by Matt Gibson
Ready to start your first container garden this season? Before you dive headfirst into container gardening, there are a few tips for beginners to consider. As with anything worthwhile, container gardening can be a lot of work, but can be very rewarding as well. Here are a few container garden tips to get you started off on the right foot.
Container Drainage Is Key
First, make sure all the containers you plan to use have ample drainage. If a container only has one small hole, consider drilling a few more for good measure. If the existing drainage hole or holes are very small, you may consider widening them to at least half an inch in diameter. Drainage is one of the most important factors in determining the success of your container garden, and drainage or the lack thereof can make or break your efforts.
Calculate Sun Exposure
Before beginning a container garden, you’ll need to take your light source into consideration. Use a stopwatch and keep an eye on your space for a day to time how much sun exposure your containers will receive in the spots where you want to place them. There are plenty of plants you can grow that will thrive in different amounts of sun. However, you want to choose spots for your plants that will give each species you’ve selected the full amount that they need to thrive, or you will be setting yourself up for gardening disappointment.
Choose A Fertilizer Method and Stick With It
The next thing you should consider before diving into your container gardening efforts is which type of fertilizer you are going to use. Most potting soils lack the nutrients needed to let your plants flourish. Therefore, you will need to add the food your plants require if you want to see optimal growth.
You can easily mix in a time-release fertilizer with your potting soil to get off on the right foot, but you will most likely also need to add a liquid fertilizer every week or two to keep your plants thriving. Many gardeners use a chemical fertilizer, which can be effective when used properly. But others prefer to use organic fertilizers instead. You’ll need to decide ahead of time whether you want to go organic or synthetic. You’ll need to be careful to follow instructions regardless, because you can end up killing your plants if you use too much fertilizer in a limited garden container space.
Choose Container Plants Wisely
If you are just starting up your container garden or if you have little gardening experience in general, the plants you choose will have a lot to do with your level of success—or failure. If you choose plants that grow in your area naturally, you’re bound to see a higher success rate. Native plants will require less maintenance than other varieties because they are naturally adapted to the pre-existing conditions of your region.
Pick Your Plants and Group Them According to Care and Needs
Make a list of the plants you want to grow, and then try to group them together based on their care needs and similar soil or light preferences. If you are clustering a few containers together into a similar location, it would make lots of sense if everything you plant in those containers had similar needs and care instructions.
This step is especially important if you are placing more than one plant in a particular container. If you are grouping more than one plant into a single container, you will want each of those plants to have the same sun and soil preferences. If you have a bunch of smaller plants, consider cultivating dwarf varieties instead of full-sized plants. The smaller dwarf plants will require less space to spread out their roots and will be more successful in the restricted space containers offer.
Keep a Cheat Sheet for Each Plant You’ll Grow
Save the plant’s tag or seed packet so that you have a hard-copy reminder of the care instructions for each plant. If there’s no tag, print instructions you find online using your computer or write them down by hand. Save these instructions so that you have an easy reference guide when you need it.
Acclimation and Hardening Transplants and Seedlings
Acclimate your plants to the environment where they will live, as well as to any changes they may encounter. Plants struggle when faced with abrupt change, and your plants will benefit from having a bit of time to adjust to any drastic changes you can foresee on the horizon.
If you are sowing from seed or starting your plants indoors, you will need to harden transplants offbefore fully exposing your young plants to the elements. Gradually introduce seedlings to the outdoors slowly, starting with just a few hours per day in a mild season. This gradual transition will help the plants adjust to their new environment more easily and increase their chances to survive and thrive.
Quality Potting Soil From Top to Bottom
Container gardening requires you to buy and use a whole lot of potting soil. Some experts advise using all kinds of crazy stuff as filler for your container gardens. The truth is, most of these suggestions will make your containers weigh a lot less but dry out a lot faster. Potting soil should be used to fill your containers from top to bottom, as it will absorb and use the water you give it for the optimal amount of time, keeping the right level of moisture for your containers in between waterings.
It’s also very important to get a high quality potting soil. If there’s one thing you want to spend a bit extra on when you buy gardening supplies, potting soil is it. Never use soil directly from your yard or flowerbeds, as it will harden into a big mass or lump. Quality potting soil should be made up of a mix of manure, compost, peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite.
Picking Your Garden Containers
It doesn’t matter what material your containers are made out of, what color they are, how expensive they are, or where you bought them. A pot is a pot. There are only two things you should consider when selecting pots for your container garden. One: Does the pot provide ample drainage? Two: Is it large enough to provide a quality home for your plant after it grows to its full size?
Drainage, especially with cheap pots, can be modified with a bit of elbow grease and the right tools. The size of the pots you select, however, cannot be altered to fit the plant’s needs. That’s why you’ll need to be sure to choose pots that will provide plenty of space for your selected plants to grow.
Plants aren’t picky about the pots where they reside. They only require proper drainage and enough space for their roots to spread out. You can always move plants into larger containers as they outgrow their smaller pots, but it’s best to keep them in one pot for life. Not all plants appreciate being uprooted to change homes as they grow. Most plants don’t like shock of any kind, and sometimes transplanting to a new home is enough to kill a plant that was doing well before being moved.
When in doubt, go big. If you sow a plant in a container that is too small for its needs, it will almost certainly fail—or require a new home before too long. If you select a container that is a bit too large for your plant’s needs, there’s no harm done. The plant will actually perform better due to the added room. The more space that a plant’s root system has to stretch into, the better off the plant will be. Obviously, there is no need to provide extra large pots for dwarf variety plants, but in general when it comes to container gardening, the bigger the better is a good rule to live by.
Knowing When to Water Containers
Remembering to water your plants regularly is essential, but knowing when to water them can be just as important. The best time to water your plants is in the early morning hours or just after sunset. Not only will this watering schedule help with absorption of moisture, as you will lose less water due to evaporation, but it will also prevent the damage to foliage that can occur if you water in the heat of the afternoon.
The sun’s rays can very quickly change the temperature of your cool water into a scorching hot splash that can hurt your plants. Before the sun gets too high in the sky and just after sunset are the perfect times to give your plants a refreshing drink as a early morning refreshment or to cool off after a hot afternoon basking in the sunlight. Pro tip: As a general rule of (green) thumb, plants that have thin leaves require more water, and plants that have thicker leaves require less water.
Choose a Garden that Fits Your Lifestyle
Most importantly, pick plants that require the amount of care you realistically have the time and energy to provide. If you don’t have much time to devote to your container garden, look into succulents or cacti, as they require very little attention and hands-on maintenance to succeed. If you are light on cash, look into making containers out of secondhand or found items. Let your gardening efforts fit your lifestyle as much as possible—you will be glad that you did.
Attitude Is Everything
One last piece of advice: Don’t be afraid of failure. Sometimes plants die. It happens to all gardeners, even the most seasoned of us. Don’t let a setback stop you from getting back in the dirt and trying a new approach. Always be ready to learn from mistakes and start over again.