So maybe you don’t have a good spot for a garden bed, or you’d just prefer to start small. But do know that container gardening has added challenges.
Previous failure at growing plants in pots does not necessarily mean you are bad at gardening, or that you wouldn’t be successful with a different, more fool-proof method like raised beds. In fact, much of the information in this post comes from my own trials, failures, and lessons with containers on the balcony of my first apartment. So don’t be afraid to try again or try a new method!
Here at my best tips to help your container garden succeed.
The Right Container
Your container size will depend on what you want to grow. For larger plants like tomato plants, I recommend at least the size of a five gallon paint bucket. A kit like the one pictured below can turn a bucket or pot into a “self watering” pot (explained more in the watering section below).
Tomatoes like to be planted deep, so 5 gallon buckets work well for them. In contrast, squash and zuccchini (courgette) plants may like a wider and shallower container. Thick or rounded pot edges for plants that will overhang (like squash or melon) are best so the vine doesn’t break as it hangs over! In the top photo, the squash are in horse feed buckets. Be sure any container you use has drainage holes in the bottom or side.
As long as the size is good and water can drain out, you can use just about anything as a container. BPA free or food-grade plastic pots or lining is preferred for growing anything edible. Self-watering containers like Earthbox can make container gardening much easier especially in dry areas. Nicer pots can be surprisingly expensive in store, but keep an eye out for seasonal sales (like mid-late summer).
If you don’t mind getting a little creative and can compromise on looks a little, there are much cheaper options! Rubbermaid type storage totes would be a great container for two tomato or three squash plants, depending on the size. Wood boxes can work, but I’d suggest lining them with something to help keep moisture in. Fabric pots are another popular choice because they allow air to the roots, but they may not be best for hot or dry climates.
Soil for Success
Your choice of good soil is very important—in fact, your container garden’s success or failure may ride on this more than anything else! So don’t skimp. First, you must use something labeled “potting mix,” not ordinary dirt or garden soil. Again, I have been impressed with miracle gro brand potting mix. The “moisture control” kind is nice, but I haven’t noticed a huge difference from the regular.
Potting soil does tend to have three main elements though. Perlite (white dots) is for good drainage and air to let the roots breathe, and peat moss (or similar component) is to hold moisture. But perhaps most important is the compost and/or fertilizer element, which actually gives the plants the nutrients they need to grow and produce. Some potting soil does not contain fertilizer or much for nutrients; in this case you will need to add some. It is easier, though, to just buy the kind that already has fertilizer perfectly mixed in.
Looking at the back of the the bag will give you an idea of what you’ve got. Two of the photos below are miracle gro bags, which contain fertilizer—as you can see by the number chart towards the bottom (Fertilizer numbers explained here). Notice that the first picture does not have the number chart because it does not contain fertilizer—the instructions suggest that you add some.
When adding fertilizer to potted plants, a good strategy is to fertilize more frequently but with smaller doses. Try using half a dose twice as often as the fertilizer package recommends.Over-fertilizing can actually be bad for potted plants in the long run since it can make their roots outgrow their pot.
Essential: Even Watering
Especially if you live in a dry climate like I do, this is likely to be your biggest challenge! Pots make it more difficult to keep the moisture level steady, and steady moisture is really important for happy plants and good produce. Uneven or over/under watering is often what makes tomatoes crack or get rotten spots, and squash get shriveled at one end. My own hometown is notoriously windy, which added another issue—dried out pots made my tomato plants top heavy and easily blown over by the wind.
Because of all this, I highly recommend considering a “self watering” mechanism of some sort. I don’t know about you, but finding time to water my plants every day or every other day isn’t as easy as it sounds! A hose timer combined with a simple drip system would work well, but may not be as practical if you only have a few plants.
A “self-watering planter” is another great option for just a few plants. Earthbox is a popular and good brand of self-watering containers and can fit more than one plant.
In general a self-watering or sub-irrigated container is any container that allows for a water reservoir inside (usually at the bottom). Soil or some other wick brings water up to the roots as needed, and the reservoir is refilled more occasionally. The goal is to keep the moisture steady even when you are not able to water as often as you would have to for a regular pot. There are so many different versions which I’d like to explore in another post.
A self-watering pot like this one would be a good option for smaller plants like herbs, peppers, or greens. The bigger sizes might work for larger plants like tomatoes and squash. Note that these pots’ reservoir likely won’t be as large or deep as one like earthbox. If the pot does not have drainage holes, there is still the chance of over-watering, so watch out for soggy soil or add holes just above the reservoir.
The video below provides a great basic concept explanation of self watering planters and how you could make your own.
Keep in mind that some plant varieties are better suited for containers than others, and may have a symbol on their tag to tell you so (at least certain seed packets do).
What would you like grow in your containers? What issues or problems have your potted plants faced in the past? Comments or questions welcome below!