Growing plants in containers isn’t necessarily as easy as it looks. While plunking a plant into a pot seems pretty simple, making sure that plant thrives can sometimes be a complicated affair. What kind of soil is best for the plant? How much water does it require? Where’s the best place to put the pot after it’s planted? Does the plant need to be fed? If so, how often? To simplify all of the tasks involved in growing in containers, we’ve compiled this container gardening tip list that runs from the start of the season all the way to the end, giving you all the advice you need to grow a successful container garden wherever you live.
Our Task-by-Task Container Gardening Tip List
To make this container gardening tip list as simple as possible, we’ve divided our most useful tips into sections that follow the growing season. You’ll learn how to plant and grow a beautiful and productive container garden, filled with flowers, herbs, vegetables, fruits, and more, simply by following these snippets of useful and practical advice.
Tips for selecting the best containers
- Garden containers can be made from many different materials. To reduce watering needs in hot summer weather, choose non-porous materials, such as glazed ceramic, fiberglass, resin, fiberstone, or metal containers.
- Always buy a bigger pot than you think you’ll need. Small pots hold a smaller volume of soil, which means they’ll dry out faster. Bigger pots need to be watered far less frequently.
- If you need to move your pots to maximize sun exposure, lightweight fabric planter bags or polystyrene foam pots are an excellent choice.
- No matter what your container is made of, make sure there’s a drainage hole in the bottom. Crushed gravel or stones placed in the bottom of a pot do not improve or add drainage.
- Repurposed household items make fun garden containers, but make sure they aren’t covered with lead paint which could lead to soil contamination or health issues.
- Be sure to add a little personality to your garden by including some decorative containers that have a little whimsy.
Tips for choosing the best plants for your containers
- No container garden tip list is complete without suggestions for plant selections. Don’t just choose what’s in flower at the garden center; pick plants that make sense for your growing conditions. If you have full sun, pick plants that can tolerate that. In shady areas, choose plants that don’t require maximum sunlight to perform their best.
- Succulent plants are a great option for gardeners who travel a lot… or forget to water their containers from time to time. Plus, they’re really cool.
- If you’re growing vegetables in your containers, be sure to pick varieties bred for their short stature and ability to thrive in containers. Here’s a great list of container vegetable varieties.
- There are countless annual flowers that do great in containers, but don’t forget to include foliage plants and perennials, too. These plants can be pulled from their containers at the end of the growing season and moved into the garden for a permanent home.
- Houseplants and tropicals make great container specimens. Grow them outdoors for the season, but be sure to move them inside before freezing temperatures arrive.
- If supporting wildlife is important to you, be sure to include some pollinator plants in your container garden plans. A great container gardening tip is to make sure one out of every five plants you include supports some form of wildlife.
Tips for using the right container garden planting mix
- When it comes to potting soil, you get what you pay for. If you want a successful container garden, don’t skimp and buy the cheapest potting mix. Choose high quality over low price every time. Here’s my favorite brand.
- Make your own DIY potting soil for great results without the expense. Here are our favorite potting soil recipes with mixing instructions.
- To reduce watering needs, and introduce beneficial microbes and nutrients to your containers, mix potting soil with finished compost before filling containers. I mix mine at a ratio of 50/50. This is a container gardening tip that has so many benefits!
- If you’re growing cacti or succulents, skip the compost and add coarse builders sand to the potting soil instead. Or, use a cacti-specific potting mix to fill your containers.
- Select a potting soil that includes an organic nutrient source whenever possible. This provides plants with a slow-release source of nutrients throughout the gardening season and skips the synthetic chemical fertilizers that could burn tender roots or lead to leaf tip burn.
Tips for designing container plantings
- When it comes to a container gardening tip that impacts the beauty of your containers, none is more important than using your own creativity! Partner plants that appeal to your eye, combining colors and textures to make a pleasing mix.
- To keep container gardens from looking too busy, stick with just one or two main focal points per container and surround those featured plants with simpler textures, colors, and forms.
- There are many different design styles for containers, based on whether the pot will be viewed from just one side or from all sides. Keep the balance and proportion of the container in mind no matter which design style you’re using.
- Using a single specimen plant in a large container is a beautiful choice. Don’t think you have to cram a dozen plants into a container for it to look good. Sometimes less is more.
- Some color combinations may look garish to one gardener, while to another they look stylish and sleek. Don’t be afraid to experiment — remember, you do you!
Tips for planting a container garden
- When planting your containers, organize and lay out the plants before you start planting to make sure the plants all look good together and the pot won’t be too full. This is one container gardening tip that can save you oodles of time!
- After you tip a plant out of its nursery pot, carefully inspect the roots. Trim off any that are rotten as well as any that are circling around inside the pot. Pot-bound plants seldom perform well, so breaking up those circling roots and spreading them out in their new container makes for a healthier plant.
- Don’t skimp on space. While it might seem smart to fill the bottom of a container with empty water bottles or other fillers so you don’t have to use as much potting mix, for the best root growth, the entire pot should be filled with potting mix.
- Plant each plant to the same depth it was in its nursery container. Don’t bury plants too deeply or leave them sticking up too high. This can lead to roots that dry out too fast or plants that rot at their base.
Tips for watering a container garden
- Watering is the most important job on a container gardener’s to-do list. Don’t forget about it. If you’re prone to ignoring this chore, set up an automatic container irrigation system or plant drought-resistant plants such as succulents and cacti.
- Don’t wait for plants to begin to wilt before watering. An important container garden tip is to always water before plant stress occurs.
- When watering, make sure to fill each container repeatedly, allowing at least 20% of the water added to the top of the pot to drain out the bottom three or four times before moving on to the next container. This helps flush out excess fertilizer salts, too.
- Water in the morning whenever possible. Doing so deters fungal diseases and slugs and other pests, as well as minimizing water loss due to evaporation.
Tips for feeding container plants
- Even though the potting soil and compost mixture you used to fill the pots contains nutrients, you should still add supplemental fertilizer every three to four weeks throughout the growing season.
- There are many different organic fertilizers that are perfect for container gardening. Here’s a great post about my favorite container fertilizers and how to use them.
- Vegetables should be fed more frequently than ornamental plants as they require more nutrition to produce a good yield, and using an organic fertilizer is even more critical when growing food.
Tips for maintaining a container garden
- While you don’t have to immediately trim off every dead leaf and flower, doing these maintenance chores every few weeks throughout the summer stimulates more flowers and can cut down on the occurrence of certain plant diseases.
- Keep a careful eye out for insect pests and diseases. You can use our guide to vegetable garden pests and our guide to garden disease management for suggested control methods should any issues happen to appear.
- At the end of the growing season, be sure to empty all pots and overwinter them in a dry location if the pots are not 100% frost-proof.
With this container gardening tip list, we guarantee you’ll have a successful growing season from start to finish! For more tips on successful container gardening, check out my latest book, Container Gardening Complete (Quarto Publishing, 2017). You’ll also find 20 fun projects and hundreds of awesome container plants to include in your own container garden.
What do you like to grow in containers? We’d love to hear about any other items you’d like to add to this container gardening tip list, too. Please share with us in the comment section below.
Carol C Papas says
Great article- as always. Do you mail order the potting soil? Any Pittsburgh source? I love to mix it up with containers, but a total fave and very simple, is a healthy pot of Begonia boliviensis. Love this white cultivar.
Jessica Walliser says
Hi Carol – Thanks! Glad you find the article useful. I don’t mail order potting soil. I usually get the Espoma stuff from Hahn Nursery or Baccto potting soil from Soergel’s. Love those trailing begonias for sure! So pretty – especially for shade gardeners.
i HAVE A TOWER COMPACT GARDEN. ANY RECCOMMENDATIONS FOR WHAT PLANTS TO PUT N EACH LEVEL?? THANKS.
Jessica Walliser says
I would suggest planting a variety of compact greens and herbs. Kale, lettuces, Swiss chard, parsley, thyme, globe basil, mizuna, mustard greens, and even micro, trailing tomatoes like ‘Tumbling Tom’ will do well in tower gardens like yours.
Marcy c says
Great article. I guess I have been doing containers since the early 80s. We lived in a frost prone “hollow” at our old place frosted late May/early June and it was Labor Day for posdible killing frost. I would covet and bring in to extend the growing season. Seems like the Seasons are longer now, but this was the only way I got early flowers and some veggies. Now I do it to attract all the pollinators and when Garden is too wet to work. I’ve have county records of butterflies on my container flowers and host plants
I also use larger saucers to water from bottom using my rain water from our 600 gallon cistern, watering by hand. Takes a while but I’ve been going this way for years.
Still trying to get the rest planted this year. Almost done. Only about 15 – 20 more to plant. Preparation takes the longest time, but most important. Will need to take water out of saucers to keep mosquitos from breeding. It sure has been a wet spring!!!!
Kelly Young says
Container gardening can be a complicated affair, but with the right advice, it can be a breeze. Thanks for the tips!