How To Start Your Own Container Garden (Indoors Or Out) & Help It Thrive
A bounty of summer vegetables and fall herbs isn't just for those who have a bounty of land. Container gardening makes it easy and accessible for urbanites, apartment dwellers, and anyone short on garden space to enjoy the simple joy of fresh-from-the-garden basil or a juicy, ripe tomato.
Start the container garden of your dreams with this beginner's guide filled with tips, tricks, and expert advice.
What is container gardening?
A container garden is simply a garden that is grown in—of course!—containers. It can be customized to any space, large or small, and Ashley Christian of Homestead Sweet Home says, "It can be as simple as a little pot of herbs growing at your kitchen window, a lemon tree on your porch, or a big 4-by-12-foot raised cedar bed full of fresh veggies in your backyard."
Author and gardener Charlotte Ekker Wiggins adds, "Even though I have room for a traditional garden, I have been growing in containers on my home deck for decades." She notes that having herbs and vegetables closer to her kitchen is convenient for cooking and allows her to easily bring plants in during colder months.
"Container gardening is a great way to bring earthly delights indoors all year long," adds Rebecca Sears, gardening expert for Ferry-Morse.
The pros of a container garden.
Beyond the obvious advantages of growing plants in containers where there may not be garden space, there are other pros, from keeping pests away to carefully controlling growing conditions:
It reduces the need to weed.
While weeds are a reality for any gardener, planting in a container does reduce a weed's ability to spread. You can better control the soil and ensure there aren't weeds waiting to pop up.
It can distract hungry wildlife.
For those wary of deer, rabbits, and other curious critters, Wiggins says, "Being near my containers also helps with patrolling wildlife sneaking off with some of the fresh produce." Proximity to a busy window or door will help deter animals seeking a snack.
It gives you control over growing conditions.
If you have poor-quality soil or are concerned about changing weather conditions, container gardening gives you complete control. "Containers make it easier to maintain finicky plants or ones that require a specific type of soil, pH, or nutrients," says Amy Andrychowicz, gardening expert and founder of Get Busy Gardening.
It is easy to relocate.
If a certain spot gets varied sunlight depending on the season, you have the ability to easily move it. "If a plant isn't happy in a particular location, you have the flexibility to play around with your arrangement and find where it will thrive," says Sears.
It is aesthetically pleasing.
Sears says, "One of the best perks is that you can create a decorative look unique to you with both the pot and the plants!"
"Many people with large yards also enjoy container gardening simply for aesthetic purposes. They're great for adding color and life to a front stoop or empty corner of a deck or patio," adds Andrychowicz.
It allows you to keep growing year-round.
"Container gardening is a wonderful way to bring plants into almost any space, anywhere, and in any season!" says Angie Daugirda of Organic Plant Magic. Veggies, flowers, herbs, and fruits can thrive outdoors during warmer months and indoors when the weather outside is less than ideal.
The cons of a container garden.
Despite all the benefits of growing herbs, vegetables, and flowers in containers, there are a few downsides to be aware of as you start your own container garden:
Plants will eventually outgrow it.
While containers can slow the growth of a plant to make it more manageable for growing both indoors and out, the plant can eventually outgrow its home.
Wiggins says, "Plants with large and extensive roots will eventually require larger vessels to provide them with the soil and nutrients they need." Repotting is a pain, but it's doable. This guide will walk you through it.
Its soil can quickly dry out.
Because they don't retain water the way garden soil might, container gardens will dry out quicker than in-ground gardens and require frequent watering. Plus, if they're inside, they won't have the benefit of rain.
It might attract curious pets.
Wiggins adds that pets can also be a challenge, particularly as dogs and cats like to dig in soil or even use the soil as a restroom—both inside and outside. She says, "Adding large rocks so the soil can be evenly watered can discourage those practices."
The best plants for container gardening.
Vegetables are a delicious option for container gardens, herbs make a fragrant addition to an indoor garden, and flowers are often easy-to-grow and vibrant. One of the keys to a successful container garden is choosing plants with shorter root systems that won't get squished. Here are a few container-loving favorites.
Best flowers for container gardens:
Best vegetables for container gardens:
Best herbs for container gardens:
How to choose containers for your garden.
Sears raves about the variety of containers that gardeners can source, "From window boxes and hanging baskets to pot arrangements along a patio, on a porch or balcony, and more, you can add versatility and ambience to spaces of all sizes."
When choosing your container(s), you'll want to first consider the size. Larger containers will hold more moisture and nutrients, but they will also be more difficult to move around as needed.
If you're in a small space, consider focusing on small-scale pots, which will happily house herbs of all kinds. Though keep in mind that whenever you leave town, you'll need to enlist a friend to water your plants or look into a self-water option. Small containers dry out quickly!
When it comes to materials, the options are seemingly endless, from clay to concrete, plastic, wood, and metal. Consider the placement of the container: Will it be on top of a piece of furniture or in your yard? Will you be able to move it?
Fiberglass is a good alternative to heavier concrete options. Additionally, Wiggins notes that traditional terra-cotta clay pots allow water to evaporate quickly, while other containers hold water and may need more frequent drainage checks.
For a sustainable twist, Sears adds that gardeners can also repurpose existing materials such as a wagon or an old barrel into an innovative upcycled container.
Here's why drainage matters.
Drainage is critical to avoiding dreaded root rot in your container garden. As Andrychowicz explains, "It's essential that containers have drainage holes, or the water will pool inside the pot and eventually cause the plants to rot."
If your container is in an area that you want to keep dry, don't forget to add a saucer underneath the plant to catch excess water. Don't have a container with holes already? You can carefully drill holes into your planter and it's ready for its container garden debut. Here are a few more ways to add drainage yourself.
"I also recommend adding small dry tree sticks to the bottom quarter of a pot before adding soil," Wiggins adds. "The dry sticks will absorb and retain water, keeping the soil, and plant roots, hydrated."
How to design a container garden with limited space.
Container gardens are uniquely suited to small spaces, and there are even more ways to get creative than simply filling your home with pots and planters. Christian advises looking to railing or window box containers to maximize your space, specifically if you have a small outdoor balcony or deck.
She adds, "You may want to add a living wall or aquaponics towers along the sides of your balcony to make use of every square inch."
Daugirda suggests creating a tiered garden to open up more vertical real estate for growing plants, or growing a hanging garden inside and embracing a lush, aesthetic vibe.
And Christian has one extra tip, specifically for apartment dwellers looking to garden: "To avoid leaving any holes, use damage-free Command hooks for your hanging baskets, and free-standing living walls or planting towers."
How to care for and maintain a container garden.
The most important factors in caring for your container garden are soil, light, and water—all of which are pretty easy to adjust in a carefully controlled container garden. Here's what you're aiming for.
Sheryl Normandeau, co-author of the book series Guides for the Prairie Gardener, warns not to use soil that's straight from your in-ground garden in your container garden.
She explains, "That soil is heavy and may compact into something resembling cement when it is put into your containers." Instead, she suggests using a potting soil mix with a slow-release fertilizer. The fertilizer is critical since plants in containers don't have the benefit of regenerated nutrients that inground plants do.
Depending on your plants, the exact soil needs could vary, but Christian suggests two common recipes: 60/30/10, which is 60% topsoil, 30% compost, and 10% potting soil, or 50/50, a 50% topsoil and 50% compost mix, and amending with fertilizer every few weeks in the growing season.
Most vegetable gardens need eight hours of direct sunlight a day, and that is easily achievable when you have the freedom to move your plants around. However, if you have an indoor container garden, you may need to look into a grow light depending on the time of year or the direction your home faces.
Andrychowicz adds, "The beauty of container gardening is that if you discover your plants are getting too much or not enough sun, then you can simply move them to the perfect spot."
Be careful not to underwater or overwater your plants, and remember most seedlings need continuously moist water. This is where the drainage and/or self-watering containers are key.
If your garden is outdoors, Christian has an expert tip. She says, "Your established plants need 1 inch of rain or water each week. Check your rainfall, and only supplement what is needed to equal 1 total inch of water each week."
3 bonus tips for your container garden.
"Plants are amazingly intelligent, but once you plant them in pots and in aboveground gardens, they fully rely on you to provide almost everything they need," explains Daugirda. These expert tips will help you give them exactly what they need:
Have a water source nearby.
Daugirda advises making sure you have a water source close to your garden since "It is no fun lugging watering cans too far, and thus you may be more prone to skip a day of watering." Make it easy for yourself to care for your plants!
Multitask your containers.
Your plants can work for you if you let them. Here's one smart way to let nature do its thing: "If you use hanging baskets, you can place them directly above raised planter beds to recycle water and keep your plants from raining on your downstairs neighbor," says Christian.
Think outside the container.
Normandeau encourages container gardeners to think outside the box (or the container). She says, "Don't be afraid to use vertical elements in your balcony or patio garden! Add a trellis or other support to your containers to grow vegetables such as peas and pole beans, or ornamental plants such as morning glories, black-eyed Susan vine, and sweet peas."
The bottom line.
Heather Bien is a freelance writer currently living in Washington, DC. She received her B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has written for Apartment Therapy, MyDomaine, HelloGiggles, StyleBlueprint, The Knot, The Everygirl, and other lifestyle websites. She writes about home and lifestyle, personal development, relationships, and more.