How to Create a Container Garden

6 Simple Steps to a Great Container Garden

container plants

The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

Growing plants in containers offers many benefits and there might be circumstances in which it's the only way to achieve success. For instance, if garden soil is poor or doesn't drain well, containers allow you to create the ideal soil conditions plants require.

Containers offer you the flexibility to move them around to take full advantage of sunlight. If your yard is deeply shaded, sun-loving plants might be still an option because you can move a container into the sun. Container gardening also offers some design options not found in other forms of gardening—particularly window boxes and hanging baskets.

Growing plants in containers is not quite the same as in-ground gardening, however, so here are a few special techniques in order to do it successfully.

Pick the Right Time of Year to Plant a Container Garden

Container gardens are generally planted about the same time as in-ground gardens—after the danger of frost has passed in spring or before the last hard frost in the fall. You might be able to plant a bit earlier in spring because container soil warms up faster than garden soil in the spring. Thus, a container garden can extend the growing season. However, 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


  • Container with adequate drainage holes
  • Window screening or landscape fabric to cover drainage holes
  • Plants with the same growing requirements
  • Potting mix
  • Time-released or granular fertilizer
items for growing a container garden

The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy


  1. Assess Sunlight

    It's possible to grow a gorgeous container garden even if your yard receives very little direct sunlight. You can also grow spectacular containers if your yard is bathed in sunlight all day long.

    The first step is to accurately assess how much sunlight is available in order to choose the right plants for your container garden. It is quite common for gardeners to grossly overestimate the amount of sun an area receives per day so its important to be somewhat accurate in your estimations.

    To calculate how much sun an area receives, go outdoors several times a day to observe the area where you plant to locate your containers. It helps to take timestamped photos of the area several times per day to record how many hours of direct sun or shade the area receives.

    Measure sunlight at the time of year when you will be planting your container garden because sun angle makes a difference. The sun angle during the winter months is not the same than it is in the summer months and nearby deciduous are not leafed out in winter. The total daily hours of full sun, dappled sun, or shade an area receives determines the plants that will grow well under those conditions.

    assessing sunlight

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

    Gardening Tip

    Every plant requires some of amount of daily sun. A plant that requires "full sun" requires a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Full sun vegetables require up to 10 hours or more. A plant that requires "part sun" or "part shade" needs four to six hours of sunlight per day. Plants that require "full shade" are likely to do well with three hours of sunlight per day.

  2. Choose a Container

    Almost anything can be turned into a planting container provided it has adequate drainage holes. However, remember that the larger the container is, the more soil it will hold. And the more soil, the more water is retained and available to your plants.

    Small containers 10 inches or less in diameter dry out very quickly in hot and dry spells, and though some plants don't mind dry conditions, most plants become stressed when they dry out. Stressed plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases. In other words, there are advantages to using the biggest containers possible.

    When purchasing a container, make sure it has adequate drainage holes; if not you must create drainage holes. A large container should have at least one drainage hole one inch in diameter—and preferably several holes. If the container doesn't have enough drainage, you can usually drill, punch out, or use a pointy tool to pierce some extra holes.

    Self-watering pots are great because they contain a water reservoir system to provide a constant source of moisture to roots without any intervention from you other than to keep the reservoir filled with water.

    choosing containers

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  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 same kind of soil found in garden beds. More properly called potting mix, this sterile growing medium 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 (including pathogens and insects) and other minerals generally found in garden soil.

    Do not buy topsoil or garden soil for your container gardens, and don't dig soil from your garden beds. . Most gardeners 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-released fertilizer already blended in. It is fine to choose either fertilizer-enhanced or plain potting mix, but this might reduce your regular feeding schedule, which is usually every two weeks.

    potting mix for sale

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  4. Choose Plants Wisely

    Once you've determined how much sunlight an area receives, selected a container, and purchased or made a potting soil mix, now the fun begins—choosing your plants.

    If your container design calls for various kinds of plants, make sure that all of the plants you purchase have the same requirements for sunlight, type of soil and moisture. In other words, purchase plants that play well together.

    You can do your research to learn about container design philosophies and concepts, A general rule of (green) thumb is for container to have one plant that is just as tall as the container (a thriller) surrounded by mid-sized filler plants (plants with a full, mounded growing habit). To complete a balanced look, include low-growing or vining plants that spill over the sides of the container to soften its edges. This design concept is called "thriller, filler, and spiller".

    Also, don't be afraid to design a container with only one fabulous plant, or several plants of one variety. Many great container gardens use just a single plant variety.

    choosing plants

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  5. Plant the Container

    Oddly, this is the easiest part of the whole process and probably takes the least amount of time. Once all your material is in place (container, soil, plants, fertilizer), it's time to plant.

    1. Cover the container drainage holes with a small piece of permeable window screening or landscape fabric to keep soil inside the container and keep out insects. The material you choose must allow water to drain freely from the container.
    2. Fill the container with potting mix to within one to two inches of the top of the container. Miix in fertilizer, carefully following directions for exact measurements (this is particularly important if you are using conventional fertilizers, which can burn the roots of your plants if you over-use it). An organic all-purpose, granular fertilizer is usually a good choice. Make sure to mix well.
    3. 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 drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. If it's stuck, run a knife around the pot, between the soil and the plastic. If you find that a plant is root- bound, make sure to gently tease apart the root system after you extract the plant from the pot. Arrange the plants in the container, keeping in mind the direction from which the container will be viewed (from the front, rear, or from all sides).
    4. Dig a hole for each plant just deep enough so that the plant will be at the same depth it was growing in its nursery pot. Don't cover the plant crown (where the stem meets the roots) with soil. Read plant labels to make sure you leave enough room for plants to reach their mature size. Your container might initially look sparse, but it will fill out.
    5. Fill in around your plants with potting soil, . Make sure to achieve good contact between roots and the soil and press down around each plant to remove air pockets.
    6. Water gently and generously until the water flows out the bottom of the container. After the first watering, you might need to add more potting soil to account for settling.
    planting the container

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  6. Tend the Plants

    Maintaining a container garden is a mostly a matter of watering correctly and providing adequate food—at the right time and with the right amount water and fertilizer.

    As a rule, potting mix should be kept damp but not wet. To determine soil moisture, stick your finger down to the second knuckle into the soil. If the soil still feels moist, don't apply water.

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

    Depending on the climate in your area and how high temperatures reach, you might have to water them more than once per day in the heat of summer, especially if containers are ten inches or less in diameter.

    Regular feeding won't be required if you have added fertilizer to the potting mix when you planted the container. If you did not add time-released or granular fertilizer to the potting mix, follow the feeding schedule recommended for containers, usually once every two weeks with a diluted solution of water soluble fertilizer.

    Be aware that nutrients leach from containers every time they are watered. Thus, container-grown plants require more frequent feeding than plants do when grown in a garden bed.

    tending to container plants

    The Spruce / Letícia Almeida

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