Container gardening has been one of my biggest requests for blog/guide posts. Although I have touched on it here and there, I have never done a full guide. Today is the day my friends! About time right!?
Today we are going to go through everything you need to know to grow a successful container garden. As a little bonus, I've created a DIY potting soil recipe printable just for you! Add it to your garden planner for a handy reference.
I have always had an element of container gardening since I began gardening. I like the variation that containers add to my gardens, and it is a great way to maximize space. I also like to use containers to test new varieties. Sometimes I don't want to dedicate a large space in my garden to something I haven't tried yet. It's nice to know something grows well in your climate before you dedicate a large growing space to it.
Containers are a great option in these cases. Containers can be a great option in just about any case. Containers have even been used for large scale production such as growing tomatoes in containers in a greenhouse for market.
Most likely if you are reading this you are attracted to container gardening for the ease of care (way less weeds!), and to maximize the space you have. So let's jump right in to container gardening!
Your Complete Guide To Container Gardening
We are going to focus on 4 main points
Assessing Your Location
Before you get started you need to take a look at your proposed site of your container garden. Getting familiar with what it has to offer and any limitations will help you as you make a decision about what containers to use and what plants to select.
Some things to consider:
Choosing Your Containers
I like to use a variety of containers. There are so many options to choose from, and many things that you can repurpose or find from a second hand store.
The most important factors when choosing containers:
1. Size - Make sure your container is large enough to accommodate the root system of whatever you plan to grow. Larger plants have larger roots systems and need larger containers.
Bigger pots also take longer to dry out so they do not need to be watered as frequently.
2. Drainage holes - Whatever you use, make sure that it has drainage holes. Soggy plants are not happy plants. If your container does not have drainage holes you can drill some yourself. Make sure you use the appropriate drill bit for the material you will be drilling into. They make specific ones for different kinds of material.
3. Material - Think back to your location, is your container garden going to get a lot of intense sun? If so, you may want to avoid metal containers which will heat up. The same goes for very dark colored containers. On the other hand, if you live in a cooler climate this can be a benefit to your plants.
Material of the container also plays into the weight of the container. Do you want to be able to move it around easily? Are you planting perennials, or annuals that will need to be moved to a protected environment during the winter?
Is your container garden going to be on a deck where you need to consider all the weight you are adding? Remember, the weight of all the containers and the soil, the daily watering, and even the plants can add up quicker than you think. If you are adding a lot of containers it is definitely something to consider.
What do you have on hand?
First take a look around at what you already have. Chances are you already have some great options. Whatever you find, make sure that there are drainage holes as mentioned above.
We always keep a look out for great containers when we go to second hand stores or flea markets. You can find all kinds of containers there. We like to use galvanized steel troughs. I have about 7 of these throughout our garden and they work great. They come in all different sizes and heights. They are plenty deep enough for plants with large root systems such as tomatoes and potatoes. They would also be great for carrots.
4. Water trays - Some planters come with them, but not all of them. You may want to find one for any repurposed containers.
Water trays are so helpful! Water trays catch all the excess water and hold it for the plant to use in the future as it needs it. This gives you a little protection between waterings. When a plant does not get the water it needs, it becomes stressed and the performance of the plant will decline. If it is really bad the plant will die. Adequate water also helps the plant absorb the nutrients it needs from the soil. Anything we can do to avoid underwatered plants is helpful.
I like to get inexpensive trays from a second hand store to use as water trays instead of the cheap plastic ones you find in a garden center. The second hand option is still inexpensive but it's far more durable.
You can find self watering containers in garden centers and on gardening websites. These planters have a reservoir that holds water so that the plant is able to take up water as needed, similar to a water tray only on a larger scale. Also the reservoir is more enclosed so there is little loss of water due to evaporation.
You may want to consider making you own planters out of hardwood such as cedar or locust. Wood keeps the soil and roots at a more consistent temperature instead of rapid temperature swings that other materials can cause.
Last year I added a container garden to our front yard, and I purchased the black grow bags for an easy container addition. They work, but they are not the most durable. We did have a few rip. One was from a weedwhacker which can not be the fault of the grow bag, but several did rip when we moved them. We (the children) are hard on everything. I'd be shocked if none of them ripped!
That being said, I still think they are a good inexpensive option, and you can always add more permanent containers as you are able or as you find them.
THe Soil Medium
Plain garden soil does not work for containers. Try and use it and you will find that it is just too dense and plants do not perform well in it.
You can lighten your garden soil by adding coconut coir, vermiculite, or perlite, and compost. You have probably seen some of these things in potting mix. The white fluffy stuff is the perlite and vermiculite has a little bit of a metallic appearance to it. They can all be found at your local garden center.
I use organic potting soil for most of my planters. Potting soil is not really a soil as its name implies. In actuality it is a soilless medium that is light and consistent in texture and drains well.
You can make your own planting mix by following one of the super easy recipes below. If you need a lot this is definitely the more economic way to go.
For Vegetable Plants
*Coconut coir is not harmful to the environment like peat moss so that is my preference. In addition, it actually provides small amounts of nutrients to the plants. It also has a balanced ph so you don't need to add lime like you would if you used peat moss. Simple and better for the environment!
Using coconut coir and coconut peat help retain moisture in the soil medium. Coconut coir for example, can hold as much as 8x it's own weight in water. That means your plants get the moisture they need with out becoming soggy.
Download my Simple Potting Soil Recipes printable below. Add it to your garden planner for a handy reference.
Choosing The plants/ Seeds
When vegetable gardening in containers it is generally advised to pick small or dwarf varieties of that which you want to grow for obvious reason. Typically those who are container gardening are doing so because they have limited space. Though this may be typical, and though you need to consider how much space the roots of a mature plant will need, you don't have to choose dwarf varieites. Last year I grew Minnesota Midget cantelope in a container. It spilled over the edge and spread out happily. If you have the room then there is no issue.
This was easily achieved with the cantelope because it could sprawl out. For some varieties such as tomatotes, you may need to provide additional support.
Indeterminate tomates vine out and continue to grow and spread. They would appreciate a tomato cage or a trellis added to the planter.
Determinate tomates on the other hand, keep more of a bush like habitat so they do better without support.
When choosing varieties, consider the space you have available in your growing location, and the space your planter allows for root growth. Aside from that, you want to make sure what you choose is well adapted to your climate and growing environment.
For more in-depth advice on choosing what varieties to plant see my post "How to Choose What to Plant in Your Garden."
Care and Feeding
There are two fertilizers that I always keep on hand to fertilize my container plants.
1. OMRI* approved fish emulsion, in other words, fish poo. You add a little to some water (as per the suggested ratio on the bottle), and mix it all up. Then water as normal. Fish emulsion does not burn plants, so if you accidently give them little too much you don't have to worry about it harming your plants.
Fish emulsion can be used as a foliar spray as well. What is foliar spray you ask? Foliar spray is the quickest and most direct way to get nutrients to a plant. The nutrients are absorbed through the leaf instead of the plant having to pull the nutrients out of the soil, as is the case with applying fertilizer to the soil.
In addition, when the leaves are sprayed, the plant produces carbohydrates which then travel down to the plant's roots and are released into the soil as exudates. The exudates stimulate microbial life in the soil. The microbes in turn produce more nutrients for the plant.
2. Organic E.B Stone Fertilizer - I use the E.B. Stone fruit tree fertilizer for my potted fruit trees, pomegranate, guava, fig, and date palm. Add the fertilizer to the top of the soil as per the directions and gently mix it into the top layer of soil a bit. Then water as normal. The plant do well with this fertilizer.
Their vegetable and fruit tree fertilizers (two seperate fertilizers), are 100% natural and are blended with humic and beneficial microbes including mychorrhizal fungi. Both are super beneficial to your plants.
*OMRI (this means it meets the organic standard and can be used on certified organic crops without losing their organic certification).
1. Seaweed Fertilizer - This can come in liquid, pelleted, or granular form. Seaweed fertilizers are a good source of trace minerals, but they do not have as much Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) as other fertilizers. The really cool thing about seaweed fertilizers is that they contain micro-organisms and alganate. Both of them aid in nutrient uptake and soil structure. This improves overall plant health. The seaweed also contains natural growth hormones which of course helps the plant grow and produce fruit.
Can be used a a foliar spray as well.
The only drawback about seaweed fertilizer is that it is higher in salt, seeing as it is from the ocean. This should not be an issue for your container garden because the excess salt will be washed away in watering. I do think it is worth mentioning though. I don't want you getting carried away with adding it to your garden if you have soil with a higher than normal salt content. Salt can build up in the soil, and it is not washed out as easily as with planters.
2. Compost Tea - Compost tea is made by steeping well-aged compost in water for several days and then removing the compost, leaving a highly nutritive "tea" filled with microbes.
A simple method to make compost tea is to place a healthy shovel full af aged compost in a 5 gallon bucket, and then fill with unchlorinated water. Let the compost soak for several days, being sure to stir the bucket several times a day. After several days have passed, strain the tea to remove the solids. Use the tea as needed, diluting it with unchlorinated water until it has the appearance of weak tea.
Can be used as a foliar spray as well.
Consider planting several species in one container such as lettuce with peas. Or adding flowers such a Zinnias. This adds interest to your planters, and the flowers help insure your veggies are well-pollinated.
Last year I grew Purple Sparkle peppers in an elevated container with Minnesota Midget cantelope. The Minnesota Midget looked great spilling over the edge.
Try vertical gardening to increase production in the same amount of space. This can be accomplished by using trellises in your containers or by creating a grow wall.
You could grow beans up the trellis and a small tomato plant in front of the trellis or swiss chard, peppers, cabbage, broccoli...
You can buy prefab grow walls made out of similar material to the grow bags or you can make one yourself like the pallet version seen below created by Abigail Alber.
Just take a look at the darling grow wall she created!
You can find full directions in her post "How to Build a Wall Garden." While you are there you will want to do some looking around and see some of her other great posts. If you have a thing for beautiful farnhouses, she is your girl!
Besides her website, you can also find Abigail on Pinterest and Instagram.
Now that you know what you need for your container garden, it is time to plan. Spring is quickly approaching so get all of your details for your container garden on paper now, and be ready when it's grow time.
Want some extra planning help? Check out my Ultimate Garden Planner and Journal.
What excites you most about container gardening? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Until next time, happy garden planning!
P.S. If you found this post helpful I'm sure you will like my other posts as well. Don't forget to sign up for my mailing list below and never miss a post!
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Hello, I'm Jaci. I look forward to sharing my gardening and homestead adventures to help you reach your gardening goals! If you have any questions then don't be shy, I'd love to hear from you. Send me a message and I will be glad to help!