rosemary, when planted in the ground and left to its own devices, can and will grow into a huge bush after a few years. Growing rosemary in a container and keeping it pruned will keep the size down, and the new tips growing are tender and delicious.
  • Sage is a must in my container garden. It’s always nice to have fresh sage for holiday cooking, and it grows very well in a container.
  • Thyme is a lot like oregano in that it will fill a pot in a matter of a season. It is an herb that you could grow in a hanging basket and let spill over the sides (kind of like Creeping Jenny).

What Vegetables are Good for Container Gardening

You don’t need a fancy container garden vegetable planting guide to know what vegetables do well in containers. Given the right size pot, you can pretty well grow any vegetable in a container garden. Just remember to keep them watered and fed!

CropMinimum Container SizeContainer DepthPlant SpacingRecommended Varieties
Beans, bush2 gal / 3 plants8-10″6-8″Bush Blue Lake, Pinto, Kidney, Lima, Navy
Beans, pole5 gal / 2 plants12-16″3-4″Kentucky Wonder, McCaslan, Blue Lake
Broccoli5 gal / 1 plant12-18″12″Early Green, Calabrese, Waltham, De Cicco
Carrots5 gal / 12 plants12-18″2-3″Danvers, Nantes, Chantenay, Tiny Sweet
Collards3 gal / 1 plant12-18″12″Georgia Southern, Vates, Top Bunch
Corn, sweet15 gal / 6 plants12-16″4-6″Trinity, Silver Queen, Sweet Riser, Early Sunglow
Cucumbers5 gal / 1 plant12-18″12-16″Space Master, Straight Eight, Boston Pickling
Eggplant5 gal / 1 plant12-18″18-24″Black Beauty, Florida Market, Ping Tung
Kale3 gal / 1 plant12-18″12″Tuscan, Winterbor, Lacinato (Dinosaur)
Lettuce2 gal / 1 plant6-8″4″Tom Thumb, Salad Bowl, Buttercrunch
Mustard2 gal / 1 plant8-10″2-6″Florida Broadleaf, Tendergreen, Mizuna
Okra3 gal / 1 plant12-18″6-10″Clemson Spineless, Emerald, Cajun Delight
Onions, bulbing2 gal / 1 plant12-18″4″Granex (yellow)
Onions, bunching1 gal / 12 plants6-8″1-2″Evergreen, White Lisbon
Peppers3 gal / 1 plant12-18″12″Banana, Jalapeno, Habanero
Potatoes5 gal / 3 plants12-18″8″Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold, Gold Rush
Potatoes, sweet5 gal / 1 plant18-24″10-12″Centennial, Beauregard, Vardaman
Radishes2 gal / 12 plants6-8″1-2″Cherry Belle, White Icicle, Sparkler, Daikon
Spinach2 gal / 3 plants4-6″3-5″Melody, Bloomsdale Londstanding, Tyee
Squash
7 gal / 1 plant
18-24″
24-36″
Summer: Summer Crookneck, Black Beauty Zucchini
Winter: Spaghetti, Waltham, Butternut, Table King & Queen
Swiss Chard1 gal / 1 plant10-12″4″Bright Lights, Fordhook Giant, Red Ruby
Tomatoes
5 gal / 1 plant
18-24″
18-24″
Small: Sweet 100, Tiny Tim, Sun Gold, Black Cherry, Spoon
Determinate: Early Girl, Patio, Celebrity
Indeterminate: Better Boy, Beefmaster
Heirloom: Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter
Turnips1 gal / 1 plant12-18″2-4″Purple Top White Globe, Tokinashi
Watermelon5 gal / 1 plant18-24″24-36″Sugar Baby, Mickeylee, Crimson Sweet, Charleston Grey 133

Tessa from Homestead Lady has some suggestions of four annual vegetables to grow in containers.

Kathi from Oak Hill Homestead also has some great ideas for vegetables you can grow in containers.

What Fruits are Good for Container Gardening

Strawberries growing in our container garden.

Again, depending on the size of the container, you can grow pretty much any kind of fruit in a container garden (except for big trees, of course). In fact, you can grow smaller trees like Meyer lemons and Key limes in pots!

  • Blueberries – You can start your blueberries in 5-gallon containers. Within a couple of years, you’ll need to put them into larger pots. You’ll need 2-3 plants for pollination.
  • Grapes – Find yourself a 15- to 20-gallon pot that is sturdy for grapevines. Something at least 16″ deep and 18″ wide should suffice.
  • Raspberries – A half-barrel container that is 24″ to 36″ deep and wide would be best. These will allow plenty of room for new canes to grow.
  • Strawberries – You’ll want no more than 3 plants per square foot of container size. Strawberries will spread and the shoots will root, as well.
  • Watermelon – Yes, you can even grow watermelons in containers! Just remember to never let the soil get completely dry!

How to Care for Your Container Garden

Watering Your Container Garden

The most important thing for you to keep in mind when container gardening is the watering aspect. In-ground gardens don’t have to be watered as frequently as container gardens due to the sheer volume of soil that surrounds the roots. Potted plants, on the other hand, need to be monitored daily.

Keep a good check on the soil in your containers. You may have to water every day or two. Don’t let them dry completely out!

Feeding Your Plants in Containers

When it comes to feeding, there are a couple of “rules” to follow.

  • Use fish emulsion to feed seedlings for your container garden.During the seedling stage, Fish Emulsion is a great way to get your plants off to a healthy start. Once your seedlings are 12-14″ tall, you can start with other fertilizers.
  • Plants harvested for their leaves (lettuce, kale, cabbage, etc) will need more nitrogen. Feed with a fertilizer like blood meal (NPK 12-0-0).
  • Plants harvested for their fruits (tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc) will need more phosphorous. Feed with a fertilizer like bone meal (NPK 3-15-0).
  • You can supplement with Seaweed Extract for overall healthier plants.

Feed regularly every two weeks or so following the directions on the fertilizer bag.

Additional Reading: 8 Reasons Why Plants Love Cinnamon – Feathers in the Woods

Root Bound Plant Fix

If you’ve got lots of plants in containers, inevitably, you’ll have one that gets root bound. Being root-bound means the roots have all formed into a dense, tangled mess that gives no room for continued growth. These plants will eventually die if not up-potted.

Some people up-pot their indoor plants every year, and some of your outdoor plants may need the same treatment if they’re perennials. Annuals shouldn’t give you much trouble because they’ll die by the end of the season.

To Fix a Root-Bound Plant:

  1. Prepare the new container – Get yourself a container one to two sizes larger than your current container. Lay in your ballast or a layer of potting mix.
  2. Prepare the plant – If there are roots that have grown through the drainage hole of your container, you’ll need to trim those. Then carefully remove the plant from its small container. Loosen the roots by gently brushing against them with your fingers to remove any dirt. You may need to gently rinse the roots, as well.
  3. Re-pot your plant – Move your plant to a new pot with fresh potting soil. Give it a good watering, and it’s ready to grow!

Frequently Asked Questions About Container Gardening

When should I start a container garden?

You can start your container garden at any time! It all depends on what you intend to plant in your containers. Check your seed packets for when the seeds should be started, start them inside, and as they get close to being ready to transplant, get your containers ready with soil and nutrients. Then, you’re ready to transplant when the plants are ready!

How do I protect my container garden from animals?

If you’re having animals dig in your containers, I recommend placing a layer of chicken wire or one of these plastic grid protectors on top of the soil around the plant. If animals are actively eating your plants, a net covering or a chicken wire dome (or even a metal waste basket from the dollar store) should do the trick.

What do I do with my container garden in the winter?

If you have annual plants that can be overwintered inside your home, bring them in and let them continue to grow. If you have annuals that will need to be replanted next year, remove all the plant material, dump the soil mixture into a large tote with a lid, and bring everything inside for the winter.

Can I use 5-gallon buckets as a container garden?

Absolutely! Just be sure the buckets are clean, made of food grade plastic so nothing harmful leaches into the soil, and you drill holes in the bottom for good drainage.  Linda from Food Storage Moms has a great article on how to garden with 5-gallon buckets!

Use 5-gallon buckets to start a container garden.

Can I use bags as a container garden?

Many people already use bags of all shapes and sizes as plant containers! Grow bags such as these, reusable grocery bags, and even old dog food bags can all be used to grow plants.

Is there a way to put my container garden on an automatic watering system?

Sure! There’s no reason in the world why you couldn’t set up an automatic drip irrigation kit to keep your containers appropriately hydrated.

What are some good container gardening books?

Check out Kevin Espiritu’s Field Guide to Urban Gardening and Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible. These are great books from a couple of guys who are highly knowledgeable about gardening!

Where can I put my containers?

You can put your containers anywhere that gets an ample amount of sunlight for the plants you have growing in them. Your deck, patio, balcony, raised beds or in-ground garden are great locations!

What are some good container garden plant combinations?

Now we’re being productive! Companion planting in containers is a great idea! If you have a large container (like the cattle mineral buckets Living Traditions Homestead uses in their greenhouse), you can plant a tomato plant, a pepper plant, onions, garlic and basil together. Smaller containers can be done much the same way. You’ll have to get creative when companion planting in containers so you don’t overcrowd the plants.

What containers are best to grow vegetables?

That all totally depends on what you’re growing in them. The material can be anything, but the size is dependent on the root system of the plant.

What are some cheap containers for container gardening?

You can grow in literally anything. 5-gallon buckets, ice cream pails, milk jugs and trash cans are just a few everyday items in which you can grow a container garden!

Did you start a container garden recently?

Feel free to tag us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with pictures of your container garden!

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21 thoughts on “How to Start a Container Garden”

  1. Really nice in-depth article on container gardening. I like the info on filling your pot prior to adding your soil mix. “…Some of my favorites include sweetgum balls (because there’s no other use for the annoying little suckers)…” this made me laugh out loud!! I also love the info on feeding your plants. Good to remember!!

    Reply
  2. My neighbor has a container garden started for this season. I’m not much of a gardener but maybe his container garden will inspire me to do one next year

    Reply
    • Try it! Start with one, learn how to do it with that plant, then double your containers each time! Eventually, you’ll have a virtual container garden jungle!

      Reply
  3. I wish this post was around several months ago. You shared some great tips. I purchased a few bags of CHEAP SOIL from Dollar Tree several months ago to start my apartment herb garden venture. The soil generated so many flies and moths that eventually got into my pantry and had a feast. Lesson learned: stick to a better quality soil like Miracle Grow Soil.

    Reply
  4. So many useful ideas here! I don’t grow hardly any plants in containers at the moment, but I’d like to try some herbs, after reading this.
    Do you find you have to spend a lot of time watering containers? As they dry out more quickly than planting straight into the ground?
    Thank you
    Pippa

    Reply
    • They do dry out a lot faster in containers, so we end up watering our containers every single day from mid-spring to mid-autumn. Well worth it, though!

      Reply
  5. I have become more interested in keeping herbs in pots so I can have them all year round. This is a really helpful guide. Thank you for the information! I’m going to save it for future info.

    Reply
    • We’re doing that this year with basil, oregano and chives. Growing them in containers outside so we can bring them inside when it gets cold. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Sold my old house on about 3 acres and am currently in a rental! About the only way to go is container gardening, but it works out wonderfully. Thanks for sharing all the tips and tricks 🙂

    Reply

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