How to Start a Container Garden

White and clay pots holding potted flowers and plants for container garden

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 - 2 hrs
  • Total Time: 1 - 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $40 to $100

Container gardening is not particularly hard. You need only four things: a container, plants, soil, and water. On the surface, it is not that different from gardening in a typical landscape garden bed. Many of the same flowers and vegetables common in a garden can also be grown in containers. Before you get started on your container garden, here are some tips to help you to keep your plants alive and looking their best. 

Why Start Container Gardening?

There are many reasons why container gardening might make sense for you. For instance:

  • You can control the soil mixture, allowing you to grow plants that might not be suited to your natural garden soil. Tropicals, succulents, and other specialized plants can easily be grown in containers even if they wouldn't thrive in your soil or region.
  • You can move containers around, in effect "remodeling" your landscape whenever the mood hits. Containers can be moved around to take advantage of shifting sun patterns. 
  • Prized plants can be moved indoors when the weather gets cold. 
  • Container gardening allows that green thumb to thrive even if you live somewhere without a yard. Apartment dwellers can still garden!

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Gardening trowel

Materials

  • Potting mix
  • A variety of containers
  • Plants of your choice

Instructions

Materials and tools to create a container garden

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  1. Choose the Right Soil

    A common mistake of container gardening starts with the soil. Some people think that they can dump ordinary soil from the outdoor garden into a container to grow plants. In reality, it's best to use a specialized potting mix in your containers, not garden soil you dig up from outdoors. Once you decide what kinds of plants you want to grow, research the best soil mixture for that plant and use it. Local garden centers or home improvement stores sell a wide variety of soils and potting mixes.

    Filling a large container with soil can be expensive. If you are planting a tree or large shrub in a big urn, they need plenty of soil for the roots to expand. However, if you are planting flowering annuals with shallow roots, you can save money by adding "filler" to the bottom of the container. Use inert materials that will still promote drainage like crushed aluminum cans, non-biodegradable packing peanuts, or plastic bottles. Lay a piece of landscape cloth over the filler and top with potting soil. This will save money and lighten the weight of the container if you plan to move it around.

    Fertile soil mixture poured into clay pot next to potted plants and flowers

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  2. Choose the Right Containers

    The options for planting containers are nearly limitless. All it depends on is your imagination (and your budget). Don't overlook containers that can become hanging baskets.

    Don't overlook "found" objects around the house. Many ordinary objects, ranging from whiskey barrels to teacups, can be used as containers for plants. Make sure there is proper drainage in the container and that the soil mixture is appropriate. Be aware that the smaller the container, the less potting mix it will hold. This makes it more critical that the soil moisture level remains correct since you'll have less room for error. 

    Stacked clay and white pots placed on table top for planting

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  3. Ensure Good Drainage

    People usually worry about keeping their containers well-watered, but it can be just as big a problem to overwater them. Plants, too, can drown. Ensuring that your planters have good drainage may be the single most important thing you can do to make your container gardens healthy and long-lasting.

    Plastic pots are more prone to drowning plants than are clay pots. That's because clay "breathes" while plastic is impervious to evaporation. Whatever pot material you choose, make sure it has proper drainage holes (or add some), so the water doesn't pool in the bottom of the pot.

    White plastic pot lifted to show drainage holes before planting

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  4. Select the Best Plants for a Container Garden

    The plants for container gardens can be practical (vegetables and herbs) or simply decorative like a living floral arrangement. Do you want something harmonious or dramatic? When selecting plants, think about texture, size, color, and care. When it's time to select plants, consider the following:

    Light: Vegetables and herbs need six to eight hours of sunlight each day to thrive. For decorative container gardens, choose plants that all have similar light requirements. Don't try to mix shade-loving plants and full-sun plants in one container.

    Water Requirements: Cacti and ferns in a container could be a disaster. One needs very little water and the other requires constant humidity.

    Small flower plants added to clay pot next to herbs, and cacti

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  5. Explore Examples

    A great way to get ideas for your container gardens is to look at pictures online, container gardens in your neighborhood, and home and garden magazines. You can get a lot of inspiration for plant combinations and color schemes by seeing other gardener's successes. Talk with experts at your local garden store or your gardening neighbors. They can help you create a container garden that works for your space and budget.

    Stack of planting books placed near potted plants

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Watch Now: 8 Mistakes You're Making in Your Container Garden