Container gardening is often easier and just as rewarding as gardening in the ground. You can focus your attention on just those plants you’ve chosen to grow. Containers tell you where to weed, what needs protection, and what needs feeding and watering. They’re mobile, you can shift them in and out of the sun as needed, into shelter during cold spells or exceptionally hot days, or move them as needed to create decorative focal points and centerpieces.
However, gardening in containers also presents a number of challenges. In fact, I once heard another gardener describe container gardening as torture for plants. Imagine what it’s like to be confined in a tiny space when your roots are used to having room to roam, wandering off to discover moisture and nutrients in unexpected territory. It must be disheartening to find yourself jammed into a planter with no where to go.
Whether you’re growing a kitchen garden, herbs, flowers, or all of the above, there are a number of things you can do to help your plants feel at home in a pot and even thrive. It starts with the plants you’re growing (or hope to grow) and the home you give them.
If you’re wondering what to grow, I always say start by growing the plants you love. If it’s basil, grow basil. If you love cosmos, grow cosmos. In fact, it’s possible to grow nearly any plant in a container given the right container. But to make things easy, look for varieties that are suited to your climate and also ones designed for containers, such as plants described as dwarf, patio, or micro (like the ‘Babycakes’ blackberry from Bushel & Berry above). Sometimes plant tags and seed packets even have an icon showing which plants are container friendly.
Not All Containers are Created Equally
Terra cotta pots are porous, they breath well and generally have excellent drainage. However, for all those same reasons, they also quickly wick water away from soil. This is perfect if you’re growing plants like rosemary and other water wise or Mediterranean plants, but it’s not ideal for plants that require regular water. Consider wood, glazed ceramic, or even an upcycled trash can for water loving plants, and give plants the largest container possible. Many succulents, lettuces and strawberries, and herbs like cilantro grow well in shallow containers (about 8” to 10” deep), but most other plants prefer more room to grow.
Start with the best possible soil for the greatest chance for success. Look for an organic potting soil that contains ingredients such as compost, coconut coir, worm castings, perlite or rice hulls, and pine bark. Potting soils are designed to support plants with an immediate source of nutrients while being high in organic matter, allowing for drainage while holding moisture. (Together coconut coir and compost hold more moisture than peat and they’re far more sustainable.) Top dress soil with coarse compost, bark, or even pebbles and plan to refresh or completely change out container soil at least once a year and your plants will thrive.
Fertilizing for Success
Liquid fertilizers like homemade manure tea, compost tea, or tea made from worm castings are all excellent for container gardens. Fish emulsion is another great choice, though stinky (which is important to keep in mind if you plan to fertilize and care for your garden before a dinner party, have curious pets, or if you’re tending to indoor plants). Working manure and other solid/granular fertilizers into soil tends to make soil more dense, which is already a common problem when growing a garden in planters. Liquid fertilizers feed plants while maintaining light, airy soil.
Plants grown in containers need to be watered more frequently than plants grown in the ground. You may water in-ground plantings once every few days but find you need to water containers every day or even twice a day depending on the weather. Keep an eye on plants and check soil often to make sure plants are getting enough water but not too much. If soil is dry an inch or more down it’s probably time to water. When you water container plantings, water until you see water draining from the bottom — the goal is to water all the way through the root zone. Consider self-watering planters, ollas, and other systems like a drip system on a timer to make the job of watering easier.
Good drainage is key. Plants need water, but most plants don’t like sitting in water. Make sure the containers you’re using have adequate drainage. If drain holes are too large, cover them a coffee filter or loosely layered large stones to keep soil from washing away with each watering.
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