How To Grow a Basic Container Garden

6 Simple Steps to a Great Container Garden

Container plants


Jennifer Cheung / Getty Images

Gardening outdoors in containers rather than in the ground offers many benefits, and there may be circumstances in which it's the only way to successfully garden. When you have poor garden soil, for example, containers allow you to create an ideal soil to grow plants. And containers can be moved around to take full advantage of sunlight patterns in your yard. If you have a deeply shady yard, sun-loving plants may be still an option, since you can move a container around through the day to grab the spots of sunlight that are usually present. Container gardening also offers some design options not found in other forms of gardening—think window boxes and hanging baskets.

Growing plants in containers is not quite the same as in-ground gardening, however, so you will need to learn some special techniques in order to do it successfully.

When to Grow a Container Garden

Container gardens are generally planted about the same time as in-ground gardens—after the danger of frost has passed. However ,you may be able to cheat the planting season forward slightly, since soil in pots will warm up faster than ground soil in the spring. This can make for a longer growing season. But just be ready to cover the containers or move them indoors if an overnight cold spell threatens in the early spring or late in the fall.

Project Metrics

 Working Time  1 hour
 Total Time  1 growing season
 Material Cost  $10 to $100 (depending on choice of plants and container)

What You'll Need

Equipment/ Tools

  • Garden trowel


  • Planting pot
  • Window screening, paper towel, or coffee filter
  • Potting mix
  • Granular fertilizer


  1. Assess the Available Sunlight

    It's possible to grow a gorgeous container garden even if you have very little sun. You can also grow spectacular containers if you are drenched in sun all day long. But it all starts with accurately assessing how much sun is available for your container garden in order to choose the right plants. And be aware that it is quite common for gardeners to grossly overestimate the amount of sun that an area gets.

    Start by using a watch or a sun calculator to determine much direct sun your containers will get. You need to do this close to the time of year when you are going to plant, because in the depths of winter the sun is in a different place than in the summer. The amount of sun your pots get will determine what plants will grow well for you.

    Basil in a Garden Pot
    Basil as an Ornamental in a Urn

    Photograph © The Spruce/ Kerry Michaels

    Gardening Tip

    A plant that is specified for "full sun" will require a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day. For "full sun" vegetables, it is more like 10 hours or more. A plant that lists its requirements as "part sun" or "part shade" will require three to six hours of sunlight per day. Only plants specified as "full shade" are likely to do well with less than three hours of sunlight each day.

  2. Choose a Container

    Almost anything at all can be turned into a planting container. However, remember that the larger the container is, the more soil it will hold. And the more soil there is, the more easily nutrients and water are retained and delivered to your plants and the less frequently you will have to water.

    Small pots dry out really fast, and though some plants don't mind getting dried out, most of them do and are stressed by drying out. Stressed plants are more liable to be susceptible to pests and diseases. In other words, there are big advantages to using the biggest pots possible.

    When choosing a container, make sure it has enough drainage or that you can add drainage holes. A large container should have at least one hole that's at least 1 inch in diameter—and preferably several holes. If you don't have enough drainage, depending on what your pot or container is made of, you can usually drill, punch or pound extra holes.

    Self-watering pots are great because they automatically water plants, usually using a reservoir system.

    Spray Painted Basket
    Spray Painted Basket, Container Garden

    Photograph © The Spruce/ Kerry Michaels

  3. Buy (or Make) Potting Mix

    While the growing medium used for container gardens is often called potting soil, it actually contains no soil at all—at least not the kind of soil found in the ground. More properly called potting mix, this is sterile growing medium that contains a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, such as peat moss, perlite, compost, sand, and other ingredients. What is notably missing are the living organisms (incliuding pathogens) and other random minerals generally found in garden soil.

    Do not buy topsoil or garden soil for your container gardens, and don't try to dump some soil from your garden into your pot—you will be disappointed. Most people buy commercial potting mix by the bag, but it is also possible to make your own potting mix by blending peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, and well-decomposed compost together in an even ratio. (There are any number of homemade recipes for potting mix you can find online.)

    Commercial potting mixes sometimes include time-release fertilizer blended in. It is fine to choose either fertilizer-enhanced or plain potting mix, but this may change your ongoing feeding schedule as the container garden grows.

    potting soil
    Coast of Maine Potting Soil

    Photograph © The Spruce/ Kerry Michaels

  4. Choose Plants

    Once you've determined how much sun you have, chosen your pot and gotten your potting soil, now the fun begins—choosing your plants.

    First, make sure you are limiting your choice to plants that meet the sunlight conditions of the spot where you'll be growing the container. If you are planting a mixed container, make sure that all of the plants you buy have not only the same light requirement, but the same water requirements, as well.

    There are many container design philosophies, but the idea of a using a "thriller, filler and spiller" approach is great for beginners. Also, don't be afraid of putting only one fabulous plant, or several plants of one variety, in your pot. Many great container gardens use just a single plant variety.

    Container plants
  5. Plant the Container

    Oddly, this is the easiest part of the whole process and probably takes the least amount of time. Once you have your plants, potting mix, and fertilizer collected, cover the bottom drainage hole with plastic screening, a paper towel or a coffee filter, so the soil will stay in and water can drain out.

    Fill the container with potting mix to within 1 to 2 inches of the top. Now, mix in fertilizer, carefully following directions for quantity (this is particularly important if you are using conventional fertilizers, which can burn the roots of your plants if you over-use). An organic all-purpose, granular fertilizer is usually a good choice. Make sure to mix it in well throughout the pot.

    Carefully take your plants out of their nursery pots. To do this without harming the plants, turn the pot upside down and push the plant out through the holes. If it's stuck, run a knife around the pot, between the soil and the plastic. If you find that your plant is root- bound, make sure to separate roots after you extract the plant from the pot. Arrange the plants in the pot, keeping in mind which direction your pot will be facing.

    Dig a hole for each plant, deep enough so that the plant will be at the same depth it was growing in its nursery pot. Don't cover the crown (where the stem meets the roots) of the plant with soil, and leave enough room so that water won't splash out of the pot.

    Fill in around your plants with potting soil, again being careful not to cover the crown. Make sure there is soil surrounding the plants roots and that there aren't air pockets.

    Water gently and generously, until the water flows out the bottom of your pot. After the first watering, you may need to add more potting soil, if holes or depressions appear.

    planting a container

    Photo © The Spruce Kerry Michaels

  6. Tend the Plants

    Growing a container garden is a mostly a matter of watering correctly—at the right time and with the right amount. As a rule, the potting mix should be kept damp but not wet. To determine this stick your finger down to the second knuckle into the soil. If your soil still feels moist, you probably should wait to water.

    Watering is particularly tricky because your pot will dry out faster on sunny days, and wind can suck moisture out of a pot. On cloudy or damp days your pot might not dry out. That said, it's easy to be fooled by a gentle rain, which often leaves a container garden relatively dry.

    Depending on where you live and how hot it gets, you may have to water a couple of times a day in the heat of summer, especially if your pot is small.

    Feeding needs will be fairly minimal if you have added fertilizer to the potting mix at the time of planting. Follow whatever feeding schedule is recommended for the plants you're growing. But remember, because pots get watered a lot, nutrients tend to leach out rather quickly. Potted plants may require more feeding than they do when planted in the ground.

    MInt plants in strawberry pot
    Mint in a Strawberry Pot

    Photo © The Spruce Kerry Michaels

Article Sources
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  1. Drought and Water Stress. Missouri Botanical Garden