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Quick-Start Guide to Container Gardening

Date:3/2/2020
Author:Terry Baldwin
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tall outdoor planter with orange, yellow, pink & red trailing petunias

Container gardening is ideal for people who don’t have space—or time—to plant garden beds. When your garden is in pots, you can enjoy the beauty of flowers and foliage up close and personal on a balcony, porch or deck, with no weed worries.

This quick start guide focuses on ornamental container gardening, complete with photo examples.

1. CHOOSE A PLANTER

First, select your container(s). For the most impact, get the largest planters your space (and budget) can handle. If you will need to move your pots often, remember that soil and plants add weight—so avoid heavy pots, or place them on wheeled caddies, or get a CrossFit buddy who can do the heavy lifting.

A few more tips:

  • Porous pots made of clay and concrete will dry out faster than plastic or composite planters.
  • Metal and dark plastic planters absorb more heat—if your pots will be in full sun all day, you will need to water more, unless you’re growing plants that love dry soil and heat, like lavender.
  • Make sure the pot has drainage holes. No holes? Drill a few or line the container with a slightly smaller nursery pot that does have a hole. Raise the liner pot a half-inch or more, so it won’t sit in water.
  • For an extra-lush layered look, get multiple containers in different sizes and shapes.
  • Add height with plant stands or trellises.

2. CHOOSE YOUR PLANTS

Here are the 2 most important things to consider when selecting plants for your container garden:

  • Know the plants' sunlight needs. Don’t get plants that need 6 hours of sun if your pots will be in shade and get zero hours of sun, and vice versa.
  • When combining different plants, choose types with similar light, water, and soil needs. For example, don’t plant water-hating, sun-loving succulents with shade-loving daily-drinking impatiens.

succulent container garden with trailing sedum, green and gray-blue succulent plants
Succulents & sedum with willow branches

Garden centers usually separate plants into “sun” and “shade” groups. Read the plant label or ask for assistance if you aren’t sure. Plant people love to help!

Because EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL, garden centers can quickly become overwhelming. Here’s a little extra guidance to help you choose plants.

Rule of Thirds

The University of Illinois Extension has this simple tip: How tall is your pot and how tall will the plants be when they mature?

If you want the plants to get all the attention, the height of the planting should be twice as tall as the container.

If you want your cool pots to be the star, the container should be twice as tall as the planting. And you know it’s totally fine to ignore this rule.

THRILLA SPILLA CHILLA

light green outdoor ceramic planter on iron stand, filled with trailing green Lysimachia nummularia, yellow-orange tuberous begonias, red angel wing begonias
Begonia ‘Santa Cruz Sunset,’ yellow tuberous begonia, golden Creeping Jenny

Maybe you’ve heard of “thrillers, fillers and spillers.” This popular layering idea makes plant selection easier. Just choose plants from each group.

Thriller plants are the focal point, often tall foliage plants such as spiky grasses or elephant ears (aka colocasia). Or plants with unique, attention-getting flowers.

Spillers are plants that will cascade over the pot, such as creeping jenny (aka lysimachia), lobelia, or Wave petunias.

Fillers, you guessed it, fill in spaces between thrillers and spillers. Please feel free to ignore all of the above and fill your container exclusively with frothy spillers. Or a single statuesque elephant ear. Get flowers that you love looking at!

COLOR COMBOS

My idea of fun is spending hours at a garden center deciding on color combinations. What, that's not your idea of fun? Then choose colors before you hit the store. Get inspiration by checking out a color wheel.

Colors next to each other on the wheel make attractive monochromatic arrangements.

tall outdoor planter with orange, yellow, pink & red trailing petunias
Orange & yellow Supertunia petunias, red & pink calibrachoas

Contrasting colors on opposite sides of the wheel can create unexpectedly spicy and delightful displays.

window box with purple and red flowers on white house
Orange calibrachoas & unknown purple flowers

Or, choose a single shade and, for fun, add one accent color.

green & pink coleus and trailing lysimachia in window box on white house with black shutters
Coleus, golden creeping Jenny & blue streptocarpella

And there’s nothing wrong with flowers in ALL the colors!

Long brick container garden filled with pink, red, yellow, magenta, purple & orange flowers

A FEW MORE TIPS & IDEAS

It’s OK to add a vegetable or herbs to the mix. Ornamental kale and cabbage, for example. See how the flowering cabbages complement the magenta mums in the photo below? (Note that flowering kale is more bitter than the kale you pick out of salads.) And what about those tiny dill flowers sparkling among the lantanas and petunias?

concrete urn with bright pink mums and flowering kale in front of purple house
Ornamental cabbages & chrysanthemums

closeup view of yellow dill flowers, orange lantana and purple petunias
Dill, orange lantana & purple petunia

Don’t ignore foliage. You can make a stunning container garden with zero flowers! Bonus: most tropical plants and ferns can overwinter indoors. Another leafy idea: Pop in a perennial, such as a hosta or grass, that you can relocate to a garden bed in early fall. It’s sort of like getting a 2-for-1 deal.

Outdoor concrete urn with red, yellow & green tropical plant and trailing green lysimachia in front of store
Petra croton, creeping Jenny & asparagus fern

Mix textures and shapes. Have bold, broad-leaved caladiums? Add small-flowered impatiens and delicate maidenhair ferns. Big fat begonias? Pair with slender tubular fuchsias.

Outdoor planter with white and green caladium, maidenhair ferns, blue lobelia and salmon impatiens in front of brick wall
White caladium, maidenhair fern, lobelia, seashell impatiens

Steal ideas from the garden center! Good centers are full of stunning already-planted containers that you can copy.

HOW MANY PLANTS?

Nursery owner Brent Wilson suggests spacing plants half as far apart as the plant tag suggests. So, if the tag says to space plants 8 inches apart, you can space them 4 inches in a pot. I believe this applies to small, starter-size 6-packs. I find that larger 4- and 6-inch pots pretty much space themselves, because of their larger root balls.

Because I live in Michigan, land of short, sweet summers, I cram my planters full. I like the bouquet-like look when blooms and leaves mingle closely, creating a vibrant tapestry. But crammed plants are more susceptible to diseases. Plus, I’ve lost a few that starved because more vigorous neighbors blocked sunlight and water.

3. GET THE RIGHT PLANTING MIX

If you’re growing a combination of plants, garden experts recommend using a general soilless potting mix. According to University of Illinois Extension, soilless mixes drain better, allow roots to flourish, and weigh less. Regular ol’ dirt may harbor weed seeds, bugs, and diseases, plus it gets very heavy when wet. Don’t get bagged topsoil or garden soil.

If you’re growing plants with specific soil needs, such as succulents and cacti, you can find specialized planting mediums in a well-stocked garden center.

Jessica Walliser, of Savvy Gardening, adds finished compost to the potting mix in a 50-50 ratio. This adds nutrients and helps cut back on watering.

Hey, what about re-using soil that’s still in last year’s pots? U of I says yes, if last year’s plants were healthy. It can’t hurt to add some fresh mix and a little compost.

4. Now PLANT!

Here are a few planting tips:

  • Cover draining hole with paper towel or newspaper to keep soil from falling out.
  • No drainage hole? Do not put pebbles in the bottom thinking that will improve draining. It will not.
  • To add weight, you can put a few rocks around the drainage hole.
  • Planting annuals in a large, deep container? Reduce the amount of soil needed to fill it by putting empty, upside-down plastic plant pots in the bottom.
  • Thoroughly wet the potting mix before planting.
  • If the plant is root-bound, gently loosen roots. If they’re tightly matted, cut or carefully tear a small bit off the bottom and run the plant tag down the sides to cut some of the roots free.
  • Do not place plants deeper than they were in their original pots.
  • Leave at least one inch between the top of the soil and the pot rim, so water and soil won’t escape when you water.

5. CARE FOR YOUR GARDEN

white wire hay rack on iron fence filled with trailing blue flowers, pink fuchsia and orange begonias
Streptocarpella, lobelia, red fuchsia & misc. begonia

A word about watering. Follow the instructions on the plant tag. As a rule of thumb, stick your finger an inch down into the planter. If the soil feels dry, it’s usually safe to water. I say usually because some plants need more water than others.

Overwatering is a common cause of container-grown plant death. In fact, overwatered plants will wilt and trick you into thinking they’re dying of thirst, when they’re really dying of too much H2O. If a plant is wilting and the inch-deep soil feels damp, put the hose away (RIP, my lovely calibrachoa).

Here are more care tips from the MSU Extension:

  • As plants grow, they’ll drink more and may need watering twice daily if they’re in the sun. Shallow planters like window boxes dry out faster than larger containers.
  • Remove dead flowers to encourage more blooms.
  • If stems get long and lack flowers, cut them back by half to spur fresh growth.
  • Fertilize at least twice during the growing season.
  • Snip a few blooms and leaves for bouquets. That’ll encourage more growth.
  • If a plant begins to falter, or it’s simply done flowering, it’s OK to ruthlessly yank it and replace with a fresh specimen.

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