How to Plant Container Gardens
Do you have a green thumb that is just itching to get in the dirt, but doesn’t have a lot of land? Maybe you are eager to use more fresh herbs and vegetables in your cooking, but your neighborhood association frowns on turning your lawn into a living garden? Or maybe you just want to get a jump-start on the growing season? If so, container gardens might be just the thing you are looking for. Growing herbs, vegetables, and fruits in various sized containers can offer a real advantage for families living in apartments or townhomes, minimizing strain on your back by not having to dig deeply, and not having to build and maintain raised beds. Container gardens are also a great idea for areas with poor soil or poor drainage and can make it easier to move less hardy plants inside to overwinter. Container gardens also offer something else a land-based garden can’t – namely added convenience with herb gardens on the kitchen windowsill or just outside the door, for fresh herbs on demand. These types of gardens also may be more ideal for different individuals, enabling you to put the containers at heights better suited for disabled people, the elderly or children, allowing you to truly customize your growing spaces to meet the needs of your family.
Container gardens can also introduce children to the world of agriculture at a minimum of cost and time. Assign them a few pots and let them take charge of the entire process, from picking which seeds to grow, layering the pots with proper fill and soil, planting the seeds, watering, and harvesting. Foster their love of nature, science, and nutrition by teaching them to grow their own potatoes for fresh fries, or your own cucumbers for homemade pickles!
Keeping all that in mind, there are some disadvantages to be aware of when planning your container garden. Containers are typically not effective for plants that have larger root systems, and often they can support less overall growth. Container gardens can also be more susceptible to drought or extreme weather conditions and may need more day-to-day maintenance than an in-ground plot.
Before buying anything, make certain that your pots are the correct size for the types of plants you want to grow. The vast majority of plants will need at least 8 inches of soil depth, with varying widths depending on the plant. Many plants, such as grasses, root vegetables, and shrubs, need deeper and wider pots. If multiple plants are going in the same pot, it’s important to leave enough room between them that their roots won’t compete.
Another important factor is drainage. Pots that drain poorly can result in roots getting waterlogged and rotting, while pots that drain too quickly can lead to plants not having enough water. Metal, plastic, and some glazed ceramic pots are non-porous, meaning that the soil will drain more slowly. Unglazed terracotta pots can look stunning aesthetically, but are porous so the soil will dry out much faster than with non-porous pots. Pots will also need a sufficient number of holes on the bottom, so the water has somewhere to go. Those with only a single hole will likely drain too poorly for most plants. If the holes are large enough to let soil through, you can put down a porous layer inside the pot before adding dirt, like a coffee filter or something similar. The pots will also need to be elevated so that the water has somewhere to drain to, but most post designs come with feet on the bottom already. Plant stands can also work to elevate pots effectively.
Don’t be afraid though to consider non-traditional options for containers. You can save a lot of money by using old plastic storage bins or even small trash bins (cleaned thoroughly first). Leftover pallets can also be re-purposed to create rectangular garden boxes. Recycling containers for gardening can not only save money and reduce waste, they can also offer an opportunity to create a garden that is eclectic and whimsical, ranging from herbs growing out of old boots or teapots, to hanging vines draping down from old bird houses on the wall. Whatever your choice, though, be sure that the soil has sufficient drainage and that the roots have enough space to spread.
Choosing which plants to use is a major consideration. Before choosing seeds, nursery cuttings, or containers, you’ll want to decide what general category of plants you’re growing (e.g. vegetables, herbs, or ornamentals), how much space you have, if you’re going for a certain look, what your budget is, what agricultural zone you live in, and how much care you will be able to provide. If you already have the pots, you will need to be careful to select for plants that will fit those containers. If on the other hand, you have an idea of which plants you want, you will need to select appropriately sized containers. Plants with extensive or spreading root systems tend to do poorly in containers, so might not be best suited for a container garden. Keep in mind constraints on containers, such as if you’re only planting in window boxes or in smaller containers indoors. When planning where to put containers, keep in mind water needs – it’s far less work for you if the garden is set up near a hose or faucet.
You will need to take into account local conditions, as well. If the plants will be outside, how much rainfall you get is important. Plants that need drier conditions shouldn’t be planted in wet areas, and plants that need frequent rainfall will need to be watered more often if it’s dry out. In terms of temperature, look up your area’s hardiness zone, and pay attention to what each plant is rated for. Less hardy plants might need to be moved inside when it starts getting cold. You will also need to pay attention to how much maintenance each plant needs, especially if you travel often or otherwise can’t check on them every day. Some drought-tolerant plants tolerate infrequent watering well, and there are also mechanical systems like automatic drip irrigation you can set up.
Beyond water, the amount of direct sunlight each area gets on average is the other most important factor in a successful container garden. Areas that get more than six hours of direct sunlight should have plants that require “full sun,” while areas with 3 to 6 hours of direct sunlight should have plants that require “partial shade” or “partial sun,” and areas with less than 3 hours of direct sunlight daily should have plants that require “shade.”
Some plants grow better in pots than others. All herbs, including rosemary, basil, oregano, and thyme, typically grow well when potted. You can easily grow multiple herbs together in a wide pot or something like a strawberry jar. All greens, such as lettuce and spinach, also grow very well. Tomatoes work well in properly designed set-ups with large pots and proper support. While all tomatoes will grow in pots, the Husky Cherry Red, Better Bush, Patio, Bush Goliath, and Early Bush varieties, along with other cherry and bush tomatoes, tend to do better than many others. Root vegetables like potatoes and radishes can actually be easier to harvest from a pot than from a conventional garden or raised bed, by just dumping the entire container and sorting through the soil for your tubers. Zucchini and squash need larger pots than most other plants but will thrive once provided with enough space. Eggplants and peppers can make nice, pretty pots in the summer. Cucumbers will, like tomatoes, need a trellis and large pot, but can be grown well. Ornamental plants, like flowers, more often than not do not do well. Some shrubs and dwarf trees will grow in appropriately sized pots. However, you need to be extra careful about allowing enough space for the roots to spread as the plant grows.
Caring for Your Plants
Potting soil with fertilizer mixed in works better than garden soil for container gardens. With annuals and biennials, it’s best to change out the soil between plantings, to reduce the chance of problems developing with the soil. Old soil can be put in a compost pile just fine.
If you’ve gotten a young plant from a nursery or if you’re moving a plant to or from a container, be careful when re-potting it. Avoid gripping the plant by the stem to pull it out. Instead, either dump out the plant or dig around it and wash off any dirt before moving it. If the plant is root-bound with tangled or compacted roots, break the roots up before re-potting it. For nursery plants, the soil should be the same level in the container as it was in the nursery pot.
Container gardens need water more frequently than standard gardens. The majority of plants prefer to be watered so that their soil becomes damp or moist but not wet. Most seeds or nursery plants will come with instructions for how often and how much they need to be watered. When watering, it’s best to water slowly, making certain that the water seeps properly into the soil rather than pooling and running down any gaps, such as often form between the pot’s walls and the soil. If water starts leaking out the bottom holes, stop adding water.
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