While grabbing a pot, filling it with potting mix, and sticking a plant inside may work for some people, personally, I don’t like my odds.
Instead, I rely on a proven system for creating a thriving vegetable garden within containers by focusing on three essential components: choosing the best containers, selecting container-compatible plants, and filling containers with nutrient rich potting soil.
Choosing the Best Containers
A massive perk of container gardening is adding visual interest to your space with unique and intriguing planters. However, not all containers are created equal. For a thriving container garden, make sure your aesthetically-pleasing pot also passes this essential checklist.
Proper Drainage Holes
The number one mistake new gardeners make is inaccurately assessing the moisture levels within their planters. Containers and pots typically dry out faster than traditional garden beds. Many beginner gardeners mistakenly overcompensate when watering their containers or, perhaps less frequently, actually withhold necessary water assuming their pots require the same amount of water as their inground garden.
Before filling your container of choice (be it a standard garden pot or a unique planter), ensure that it has proper drainage holes. If it doesn’t, grab a drill and add some yourself. When your container lacks a mechanism to remove excess water from its potting soil, you run the risk of bog-like conditions and root rot. If you’re worried about soil seeping through the drainage holes as you fill your planter, place a coffee filter or two over the holes. This allows water to flow through the filter while holding back potting mix.
Select a Suitably Sized Container for Your Plant
While watering issues are the leading culprit in the failure of aspiring container gardeners, incorrectly sized pots is a close second.
If you grow within containers, you will at some point inevitably make the mistake of misjudging the size of your fully matured plant. When selecting a container for your plant, a little research beforehand will save you time, money, and the frustration of having to relocate it to a larger pot in a few months. A quick Google search will reveal the approximate size of container you need for a given plant, and can even indicate how often you’ll need to water that potted variety. For example, if you’re dreaming of growing tomatoes in containers, a smaller determinate variety will be happily situated in your 5 gallon bucket. Your big slicer tomatoes, however, will likely either produce smaller fruits or fewer altogether in anything less than a 7 gallon container.
When choosing a container for your plant, select one based on the plant’s anticipated size when fully matured. If you’re planting a viney vegetable (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, etc.) or a particularly bushy plant, grab a bigger pot than you think you’ll need so your plant has the space to grow into its full glory. The first time I grew rosemary and lavender, I significantly underestimated the amount of space they’d need. They each had to be repotted midseason because they’d outgrown their cramped quarters.
Fabric Pots: Your Plant’s Favorite Container
Fabric pots are the game changer your garden needs if you are more interested in garden production than cute and custom pots. These understated containers may be simple, but their strong results in the garden consistently earn them diehard fans amongst new and seasoned gardeners alike. We’ve tested many types of growing containers over the years, and nothing’s been able to match our fabric pots in terms of root health and drainage. Did I mention they are incredibly affordable and come in a variety of sizes? Grab a pack of these fabric pots and see if you don’t notice a difference in your garden!
Fabric Pots and Air pruning
Fabric pots boost root health through a process called air pruning. Air pruning is a root cultivation technique that exposes roots to dry air, effectively stopping them from extending beyond the capacity of their container. This is the difference between a rootbound potted plant and one that continually creates new roots for a more robust and productive plant. The porous fabric of the pot increases aeration while allowing freedom for roots to wander without becoming entangled. Air pruning creates a denser root system that effectively enables your plant to capitalize on any nutrients you provide and counteract any accidental overwatering errors.
Fabric Pots are Perfect for Drainage
Plastic containers, even properly drilled for drainage, often retain significantly more water than gardeners realize. While the top two inches of your potting mix may be desert dry, the roots at the bottom can be drowning in saturated soil. The porous sides of fabric containers not only allow air to naturally prune the roots of your plant; it also creates uniformity in soil moisture levels. If you are growing a plant that doesn’t like to “get its feet wet” in consistently saturated soil, fabric pots are your answer.
Fabric Pots are Durable
No one wants to replace their containers every year. These fabric pots can last through multiple growing seasons and a wide range of extreme weather. With the exception of an accidental weed whacker or lawn mower incident, fabric pots repeatedly pass our standards for durability against the elements.
Picking Container-Compatible Plants
Some plants are excellent candidates for container growing while others prefer different arrangements. For a thriving container garden, selecting the proper plants from the start will have you picking fresh produce in no time.
Research, Research, Research
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: a quick Google search at the beginning of the season will save you frustration and overwhelm down the road. First, jot down a list of your must-have plants, the ones that are drawing you to the garden in the first place. Then pull out your phone to determine which of those plants actually thrive within containers. While you’re researching, take note of container size requirements for the plant to reach its full potential.
Consider a Container-friendly Variety!
If your heart is set on a plant that doesn’t appear to be container-compatible, look into varieties of that plant that are conducive to container gardens. If the dream of homegrown tomatoes is your sole purpose of gardening this year, look into determinate varieties or varieties bred specifically for containers. If your space needs a spark of cheery color, place some 3-foot Teddy Bear sunflowers or jewel-red strawberries in a sun-drenched container. There are container-friendly varieties of most vegetables, flowers, and herbs on the market. Where there’s a will, there’s a container-variety waiting to be discovered.
Healthy Potting Soil= Healthy Plants
A plant is only as healthy as the medium in which it’s grown. With the increasing popularity of container gardening, there is a spectacular array of potting soil options crafted specifically for thriving potted plants.
Purchasing Bagged Mix
Using exclusively native soil in your containers is a death sentence for your plants. Native garden soil is often incredibly dense. When it’s relocated into an isolated container, it loses access to the rich ecosystem that silently works to loosen the soil. The resulting compaction spells suffocation of your plant’s roots through reduced air pockets and ineffective moisture regulation.
Potting mixes are designed with two main focuses: aeration and water retention. There are usually some soil amendments also thrown in to condition the soil for optimal plant health. Common additions include compost, wood particles, and a variety of low level NPK fertilizers.
Create Your Own DIY Potting Soil Mix
If you need large quantities of potting mix, it is substantially cheaper to make your own. The process itself is incredibly simple and has saved us hundreds of dollars this year alone! Making your own soil mix does require some manual labor, so consider grabbing a friend or an obliging church youth group to help you out if needed!
Compost is King
Regardless of whether you go the pre-bagged or DIY route, your potted plants will happily reward you for suppling an extra helping of compost. We’ve discussed the specifics behind why your container garden craves compost earlier, but suffice it to say, the boost of organic matter will be a much appreciated addition to your container mix.
Container Gardening FAQs
Which vegetables are best for containers?
Some of the most successful container vegetables include:
- Lettuces, spinach, and Asian greens
This said, there is incredible variety available to gardeners wishing to grow in containers. We’ve grown sprawling cucumber plants from containers (trust me, you’ll need a trellis) as well as magenta-hued carrots and aromatic garlic. With the surge of interest in container gardening, the availability of container-compatible varieties of common plants are more accessible than ever before!
Which herbs grow best in containers?
Some all-time favorite herbs for container gardening include:
These plants are delightfully aromatic and are lovely additions to your favorite recipes. They are extremely low maintenance and are often situated near the kitchen for easy access.
Can I grow herbs together or do they need their own pots?
Many herbs are happy to room together within the same pot! There are two key principles to consider before plopping everyone in the same container: spacial needs and water requirements.
If properly cared for, rosemary and lavender can grow quite bushy and crowd out their smaller container-mates, and chives need to be separated after a growing season or two. If you’re hoping to devote a single container to a variety of herbs, my suggestion is to get a larger container than you think you’ll need.
An excellent way to pair herbs is grouping them according to their watering preferences. A happy grouping might include rosemary, lavender, thyme, oregano, and marjoram since they all have similar needs in terms of sunlight and water. Pot them up together and place them next to your kitchen for some quick additions to your dinner plate!
Can I grow tomatoes in 5 gallon buckets?
You absolutely can. I’ve grown tomatoes in inexpensive 5 gallon buckets for years, with varying degrees of success. Here’s how to do it successfully:
- Pick varieties that are conducive to the limited growing space
- Water frequently
- Recognize that the fruit produced may be smaller than you’re used to seeing. If you are determined to grow an indeterminate slicer tomato inside a 5 gallon bucket, you will likely have smaller fruits produced on your vine. They will still taste incredible! The reduced space will simply make the plants marginally less productive and the matured fruits smaller than you’re accustomed to seeing.
What are the drawbacks of container gardening and how can I avoid them?
Watering-too much or too little
As mentioned earlier, watering issues can make or break a container garden. Sometimes the problem can be rectified by simply selecting a container that is more conducive to proper drainage such as a fabric pot. Another inexpensive tool that can help a beginner gardener gauge watering frequency is a moisture meter that senses the amount of moisture within the soil. As you gain gardening experience, you’ll be able to discern the moisture level of the soil by touch, but until then, this tool can add much needed clarity to whether or not your plant needs a drink.
The upfront cost of purchasing containers, potting soil, and plants frequently discourages many would-be gardeners from ever achieving their dream. The initial price tag of a container garden, especially when compared to the lower-cost alternative of traditional gardening, makes money-saavy individuals wonder if the risk of gardening failure is worth their hard-earned dollar.
In reality, a small container garden is a significantly lower investment than an inground garden in terms of time and maintenance. If you’re on the fence about gardening, a few containers filled with your favorite plants is a significantly smaller investment than the effort of creating and maintaining a traditional garden bed. Plus, you may find the numerous benefits of container gardening not only outweigh the initial price tag, but convince you that containers can actually be preferable to inground gardens.
A thriving container garden is more science than art, and it’s a science you can learn. Scaling your gardening goals by using the best containers, container-compatible plants, and a nutrient dense growing medium will have you harvesting fresh produce for your table all season long.
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