Container Gardening - How to Start

  • 01 of 07

    Intro to Container Gardening

    Mised Herbs and flowers
    Herb Pots with Flowers. © Kerry Michaels

    Anyone can learn how to container garden. Seriously. I used to be a confirmed slayer of all plants. My thumb was not green, it was a destroyer of green. However, over time I learned how to keep plants in containers alive, at least for the most part. I still do kill plants--on a fairly regular basis--but have come to the conclusion that all gardeners do. It's just part of the deal. A reasonable goal goal, over time, is to kill fewer and fewer plants. 

    For me, the pleasure of gardening far outweighs the inevitable pain of losing plants. One of the ways to achieve this is to take guilt out of the equation of gardening. There is a learning curve and with each failure, if you can take the knowledge and experience from that, it will make you a better gardener. 

    The good news is that there can be huge joy in container gardening even with inevitable plant death.

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  • 02 of 07

    Carefully Assess your Sun

    Birdbath Plant Stand
    A Birdbath can Make a Great Plant Stand. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Here's the thing. You can grow gorgeous container gardens even if you have very little sun and you can grow gorgeous containers if you are drenched in sun all day long (or anything in between for that matter). However, for your container gardens to thrive, much less be spectacular, you need to accurately assess how much sun your pot or garden will get. And here's a warning. If you just guess, or think you know how much sun exposure an area gets, chances are very high that you will be wrong--by a lot. No matter how good a gardener you are, the tendency I have seen again and again (ok, I'm guilty too) is to grossly overestimate how much sun an area gets.

    The first thing you should do is figure out, either by timing with a watch, or using a sun calculator, how much direct sun your containers will get. You need to do this close to the time of year that you are going to plant, because in the depths of winter, the sun is in a different place than it is in the summer. The amount of sun your pots get will determine what you can plant in them. You can't know what will successfully grow, unless you know how much sun the plants will have.

    Making sure a plant has the amount of sun it requires to thrive is critical for any container garden

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  • 03 of 07

    Choosing a Container

    Log Planters with Pansies
    Log Planters. © Kerry Michaels

    Truly anything at all can be turned into a container. Anything from the size of a thimble to a parking lot can be used to hold soil and plants. However, for most plants, the larger (within reason) your container is, the more soil it will hold. 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 completely dried out, most do and are stressed by it. Stressed plants are more  susceptible to pests and diseases so the object is to keep your plants happy. I use the biggest possible pots because I resent being a slave to watering and I want the most latitude for my mistakes.

    When choosing a container, make sure it has enough drainage or that you can add drainage holes. I like to have at least a one inch hole, in a large(ish) container. 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 deliver water to plants, usually using a reservoir system, which also gives great latitude.

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  • 04 of 07

    Get Good Potting Soil

    Large Pot
    Large Pot with Banana Plant. © Kerry Michaels

    It can be confusing because sometimes potting soil is called potting soil and sometimes it is called potting medium, potting mix or container soil or mix. Just make sure whatever you buy is for containers. Do not buy topsoil or garden soil and don't try to dump some soil from your garden into your pot--you will be disappointed.

    Just like anything there are good potting soils and not such good potting soils. However, most will work and for beginners, don't stress too much about it. Over time, you will find out what works for you and your plants and which ones you like the feel and even the smell of. All the major brands that sell potting soil, will work. I prefer an organic potting soil and buy the kind that doesn't have fertilizer already in it. Either type of potting soil is fine--with or without fertilizer--but you need to know which you are buying.

    Even if your potting soil does have fertilizer already in it, chances are as the season goes along, you will have to feed your plants anyhow.

    If your potting soil doesn't have fertilizer already in it, you will need to add it. I can not stress enough how important this step is. The vast majority of plants will not thrive unless you feed (aka fertilize) them.

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  • 05 of 07

    Choosing Container Plants

    3 Coleus in Pots
    Three Coleus in Pots. © Kerry Michaels

    Ok, once you've determined how much sun you have, chosen your pot and gotten your potting soil, now the fun begins--choosing your plants. The first thing you want to do is to look for plants that thrive in the same amount of sun that your pot will get. Most nurseries have high sun requirement plants together and shade plants usually have their own spot too. However, there are tons of plants that are part sun, or part shade. So the good news is that whatever your sun requirements, there will be plants that will be satisfied, now you just have to find them and decide. Also, if you are doing a mixed container, you want to make sure that all of the plants you buy haven not only the same light requirement, but the same water requirement as well.

    There are any number of 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. Some of my favorite containers only have a single striking plant in them.

    More on Choosing Plants

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  • 06 of 07

    Planting Your Container

    Planting Your Pot
    Planting Your Pot. © Kerry Michaels

    Oddly, this is the easy part of the whole process and probably takes the least amount of time. Once you have your plants, pot, soil and fertilizer collected, cover the bottom drainage hole with plastic screening, paper towel or a coffee filter, so your soil will stay in and water can get out. No matter what you have read, do not put gravel in the bottom of your pot. It will not help with drainage, but will actually make drainage worse.

    Fill your container with potting soil to within an inch or two from the top. If your potting soil doesn't already have it, mix in fertilizer, carefully following directions for quantity (this is particularly important if you are using conventional and not organic fertilizers. Conventional fertilizers are much more likely to burn the roots of your plants if you over-use it). I use an organic all-purpose, granular fertilizer. 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, don't grab the plant and pull. 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 and squeeze and squish the pot. If you find that your plant is root bound, make sure to separate roots. Arrange the plants, keeping in mind which direction your pot will be facing.

    Dig a hole for each plant, deep enough so that the top of the soil of the plant in it's nursery pot, will be an inch or two from the top of the pot. You do not want to cover the crown (where the stem meets the roots) of your plant with soil. Also you want enough room so that when you water, it won't splash out of the pot.

    Fill in around your plants with potting soil, again, being careful not to cover the crown. You want to make sure there is soil surrounding your 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 dents appear.

    5 Tips for Planting a Container

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  • 07 of 07

    Keeping Your Plants Alive

    Urn with Begonia and Creeping Jenny
    Urn with Begonia and Creeping Jenny. © Kerry Michaels 2013

    Ok, now this is the hard part--keeping the thing alive. Watering is key. And not just watering, watering the right amount. As a rule, your soil should be kept damp, not wet. To determine this stick your finger down to the second knuckle into the soil. You do this because the surface of the soil can seem or look dry, but if you stick your finger in, the soil under the surface may be wet. If your soil 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. It can fool you into thinking you don't have to water, when your plant may actually be quite dry. Sometimes the plant will act like an umbrella, keeping the moisture away from the soil.

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

     More On Watering Your Pots

    You will also probably need to feed your plants in order to keep them thriving. This is a little tricky because how much you need to feed and how often will depend on what kind of fertilizer you used when you planted your pots.

    As I guideline, I buy potting soil without added fertilizer and mix in a slow release fertilizer to the potting soil before I plant. However, there are all different kinds of slow release fertilizer, so read your label carefully. I then wait about four weeks before watering with a diluted, organic liquid fertilizer. I then (at least theoretically) water with the diluted liquid food, every other week. I use either a fish emulsion, seaweed combo or the Espoma liquid plant food.

    More on Feeding Your Plants