The Easy Beginner’s Guide to Container Gardening

Learn how to create optimal conditions for plants grown in pots and containers with our beginner’s guide to container gardening.

Whether you have a small garden, a large one, or just a patio or balcony, container gardening offers flexibility for growing. It’s an easy way to instantly create and change displays right outside your door, which is particularly handy if you’re short on space.

A wide variety of plants can thrive in containers, including bedding plants, bulbs, herbs, fruits, vegetables, shrubs, and even trees.

However, it’s important to understand how to provide the best care for your container-grown plants, as they require a bit more attention than those planted directly in the ground.

Check out our container gardening tips below to get started.

Selecting the Perfect Spot

It’s crucial to place your containers where your plants can thrive. Sun-loving plants require at least six hours of sunlight daily, so position them in a south- or west-facing area. Conversely, shade-loving plants should be placed in shaded spots.

For optimal protection against harsh winds, opt for a sheltered location, such as beneath walls, fences, or hedges. If placing pots on a wall or balcony, ensure they’re securely fastened.

Container Sizes

When it comes to growing plants in containers, bigger is often better. Larger containers hold more soil, which keeps it moist for longer and prevents drastic temperature changes. Smaller containers, like hanging baskets, tend to dry out quickly, especially during hot weather, often needing to be watered twice a day to keep plants alive.

Choosing the right container size depends on the plant you want to grow. Consider factors like the plant’s root system size, whether it’s a perennial, annual, or shrub, and how fast it grows. Plants that are “rootbound,” meaning their roots have filled the container, dry out fast and don’t grow well. Opt for a larger container for mixed plantings to provide enough space for all the plants. Light-colored containers also help keep the soil cooler compared to dark ones.

When picking a container, consider where it’ll be placed and if you’ll need to move it. For balconies or decks, make sure the structure can support the weight of the container garden.

Container Drainage

Regardless of the container type, proper drainage is crucial. Without drainage holes, soil becomes waterlogged, risking plant health. If your container doesn’t have holes, consider drilling some yourself.

Containers without drainage holes can be used as decorative covers for plain pots, but make sure there’s a way for excess water to escape.

Options like self-watering containers, double-walled containers, hanging baskets, and window boxes are available, especially useful for smaller plants that need frequent watering.

Container Materials

Different types of containers each have their own advantages and drawbacks:

Clay or terracotta pots are visually appealing but fragile, easily damaged by freezing and thawing. In colder regions, they often need to be stored indoors during winter to prevent cracking and aren’t ideal for hardy plants kept outside year-round.

Cast concrete containers are durable and come in various sizes and designs. They can withstand all weather conditions and can even be crafted at home.

However, plain concrete pots are heavy and cumbersome to move, making them unsuitable for decks or balconies. Lightweight options are available, such as those mixed with vermiculite or fiberglass blends, or you can opt for hypertufa for a lighter concrete look.

Plastic and fiberglass pots are lightweight, budget-friendly, and come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Look for sturdy yet somewhat flexible containers, as thin, rigid ones can become brittle over time or in cold temperatures.

Polyurethane foam containers weigh significantly less than terracotta or concrete but mimic their appearance closely. They resist damage and provide insulation against extreme temperatures, making them great for plants left outdoors year-round.

Wood containers have a natural look and shield roots from sudden temperature changes. You can construct wooden planters yourself using rot-resistant wood like cedar or locust, or treated pine (avoid creosote, which is harmful to plants). Molded wood-fiber containers offer a sturdy and cost-effective alternative.

Metal containers are sturdy but conduct heat, which can expose roots to temperature swings.

Container Preparation

Before filling your containers with soil, plan where you want them to go and move them into position. If watering them throughout the day is a concern, pick spots that get morning sun but are shaded during the hottest part of the day. Even if your plants prefer full sun, afternoon shade can help reduce their water needs.

Make sure your containers have drainage holes, but you don’t need to cover them with pot shards or gravel. This won’t improve drainage and might actually block the holes.

Instead, prevent soil from washing out by placing a layer of paper towel or newspaper over the holes before adding potting mix. If your container is deep, you can add a layer of gravel or Styrofoam at the bottom to reduce the amount of soil needed.

Regular garden soil is too dense for container gardening. Use a houseplant soil mix for containers up to 1 gallon, and for larger ones, opt for a coarse soilless planting mix to maintain the right balance of water and air.

Before planting, moisten the soil by watering it beforehand or flooding the containers with water several times and stirring. Ensure the soil is evenly moist throughout.

For mixed containers, you can plant densely, ignoring spacing requirements, as you’ll need to prune plants once they fill in. For trees and shrubs, trim any circling roots and plant them at the same level as they were in the nursery.

Gently firm the soil and water thoroughly. Leave some space at the top of the pots for watering; don’t fill them to the brim with soil.

Choosing Plants for Containers

You can grow almost any type of vegetable, flower, herb, shrub, or small tree in a container successfully. However, it’s best to opt for dwarf or compact varieties, especially for smaller pots.

Make sure to select plants that are suitable for the climate and the amount of sunlight or shade the container will receive. If you’re cultivating fragrant plants like heliotrope, place the containers in a sheltered spot to preserve the fragrance from being carried away by the wind.

Let your creativity shine by mixing upright and trailing plants, edibles, and flowers to create visually appealing and colorful combinations. Container gardening can be a short-term project or a long-lasting one.

If you’re planning for permanent containers, keep in mind that the plants may be less resilient than usual because their roots are more exposed to fluctuating air temperatures.

Nonhardy plants will require winter protection or relocation to a sheltered area. Before choosing a nonhardy plant, consider the weight of the container and how you’ll move it.

Watering Your Pots

Plants in containers don’t have the same access to moisture as those in the ground, so they need more frequent watering, especially on hot, sunny days when the compost can dry out quickly.

During summer, water your plants thoroughly in the morning or evening, ensuring the water reaches the roots. Keep your containers near a water source to simplify the watering process.


Plants in pots require extra nutrients since they have less access to them compared to those in the ground. Use slow-release fertilizers or add liquid feed to your watering can. Feed your plants approximately every two weeks during the growing season.

Container Gardening

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