Planting a Container Garden

It’s amazing what you can grow in pots! Containers can add a lot of interest in a landscaped yard, make apartment landings more beautiful, and make things cheery indoors. As I’m sure you can guess, comprehensive information about container gardening can’t fit into this single post. So consider this an overview that covers prep, planting essentials, and miscellaneous tips to get you started.

Bonus: the information in this post applies to both vegetable container gardens and decorative ones (sometimes gardens can be both!). And it applies to indoor gardens as well.

How to Plant a Successful Container Garden - 7 Secrets!   |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Container Garden Prep

The first step is to plan. This might be the first time you’ve ever thought about a container garden, or you may have been planning since last October. But either way, it’s not too late to start!

Secret #1: Ask yourself a few questions about your container garden.

– What do you want to plant? What kind of pot or container will you need?

– When should you, or when are you going to plant it? (If you’re me, then the answer is: at the last possible minute!)

– Where will your container garden be — indoors, outdoors, patio, deck, porch? Where do you live? Does your climate affect what you can plant? Is it arid and dry? Is it humid?

– Why do you want to plant this garden? Will you cook with the herbs and veggies you grow? Is it part of your outdoor decor?

– How often will it need to be watered? (Again, think about your climate. And think about your busy lifestyle — how much watering do you have time for?) How will your garden work into your summer vacation schedule?

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

And there are loads of other plants that do well in container gardens, like cucumbers, chiles, tomatoes, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, chamomile, lettuce, potatoes, carrots, strawberries, edible flowers, onions, eggplant, and bell peppers. In fact, if the pot is deep enough you could theoretically plant almost anything in a container.

Make a list, do some research, ask questions and plan out your space. Remember that seedlings are much smaller than full-grown plants, so you’ll need more space (meaning: a larger container) than you might think.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Types of Containers

The beauty of container gardens is that practically anything can turn into a pot for a plant. Secret #2: It doesn’t have to be an official garden pot, almost any kind of container will work. You can see old metal washtubs, plastic laundry baskets, wood crates, tires, wine barrels, and other snazzy boxes and colorful containers — all used successfully as planters. Choose what you like best and suits your taste.

There are a few other considerations to think about when choosing a container. If you live somewhere windy, you might want to purchase a pot that is heavy and sturdy with a base that is wider than the top so it doesn’t tip over.

Terracotta is a long-time favorite, but sometimes plastic is a better option, because it’s (almost) indestructible and lighter to lift. If you don’t have a space with full sun, and the plants need to be moved around, smaller containers (or larger ones on casters) will be your best best.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Also keep in mind that vegetables need deeper pots in order to develop a really strong root system. Deeper pots = more soil.  Bring a calculator along with you when shopping for supplies so you can easily calculate how many quarts to buy or how many cubic feet that equals.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Some herbs will have long roots as well, but can usually tolerate shallower pots. Lettuces and cabbages can tolerate shallower planters as well.

Frankly, you just kind of have to ask and look around a bit for advice on specific plants.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Also, now is a good time to start mentioning drainage. Most pots come with good drainage systems built in. If not, you can easily drill or punch holes in the bottom to allow for that — more on that in a minute. Also, the holes allow enough oxygen to reach the roots, which is another essential for optimal root health.

Helpful Guide! How to Plant a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Okay. You’ve selected your plants and containers, now it’s time to talk about the essentials that all plants need.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Soil for Container Garden

First up, soil. Secret #3: Don’t be tempted to transfer dirt from your yard into the pots you’ll be using for your container garden. It might include unwanted organisms and insects, weeds, or other materials that could harm potted plants or impede proper growth and plant health.

Instead, plan on buying a good potting mix from a local greenhouse or home improvement store. It removes all the guesswork for you and includes nutrients and proper pH levels plants need.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Potting mixes include a combination of several soil amendments, different materials such as peat moss, mulch, vermiculite, perlite, and sometimes sand. Potting mixes are formulated to aid in aeration and proper drainage.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Dried Sphagnum (Peat) Moss —  increases the soil’s capacity for storing water and nutrients

– Mulch — pieces of bark or wood chips that conserve moisture and help keep soil healthy

– Vermiculite — a mined, naturally occurring phyllosilicate that absorbs water and improves aeration in soil. It can be difficult to find and has received bad press over the years because it was contaminated with asbestos from a mine in the US in 1990.  Some gardeners don’t use it because over time it tends to break down, though it never dissolves. (This is the same stuff you’ll see in the bottom of fireplaces with gas logs.)

-Perlite — naturally occurring, looks like little styrofoam balls, holds water very well, prevents soil compaction. If using by itself, use extreme caution and even wear a mask to prevent inhaling it. (See why a premixed soil is so handy?)

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom
7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Some gardeners like to have more control over their soil, so they mix their own from various amendments. Worm casings, compost, coffee grounds, and other organic materials are commonly used.

If you want to buy vermiculite or perlite (or both) check first at some of the big box and home improvement stores. For perlite, you may need to go to a farm supply store, or order online.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Watering a Container Garden

They say it’s difficult to over-water container gardens. Secret #4: Typically, watering container gardens once a day is enough, and water will drain off when there is too much. (Read further on for more about that.) The only real problem with over-watering a container garden is the chance that vital nutrients will be washed away with the excess water.

It goes without saying that you want to guard against under-watering. If you forget for a few days, the plant might not suffer too much, but it’s better to make sure watering becomes a daily habit.

Make it as easy on yourself as you can. For example, if you’re a city apartment dweller with a rooftop garden, consider a barrel to collect rain water so you don’t have to lug gallons of water up and down stairs every day. Or, if your container garden is part of your landscaping and you have a sprinkling system, place the containers near the sprinklers and let them do the watering.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

This is the perfect time to cover the subject of drainage. Sounds like fun, right?

First let’s dispel a well-known garden myth: the practice of filling the bottom of your pots with gravel. Secret #5: While it seems like this would be a great idea to help with drainage, the opposite is actually true. Good, aerated soil will drain just fine on its own. And there’s more of a chance the pots will become waterlogged with the gravel than without.

The same goes for adding pot shards to the bottom of your pot. In effect, the pot’s depth is shortened and drainage impeded.  Contrary to what you might think, the soil won’t wash out of the holes in the bottom of the pot either. Proper soil ends up acting like a sponge that will release water when there is too much and retain it as needed.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Sun for Container Gardens

Secret #6: Not much needs to be said about sunlight except that A) it’s very necessary, and B) part of your planning process should include which plants need how much sun.

If you have a small area that receives sunlight for most of the day, that’s going to be fine. If you have a shaded patio or balcony, find shade-friendly plants.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Fertilizer for Container Gardens

Different plants have different nutrient requirements. This is a part of gardening that is as fun as it is infuriating. Secret #7: Choose a potting mix that has fertilizer mixed right in. That makes things easy. Some people don’t like that and want more control, and that’s fine too. Research online or ask someone at the nursery to help.

There are so many different kinds of fertilizers and nutrients you can purchase or add yourself. You can buy liquids that are mixed in when watering or powders that are mixed in with the soil when planting. There are stakes or pellets that release fertilizer slowly into the soil with each watering. And there’s your very own kitchen compost. It just depends on what you like and can keep track of, because you don’t want to fertilize too much either.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Container Gardening Tips & Info

– When growing tomatoes and peppers in a container garden, even with a really good potting mix it’s possible that there isn’t enough calcium or other nutrients in the soil. These have to be replaced often or a plant disease called blossom end rot will occur. The fruit looks just fine until you turn it over and the bottom is darkened and rotten.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Bone meal or other fertilizers containing calcium should be added to the planting hole when you place the tomato or pepper seedling (and some other plants too) to help prevent this. Once it happens, it can’t be reversed easily.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Save the plant tags or seed packages — they often contain information about the frequency of watering, fertilizing, light requirements, and climate zones.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Add water and mix it into the soil before adding the seedling.

The soil will absorb quite a bit of water, and it helps the plants acclimate to their new home a little better and have less run-off during future waterings.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Find out which plants will do well together and which plants are container hogs (like mint).

It’s kind of fun to plant themed pots. For example, if you have a large enough pot, you might plant a cherry tomato with some cilantro and a small chile plant, and some onions around the perimeter (salsa!). Or maybe a pot with herbs you might use in French cooking, like rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Don’t be afraid to use cages or stakes for plants that like to climb or vine — like tomatoes and cucumbers.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Make your garden accessible. For example, you can place plants you use in your daily cooking by your door, so you can run out quick and snip a few herbs during dinner prep.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– When planting tomatoes, remove bottom leaves and plant a little deeper to give the roots a good chance to take hold.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– When re-potting a seedling, loosen the root ball just a little bit, but don’t cut or tear roots off of the plant. If the root ball seems too large for the container you’ve chosen, swap it out for a larger one.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

– Remove “suckers” from in between the branches so the plant can put energy into the main stem. Do this at planting and in the first few weeks. If it seems too tedious, skip it and chances are your harvest will be just fine.

7 Secrets to Planting a Successful Container Garden.  |   Design Mom

Okay. Basics have been covered, and a few favorite tips too. Design Mom Readers, now it’s your turn. How does your garden grow?  In pots? In the ground?  What are you growing this year? And what are your favorite container gardening tips? Happy planting!


Text and images by Lindsey Rose Johnson for Design Mom.

46 thoughts on “Planting a Container Garden”

  1. Good tips! I find that a must-read for container gardeners is “McGee and Stuckey’s Bountiful Container.” It’s a fabulous book written by two women who really know their stuff. It covers both the how to’s of planting and a very thorough reference guide to veggies, fruits and herbs.

  2. My pro-gardener dad has figured out a way to grow container tomatoes indoor all winter long! It takes a lot of sunlight (so the climbing plants double as window coverings), but it’s so nice to have full-flavor snacks year round!

    I liked your tips best. I’m excited to get the cucumber plant a cage to grow up, not out!

    1. That’s great, Kelli! An older gentleman at the nursery told me he likes to plant all of his tomatoes in containers so he can have them all winter long. I think I’ll try it out this year. Having plants as window coverings sounds just lovely!

  3. I have another idea for blossom end rot. I save my egg shells. When planting out my tomatoes in containers, I crush an egg shell or two into the bottom of my planting hole. This has solved my problem and I don’t have to buy another expensive supplement.

    1. Nodding. That’s what I do, too. Except when I forget to save the shells and put them in the compost instead–because I have a bag of bone meal anyway, and I use so little for my bulbs. I hate blossom-end rot! Although if you do get it, your edible is still edible. I just cut off the end (helped me eek out a couple more jars of tomatoes to can last summer when our tomato harvest was bad–hive collapse, we think, caused that).

  4. What I’m stymied by this year is how to get containers off the ground. I’d really like some sort of bookcase-like structure that will be both visually appealing on the deck, convenient for watering, and will free up walking/sitting space. I have a large garden and I’m doing a couple of straw bales this year in addition, but I still like a lot of containers in quick reach of the kitchen for cooking. But I find the collection of pots to look cluttered and use precious space. I have planters on the rail, but past cool-vegetable season, they’ll be filled with annual flowers. Have you seen any great ideas for containers going vertical?

    1. I bought an indoor Bakers rack. My plants look neat and colorful.
      If could post a picture I would. Maybe if you email me, I could send it to you.

  5. One more question: I want to know where you got your colorful plastic pots. I prefer plastic, too, for weight and expense, but I usually see terra-cotta-colored or maybe the odd black or white pot.

    1. You know what, they were by the far the least expensive pots I’ve ever bought and I really like them! I picked those up at Walmart this year. They come in several other colors too. They start at $0.99. The ones in the picture were only $3 I think. Can’t beat that!

  6. Lindsey, I have a fourteen-year-old daughter who needs to follow you! She is a little kichen herb gardener/horticulturalist in the making, babying along the herbs she has growing in several antique cooking pots that live out on the terrace of our loft here in Barcelona. Currently she’s growing rosemary, basil, Italian parsley, and mint. The parsley’s a little anemic, but the others seem to like Barcelona’s newly arrived spring. Thanks for making the business of growing herbs seem not only charming but downright doable!

  7. Thank you for this post! So informative and interesting. Lindsey, do you have a favorite gardening book for the South? Can’t wait to check out your Pinterest!

  8. This is a really helpful post. We have started a ton of pots and our greenhouse with vegetables this year, and many I have never tried growing before. I wish I had read this before I started all my plants! Is it too late to add calcium (bone meal etc) to my tomatoes and peppers if they are already a few inches tall? Is there any way to add a liquid version to the soil that will still help them? I am all worried now they might get the rot your are talking about…

  9. Thanks so much for this informative post! Gardening is one of my passions, although, I don’t claim to really know what I’m doing. I have a large vegetable garden, but I would like to move into some container gardening. Thanks for posting!

  10. Excellent tips, I have a large yard but EVERYONE in this area spray chemicals on their lawns, I figured it make no sense to plant my organic plants that I will eat from in chemical filled soil. That is why I container garden. Excellent post, thank you.

  11. I love your posts, I love your pictures, and this was great advice! I had end rot the first year I planted tomatoes, and was so disappointed. I have to remember the bone meal – I’m ready to transplant my seedlings this weekend.
    Keep up the great posts!

  12. I actually just planted a container garden and now I’m wishing I would have visited your site first! On the subject of “suckers,” I planted a tomato plant in a container last year and didn’t really know what I was doing haha. It flourished, but I never got a single tomato off of it, I just had a giant bush! So, I am a firm believer in picking off those suckers now.

    1. Andrea,

      How frustrating! That’s totally happened to me before too. One thought I just had is this–were there any blossoms at all? Sometimes with container gardens especially, the blossoms don’t get pollinated by bees for one reason or another. And actually, this has happened in my in-the-ground garden too. If you see blossoms but they fall off and never produce fruit, gently shake the stem a little and that should do the trick.

      But I’m with you–I pull those sucker off. It does seem to make a difference. Already in just a week the ones I planted are doing very well and growing stronger. :)

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. I read on a web site…when this happens use a small paint brush on your flowers and pollination will happen. Dusting each flower with the brush causes the pollen to be transferred.

  13. I love the treasure trove of information I found in your article! I started my first container garden about 3 weeks ago and plan on planting more. I learned a lot from your article and will apply all that I learned to my next round of planting! I’m so glad I started container gardening! I just love it!! Thank you!

  14. My entire yard is cement. With a cinderblock fence. We do a vertical garden in felt pockets, and containers everywhere. It’s fun! I’m a big beginner so your tips are great!

  15. Oh… And I do my strawberries in atrawberry pots, but they can be tricky to water ( they are so tall the water doesn’t get to the bottom. I put a cardboard paper towel tube filled with gravel in the middle. The water moves down the gravel and gets to the bottom quickly. Best strawberries after that!

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  20. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Finding the time and actual effort
    to produce a great article… but what can I say… I hesitate a lot and
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  22. Nice post. From my experience and what I see other people do — I don’t think they realize how big herb plants will eventually get.

    A rosemary plant will grow to the size of a large shrub and if the container is brought in and protected from freezing in the winter, it will just keep right on growing and can be put out next year. As it grows larger, it needs a larger pot.

    Italian parsley gets huge and needs a large pot. Thyme will keep coming back year after year. Mint is also perennial and grows into a large plant.

    Cilantro usually bolts and goes to seed as soon as it gets hot, so it’s hard to grow, although there are supposedly some varieties bred to prevent this. I am trying “Culantro” this year (in Central Florida), which tastes just like Cilantro, but is much coarser and is not supposed to bolt in the heat.

    They aren’t herbs, but I also plant onion sets that you find in bags at Walmart, Lowes and HD this time of year in containers and use them for scallions. I stagger the planting, so they aren’t all ready at once. You can plant them in the pot so close, they are almost touching. Give them lots of manure.

    I’m also trying shallots and garlic in pots this year.

    Good luck to everyone with your gardens!

  23. Thank you for this info, I found you on Pinterest. I grow a lot in containers but do have some problems so I will check back to learn more. One of my problems this year is my cucumber. The little tiny ones turn yellow and shrivel up before falling off. I’ll put some of these tips to practice.

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  26. Loved your tips!! you seem pretty expert to me :)

    I have a small terrace that has no roof, so the southern winds from the south pole reach us heavily. I did manage to grow two tomato plants inside, that gave about 5 small (but yummy) babies.

    Basil dies. Period. I’ve tried it all… maybe not enough sunlight?

    Any tips for terrace growing (other than the great ones from this post)?

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