Planting in containers is a great way to create a garden that's both beautiful and flexible.
Planting in containers is a great way to create a garden that’s both beautiful and flexible. Ozgur Coskun /
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Container Gardening Basics

Containers have always been essential for gardening on patios, decks, porches, and balconies–any place where soil isn’t present. But they’re also being added to landscapes, either as a focal point within the garden or as a way to let gardeners grow plants that wouldn’t otherwise thrive in the native soil or that need special care.

Almost anything that can be grown in the ground can be grown in a container, and sometimes a container is a better choice. Tiny rock garden plants can be brought up to eye level where they can best be enjoyed. Vegetables can be moved to the sunniest spots in the yard throughout the growing season. Trees and shrubs can be nestled in among other plants, even if they don’t have the same care requirements.

Containers are great if you want to grow specialty plants, such as tropicals or succulents, especially in areas where these plants wouldn’t survive the winter outside. You can bring both plant and container into a sheltered area until spring.

There are some rules for container gardening. You need to choose the right pot for the overall size and shape of the plant. You also need to find the right potting mix. Finally, you need to pay attention to water and fertilizer needs. Because the roots of container-grown plants can’t get food and water from ground soil, you’re the only source of these essentials.

Container Gardening Basics

While a single plant in a single container is a natural, and often dramatic, way to go, consider mixing plants.

© Verena Matthew |
A tall specimen surrounded by smaller plantings, whether a carpet of the same plant or a mix of coordinating plants, can give a container a more polished appearance. Or think of starting with a tall accent plant, adding filler plants around it, and then planting spillers (plants that grow downward) around the edges. Play with plant and color combinations at the nursery or garden center to see what appeals to you.

Choose a container that is the right size for your plantings. You want one large enough to allow the roots to spread and the plant or plants to grow, but not so large that greenery is swallowed up by it. Keep in mind the eventual plant size, especially if it’s a permanent planting such as a large shrub or tree. In that case, it’s fine to have the plant look a little small at first rather than have it outgrow its container.

Before planting, add a small square of window screening over each drain opening to keep the soil in place while allowing the water to drain. Traditionally, pot shards—pieces of broken pots—have been used by container gardeners, but these can actually hinder drainage.

If you want to add polymers, which are crystals that help retain moisture, prepare them according to the package directions and combine them thoroughly with your potting mix. Whether you add polymers or not, add water until the soil is slightly damp, enough to hold together but not soaking wet.

Add the potting mix to the container, filling it to a height where the top of the rootball of the largest plant will sit 2 inches below the rim of the pot. Firm it in place. Loosen the roots of the largest plant and set it in the container.

If the plant has long roots, you may need to create a trench to allow the roots to grow down into the soil. Use additional potting mix to hold the plant in place.

Add any additional plants; the top of each rootball should be 2 inches below the rim of the pot. You may need to add soil beneath smaller plants. Once the plant or plants are in place, fill in with potting soil, firming it as you go. Water gently but thoroughly.

NEXT SEE: Caring for Container Plants


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About Don Vandervort
An avid builder and remodeler, Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years, as Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort