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Contain Your Enthusiasm: The Basics of Container Gardening

Sponsored by Exmark

March 2020


View this Exmark Original video from their Done-In-A-Weekend Projects series to learn how to plant container gardens, and the care your herbs or vegetables will require once they’ve been set in soil.

More Container Gardening Tips from Mother Earth News

When my wife and I were first married, we moved into a small house with very little room for a garden. We both grew up in families that maintained large vegetable gardens and yards filled with flowers, but it seemed like we were missing out on a shared tradition of growing our own fruit and vegetables. We decided that we would purchase some container plants and hanging baskets of flowers to stay involved in gardening and hopefully provide some fresh produce in our diets.

I’d like to tell you that we were very successful in our first attempts at container gardening, but the truth of the matter is that we really didn’t know much about how to grow plants in containers. We produced very little fruit and even managed to completely kill a plant or two in that first year. We eventually did get better at growing container plants, and even went on to develop a larger garden that has been a tradition for our own family for the last 30 years.

Container gardening is a great way to enjoy growing plants and vegetables if you have limited space, but it is also can be a good addition to a traditional garden. Growing herbs on your porch can provide quick access to the perfect fresh spice for your evening meal or breakfast omelet. Hanging basket containers give you the versatility to place beautiful flowers anywhere, and can also be used for planting herbs or tomatoes. Container gardening can be an enjoyable addition to any home – regardless of the space you have – but there are some basic considerations that you should keep in mind as you plan your spring planting.

tomato container garden on balcony

What Types of Plants to Grow? 

One of the first considerations for container gardening is to decide what you want to grow. Although there are many choices of plants for container gardening, some plants are just not designed for the limited size of containers. A good start to your planning and a great way to build anticipation for planting your garden, is to obtain seed catalogs and look for varieties designed for container gardens. These catalogs are a great source for information on things like the amount of sunshine required, spacing, watering and days to harvest. They also list dwarf or bush varieties of plants that are particularly suited to smaller growing areas. While seed catalogs sell seeds to start plants, they list the variety name of the plants that in most instances can be found as started plants with good growth in nurseries or home improvement stores.

Almost any vegetable or herb can be grown in a container garden, but some of the more popular vegetables are peppers, tomatoes, beets, summer squash, salad greens, radish, cucumbers and beans. Certain vegetables like sweet corn, potatoes and melons, are usually not a good fit due to their need for root and plant space. You will never run out of options for vegetables in your containers, as there are so many varieties and different types of plants that are truly a good fit for container gardening. 

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Containers 

Finding a suitable container to grow your garden is really very easy. Pots come in both traditional styles such as terracotta to recycled containers made from plastic bottles or milk jugs. A good source for finding containers is to cruise the yard sales or second hand stores. Seek out old bushel baskets, wine barrels, wash tubs or homemade wooden boxes. As mentioned earlier, hanging baskets are fairly economical and are great for both vegetables and flowers and can be placed just about anywhere. Window boxes are a beautiful addition to any home and make great herb or vegetable containers. There are also above ground “patio boxes” that are sold online or at large home improvement stores that fit nicely on small patios or front steps.

It is important to keep in mind that although most any type of container can be used to grow vegetables or flowers; the size and drainage capability of the container will dictate how successful your growing attempts will be. Vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and squash need at least a five-gallon container to grow properly. Smaller rooted vegetables like lettuce and herbs can get by with smaller diameter containers. Regardless of which type of container you use, it is imperative that you have proper drainage which requires holes in the bottom of the container to allow the moisture to pass through and not drown the roots of the plants.

Container Potting Mixes 

Potting material is a crucial component of container gardening. You should never use soil from a garden in your containers. Garden soil composition is heavy, which can lead to water saturation of the plant and it also may contain pathogens in the soil or insects like nematodes that will kill your new plants. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, there are two types of potting mixtures best suited to container gardening; soil based and soilless. A soil-based medium will include garden loam, organic matter and sand as the primary ingredients. Soilless mixtures are composed of peat moss, vermiculite, ground bark and perlite. The soilless mixtures are well suited to container gardening because they are sterile, weed free, and they are lightweight and hold water well while allowing for good drainage.

Plant Care 

Once you have filled your containers with potting mix and put in your plants, there are ongoing tasks that are necessary to insure proper growth. Watering is very important and containers will dry out quickly. You should check the soil moisture in your containers daily and add water as needed. You can purchase soil moisture testers at garden centers or you can just insert your finger up to the second joint to check for dryness. When you water, keep watering until it flows out of the drainage holes. It’s a good idea to put a plant saucer under the plant so that it doesn’t run out and stain woodwork or flooring.

Most potting soils do not have nutrients in them. There are some potting mixes that have a slow release fertilizer in the mix, but make sure it states that on the bag. If your potting mix is soilless, you will need to fertilize them with a water-soluble fertilizer every week or two to make sure that they are receiving the necessary nutrients. Even potting mixes blended with a slow release fertilizer will still need to be fertilized throughout the life of the plant.

And finally, plants love sunlight and in almost all cases will grow better with ample sun. Place containers where they will have maximum sunshine and also good ventilation. Also, watch for insects, rabbits or other four-legged pests that can quickly deprive you of the future enjoyment of all your hard work.

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