How to Create Container Flower Gardens for Beginners

Why Start Container Gardening?

There are many reasons why container gardening might make sense for you. For instance:

  • You can control the soil mixture, allowing you to grow plants that might not be suited to your natural garden soil. Tropicals, succulents, and other specialized plants can easily be grown in containers even if they wouldn’t thrive in your soil or region.
  • You can move containers around, in effect “remodeling” your landscape whenever the mood hits. Containers can be moved around to take advantage of shifting sun patterns. 
  • Prized plants can be moved indoors when the weather gets cold. 
  • Container gardening allows that green thumb to thrive even if you live somewhere without a yard. Apartment dwellers can still garden!

How to Prepare for the Container Garden

  1. Assess the Sunlight

    It's possible to grow a gorgeous container garden even if your yard receives very little direct sunlight. You can also grow spectacular containers if your yard is bathed in sunlight all day long.

    The first step is to accurately assess how much sunlight is available to choose the right plants for your container garden. It is quite common for gardeners to grossly overestimate the amount of sun an area receives per day so it’s important to be accurate in your estimations.

    To calculate how much sun an area receives, go outdoors several times a day to observe the area where you plan to locate your containers. It helps to take timestamped photos of the area several times per day to record how many hours of direct sun or shade the area receives.

    Measure sunlight at the time of year when you will be planting your container garden because the sun angle makes a difference. The sun angle during the winter months is not the same as it is in the summer months; also remember that nearby deciduous trees are not leafed out in winter. The total daily hours of full sun, dappled sun, or shade an area receives determines the plants that will grow well under those conditions.

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

    Tip Every plant requires some amount of daily sun. A plant that requires "full sun" requires a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Full sun vegetables require up to 10 hours or more. A plant that requires "part sun" or "part shade" needs four to six hours of sunlight per day. Plants that require "full shade" are likely to do well with three hours of sunlight per day.

  2. Choose a Container

    Almost anything can be turned into a planting container provided it has adequate drainage holes. However, remember that the larger the container is, the more soil it will hold. And the more soil, the more water is retained and available to your plants.

    Small containers 10 inches or less in diameter dry out very quickly in hot and dry spells, and though some plants don't mind dry conditions, most plants become stressed when they dry out. Stressed plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases. In other words, there are advantages to using the biggest containers possible.

    When purchasing a container, make sure it has adequate drainage holes; if not, you must create drainage holes. A large container should have at least 1 drainage hole of 1 inch in diameter—and preferably several holes. If the container doesn't have enough drainage, you can usually drill, punch, or use a pointy tool to pierce some extra holes.

    Self-watering pots are great because they contain a water reservoir system to provide a constant source of moisture to the roots without any intervention from you other than to keep the reservoir filled with water.

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  3. Buy (or Make) Potting Mix

    While the growing medium used for container gardens is often called potting soil, it actually contains no soil at all—at least not the same kind of soil found in garden beds. More properly called potting mix, this sterile growing medium contains a mixture of organic and inorganic materials such as peat moss, perlite, compost, sand, and other ingredients. What is notably missing are the living organisms (including pathogens and insects) and other minerals generally found in garden soil.

    Do not buy topsoil or garden soil for your container gardens, and don't dig soil from your garden beds. Most gardeners buy commercial potting mix by the bag, but it is also possible to make your own potting mix by blending peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, and well-decomposed compost together in an even ratio. (There are many homemade recipes for potting mix that you can find online.)

    Commercial potting mixes sometimes include time-released fertilizer already blended in. It is fine to choose either fertilizer-enhanced or plain potting mix, but this might reduce your regular feeding schedule, which is usually every two weeks.

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

  4. Choose Plants Wisely

    Once you've determined how much sunlight an area receives, selected a container, and purchased or made a potting soil mix, now the fun begins—choosing your plants.

    If your container design calls for various kinds of plants, make sure that all of the plants you purchase have the same requirements for sunlight, the type of soil, and moisture. In other words, purchase plants that play well together.

    Do your research to learn about container design philosophies and concepts, A general rule of (green) thumb is for a container to have one “thriller” plant that is just as tall as the container surrounded by mid-sized filler plants (plants with a full, mounded growing habit). To complete a balanced look, include low-growing or vining plants that spill over the sides of the container to soften its edges. This design concept is called “thriller, filler, and spiller.”

    Also, don't be afraid to design a container with only one fabulous plant or several plants of one variety. Many great container gardens use just a single plant variety.

    The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

Video

Great Read: Garden Alchemy

I go into a lot more detail and give some additional tips and tricks for growing gardens in containers in my newest book, Garden Alchemy. It has 80 recipes and concoctions for organic fertilizers, plant elixirs, potting mixes, pest deterrents, and more!

1. Choose the Right Container

Much like plants, containers have their own characteristics to take into account, including weight, sensitivity to weather changes, and appearance. You'll also want to consider your budget, space, and style when choosing a container. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the less you'll need to water, but whatever you choose, always make sure the container has holes in the bottom for drainage. Some common types of pots include the following.

  • Terra-Cotta: Versatile and inexpensive, terra-cotta containers are also called clay pots. You can find them plain or decorated in colorful glazes. The only downside to using terra-cotta is that it's somewhat fragile. It will chip and crack if handled too roughly, and can be damaged by freezing temperatures (empty and store them indoors over winter in colder regions).
  • Concrete: Concrete containers can take any type of weather. Be careful where you place concrete planters, since they're extremely heavy and very difficult to move, especially once they're filled with soil and plants.
  • Wood: Pick a durable wood, like cedar or nontoxic treated pine. To help them last longer, brush all the surfaces with a clear waterproofing sealer labeled for use on outdoor wood.
  • Metal: Galvanized tubs and buckets are great options for container gardens. However, beware when using a metal container because they will heat up quickly in the sun and cook your plants. To protect the plants, line the container with garden fabric and place it in a shady spot.
  • Plastic, Fiberglass, or Resin: These types of containers can be made to look like just about any other type (but at a lower price and lighter weight). They aren't as high quality and won't last forever, but they can provide a certain look.
  • Repurposed Containers: Choose old baskets, tin buckets, birdbaths, and watering containers to house your favorite plants. The thrifted look is stylish and rustic.

all red and pink grouping of container garden plants Credit: Joseph Wanek

Dont Use the Same Soil for Everything

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Even if you do have decent soil beneath your lawn, it’s best not to use it for your container garden. Potted plants—especially edible plants—need lots of nutrition, aeration, drainage, and moisture retention, and you’ll get all these qualities with potting mix. Potting mix is soilless and therefore sterile, free of fungus and diseases.

The all-purpose kind is fine for most plants, but do your research. Some require more drainage than a standard potting mix can provide or an especially high or low pH. Succulents, for example, need a special cactus mix whereas ferns benefit from the high drainage provided by tropical potting mix.

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Add Dimension With Shelves and Stands

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How does a container garden help conserve space, you ask? When working with containers, you can eschew the vertical layout of the traditional garden for a stacked arrangement. You can grow upwards, not just outwards. Many use this technique for privacy—the plants can act as a barrier between you and a close neighbor.

Create height by employing plant stands or installing a shelving unit. Another trick: Use tall and/or pedestalled planters. Avoid wasting soil by placing a plastic pot (or several) upside down inside the large planter first, then fill it the rest of the way with soil.

5. Place Plants in Your Container

When you're ready to add plants, give their nursery containers a gentle squeeze around the sides to loosen the root ball enough until you can slide it out. Avoid tugging on the plant itself, which may damage it. Then, set your plants on the potting mix so that the top of their root balls are a couple of inches below the rim of your container. This will make it easier for you to water later. Fill in around your plants with more potting mix, making sure the stems are no deeper in soil than they were in their nursery containers. Use your hands to press down lightly on the mix to eliminate large air pockets.

How to Build a Container Garden

Building a container garden is simple and requires only a few elements to consider when potting your plants.

Container size

It’s much easier to grow plants in large containers than in small containers. Smaller pots will dry out quickly and possibly restrict root growth. Because larger containers can hold more soil, they can stay moist for more extended periods and won’t require as much watering.

Roots

You’ll want to consider your container’s size and the root growth of your chosen plant. If your plant has an extensive root system, you’ll want to opt for a large pot. But if your plant has a shallow root system, that favorite medium-sized terracotta pot of yours will work just fine.

Soil

Keep in mind that the soil around your home may not be suitable for a garden container. You may need to amend and improve the soil you wish to use in your containers for optimal plant health or use a potting mix.

Drainage

Drainage is also an essential factor for a container garden. Ensure your potting containers have drainage holes at the bottom; otherwise, your garden will become waterlogged from excess water.

Shade

When finding the right plants for your container garden, note if these plants will require shade or full sun. The last thing any gardener wants is to buy sun-loving plants, only to learn that the chosen location for the garden is too shady.

Maintenance

Every plant has its own maintenance requirements, and some plants require more maintenance than others. Fertilization, watering, harvesting, pruning, soil health –– these items will vary depending on the plants you grow.

Location

You’ll want your container garden in an area where it best accentuates the surrounding space. Which corner of the old apartment balcony needs it most, or where on the porch will it add the best curb appeal. You’ll also want to consider where your container garden will be most accessible, maybe on a ledge or windowsill, and where it will receive the right amount of shade and sunlight.

FAQ about container gardening

Can gravel at the bottom of the container help with drainage?

Gravel won’t increase drainage, and it’s harmful to some plants.

Soil retains moisture like a sponge and doesn’t begin to release any water until it’s fully saturated. As the soil starts to saturate with water, the water settles near the soil’s bottom, right above the gravel. Remember, the water wouldn’t pass through the soil until the soil is fully saturated.

As the water begins to collect at the bottom of the soil, what you’ve actually done with the gravel is make the flower pot smaller. There is now less space for the roots to grow, and the roots are sitting in harmful, moist soil that could have otherwise been further down the pot.

So while adding gravel to your pot may seem like excellent drainage, it can cause root rot and kill many of your container plants.

What is the best soil for my containers?

Regular garden soil likely won’t give your container garden the aeration, drainage, or nutrients it needs. You’ll want to opt for a potting soil that’s customized to satisfy your chosen plants and can drain well but still retain moisture.

Potting soil can be made at home or bought at your local gardening or home improvement store.

Should I plant seeds or transplants?

Whether you grow your plant from seed or transplant depends on the length of your growing season, how well the plant’s seed can germinate, and how well the plant can be transplanted.

If you wish to grow a plant that takes longer to grow, but your growing season is short (which is the case up North), then you’ll likely want to begin growing your container garden with a more developed nursery plant.

Otherwise, if you have a long growing season and the plant germinates well from seed, planting seeds can be a great option.

You may also want to grow from seed if the plant you wish to grow doesn’t transplant well. Plants such as carrots, cucumbers, and lettuce don’t grow well after being transplanted and are best grown from seed.

Tips for Maintaining Your Container Garden

Maintaining a container garden is mostly a matter of watering correctly and providing adequate food at the right time and with the right amount of water and fertilizer.

As a rule, potting mix should be kept damp but not wet. To determine soil moisture, stick your finger down to the second knuckle into the soil. If the soil still feels moist, don't apply water.

Watering is particularly tricky because your container will dry out faster on sunny days, and wind can suck moisture out of a pot. On cloudy or damp days the container might not dry out as quickly. That said, it's easy to be fooled by a gentle rain, which often leaves a container garden relatively dry.

Depending on the climate in your area and how high temperatures reach, you might have to water them more than once per day in the heat of summer, especially if containers are 10 inches or less in diameter.

Regular feeding won't be required if you have added fertilizer to the potting mix when you planted the container. If you did not add time-released or granular fertilizer to the potting mix, follow the feeding schedule recommended for containers, usually once every two weeks with a diluted solution of water-soluble fertilizer.

Be aware that nutrients leach from containers every time they are watered. Thus, container-grown plants require more frequent feeding than plants do when grown in a garden bed.

The Spruce / Gyscha Rendy

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