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Starting Your First Container Garden

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Let’s face it:  not all of us have fertile soil at our disposable. If you live in a large city, the concept of “owning land” may seem quaint and mysterious. Container gardening offers a simple solution for those of us who live in confined spaces, who don’t live in ideal climes, or who are fairly new to gardening and want to get their feet wet without risking the health of their precious lawn.

Setting up your own container garden doesn’t have to be a purely practical matter either. Many people enjoy maintaining balcony gardens with flowers and other potted plants simply to enhance the aesthetic atmosphere of their living environment.

Whether you are planning on starting your very own container garden to grown food or simply to look nice, the following tips will help you get started.

Roof Garden
Credit: Sergio Ruiz on Flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Finding Space

While container gardening is much more compact than a traditional raised bed or garden plot, you will still need to make sure you have ample space to place your containers. Make sure the location you select receives a healthy amount of sunshine, as many plants will not grow well in the shade. Also, make sure that the surrounding climate is suitable for the plants you are planning on growing. Avoid placing containers in areas that receive very large amounts of direct sunlight or on surfaces that absorb heat, including blacktop and asphalt. Different plants have different sunlight requirements, so make sure to check the specific sunlight requirements for the plants you will be growing.


Some plants thrive in small, well-maintained container gardens, while others will never even sprout. Be sure to do research into the types of plants you are planning on growing and make sure you select containers that will allow them to grow to their full potential.

Here are a few examples of plant species that grow well in containers:


  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Mint
  • Sage



  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Zucchini
  • Squash
  • Potatoes



  • Daisy
  • Geranium
  • Marigold
  • Verbena
  • Tulips

This list only scratches the surface, but it should at least provide you with a few ideas for you to get started. Be sure to check what soil depth each plant species you select for your garden will require. 

Herb Garden
Credit: katemonkey on Flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Types of Containers

When selecting your containers, make sure to determine the soil requirements for the plants you will be growing. Different types of plants have very different root structures, and some plants may require significantly more soil volume than others. Choose containers with plenty of extra space to ensure that container size does not limit plant growth.

When it comes to selecting a type of container, the options are virtually endless. If you live in an area that receives high winds from time to time, you may want to consider a heavier container to make sure all of your hard work doesn’t blow away during the first summer storm. Also, look for containers that either come with pre-drilled holes in the bottom or are made of material that can be drilled. You will want to have holes at the bottom of your container to aid with soil drainage.

Here are a few container types to consider: 

Garden Pots

A large variety of pots of varying shapes, sizes, and materials are available from garden supply stores. These are probably your safest bet, as these products have been specifically designed for container gardening. Many of these pots also come pre-drilled with holes to provide drainage, an important feature for making sure your plants are not overwatered. Common pot materials included plastic, clay, concrete, and a large assortment of other materials.  Plastic containers are lightered and are able to hold moisture better. Pots that are made of porous materials do not retain water as well as plastic pots, but in many cases they are heavier, offering protection against tipping. 

Window Boxes

Window boxes provide an excellent option for individuals who don’t have ample outdoor surface space available. Planters designed for window installation have been designed to fit virtually any window configuration imaginable, so you should be able to find something that will suit your personal needs. For some city dwellers living in high-rise apartments, window boxes may be the only viable option for maintaining any kind of outdoor container garden.

Found Containers

Found containers allow for in incredible amount of personal expression when designing your container garden, and a quick internet search will demonstrate just how creative you can be when it comes to selecting unique holders for your flowers, vegetables, and herbs. Plants may be grown in anything from shoes to toilets, and any container of sufficient size may be a potential makeshift garden pot.

When using found containers to set up your garden, there are a few important items to consider. First, make sure that you are able to incorporate some kind of drainage system. This usually means drilling holes into the bottom of your container. This can be either simple or next to impossible, depending on your selected container’s material. For example, drilling some holes in the bottom of an old wooden barrel you have lying around is a much simpler process than trying to drill holes in a large glass jug. Use your best judgment when selecting containers, remembering that you may need to drill drainage holes on the bottom of your container at some point.

While providing holes for drainage is not absolutely necessary, it provides you with a much greater margin of error when watering your plants. Without drainage, water will accumulate in your container unless it is being taken up by the plant. If too much water accumulates in the soil, your plants may not survive. 

Window Box
Credit: barbndcon Flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Potting Soil & Fertilizer

If you are setting up a container garden, odds are you don’t have a plot of fertile land to draw soil from. Unless you have high quality soil at your disposal, you are going to want to purchase potting soil from your local garden supply store. Many different potting soil brands and formulas are available, and the type of soil you select should be governed by the type of plants you are planning on growing. Lower quality potting soils may require a bit more supplementation with fertilizer, while higher quality soils may be more nutrient-rich and thus may decrease the overall amount of maintenance required of you, the gardener.

Since container gardens are isolated from the soil ecosystem in which plants typically grow, your plants will not have ready access to a number of vital soil nutrients. To supplement your plants’ growth, you may need to provide some sort of fertilizer. Some potting soils may include a “starter charge” of fertilizer, which means that the soil contains enough nutrients to allow your plants to sprout and develop. You will need to add additional fertilizer over time though to ensure that your plants remain healthy. Other potting soils contain “slow-release” fertilizer capsules to release nutrients gradually over time as your plants grow and develop. These potting soils are more expensive but can dramatically reduce gardener workload.

If you live in a city, do not try to use soil directly from the ground. The soil found in many cities contains a variety of contaminants that can be absorbed the plants you are growing. Additionally, soils in heavily populated areas are often nutrient deficient when it comes to growing vegetables and herbs. Stick with potting soil that has been specifically designed for container gardening instead.

Protection from Insects

There are several commercial varieties of pesticide are on the market for home and commercial gardeners alike. While synthetic pesticides are very effective, organic farming techniques are currently in vogue and can save you needless worrying about whether or not you washed your vegetables well enough. Use of synthetic pesticides may be more appropriate for gardens that do not contain edibles.

If you’re interested in taking the organic route, here are some suggestions for pesticide-free pest control strategies:

Floating Row Covers

Floating row covers act as a net that is physically draped over your plants. They provide protection from insects while allowing sufficient amounts of air and sunlight to pass through them for your plants to thrive.

Insect Traps

Sticky insect traps are available for purchase, and these can be installed in the vicinity of your container garden as a means of pest control. 

Oil Spray

When applied directly to pests via application of a fine mist, oil coats the insects’ skin. Since insects breathe through their skin, coating them with a thin layer of oil effectively suffocates them. These sprays only work when they come into direct contact with pest, so they require regular reapplication to be effective.

Watering Schedule

Don’t forget to water your plants! Come up with a regular watering routine and consider purchasing a water bulb to reduce the amount of time you spend tending to your garden each day. The amount of water your container garden needs will depend on the season, the weather, type of container, and species of plant.

The easiest way to determine whether or not your plants need watered is to feel the first inch or soil of the soil. If the soil feels dry, your plant needs watered. Having holes in the bottom of your containers makes the process of watering much less stressful, as you will not need to worry as much about overwatering your plants and accidentally “drowning” them. Instead, the only thing you will need to worry about is how to collect the water coming out of the bottom of the container. In most cases, placing your container in a dish or bowl should be enough to collect any excess water that is not absorbed by the soil.

When growing containers on balconies or near buildings, you may want to make an effort to avoid the intrusion of rainwater runoff from roofs and gutters into your plant containers. Although many modern roofing materials are non-toxic, rainwater collected from roofs still may contain harmful contaminants such as synthetic organic chemicals, heavy metals, and bacteria. You may be able to use unfiltered rainwater for watering flower gardens without too much concern, but you should avoid using it to water vegetables or herbs that you are planning on eating.  



Sep 2, 2015 12:00pm
Excellent article.
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