How to Build a Container Garden

Red containers stacked up growing vegetables in a balcony garden.

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Building Your Own Container Garden

A woman growing vegetables in containers on a balcony.

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Whatever your gardening challenge, it's very possible that container gardening is the answer. Bad soil? Container garden. Limited space? Container garden. Rented yard? Container garden. No yard? Yep, you guessed it: Container garden. You can grow just about anything in a container, from fruit trees to herbs and flowers, and everything in between. Here are a few tips for getting your container garden started.

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Basic Supplies

Potting tools and gardening gloves on a table surrounded by herb and vegetables.

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You don't need much to get started with container gardening, but there are a few essentials that will give you a better chance of success:

  • Potting soil: You can buy a good brand of organic potting soil (I'm partial to Fox Farm organic soil and Organic Mechanics, personally) or you can easily mix your own using coir, compost or vermicompost, and perlite. It has to have good drainage and shouldn't contain pebbles, sticks, or other debris.
  • Containers: We'll talk more about ideas for containers later in this slideshow. Just make sure whatever you use has drainage holes and has been cleaned well.
  • Plants and Seeds. Obviously.
  • Garden tools, such as a trowel, pruners, watering can, and spray bottle.
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Making the Most of Your Space

A woman waters a container garden in wood crates on a rooftop.

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As you can see from this photo, you can have the equivalent of a small farm growing in containers if you need it. One of the main advantages of container gardening is that it helps you use your space in the most efficient way possible. So if you have mostly shade with a few scattered sunny areas, go ahead and plant lettuce or spinach in containers in shady areas, and plant your tomatoes and peppers in the few sunny spots you have. Growing in containers also makes it easy to tuck a plant into an existing bed, change out plants (replacing spring bulbs with summer annuals, for example), or add edibles to a flower bed. Container gardening opens up more options, simply because it's so flexible.

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What Can You Grow in Containers?

Growing herbs and lettuce in terracotta pots for container gardening.

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Truly, you can grow just about anything you'd grow in a traditional garden in a container. In some cases, you might even be able to grow more than you'd typically be able to grow in your region, such as if you live in an area with harsh winters - you can still grow citrus trees in containers and bring them inside over the winter. Root crops such as carrots and parsnips can be tricky to grow in containers -- you will need to ensure that the container is deep enough to accommodate their full growth. Some plants should ONLY be grown in containers, due to their invasive tendencies. Mint needs to be kept in a container, because it spreads easily via roots, seeds, and runners. Mint relatives, such as lemon balm and oregano can also easily become invasive, and may be best grown in containers.

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Using Found Containers

A Black woman gardens on a rooftop reusing wood drawers.

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One of the best things about container gardening is how much fun it is to choose creative containers. Using found objects (often found on the curb on trash day or at garage sales) is a great way to not only get a one-of-a-kind look for your container garden, but to reuse items destined for the trash as well. This lettuce planter was made from a wooden wine crate that I found on the curb. The bottom was already cracked (instant drainage!) so all I had to do was add a plastic liner, which I poked holes in for drainage, add soil, and sow some mesclun seeds. You could also use a box planter like this for herbs, annual flowers such as petunias, or small pepper or dwarf tomato plants.

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More Trashy Containers

Seedlings growing in tin cans on a window sill.

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These three herb planters (planted with perilla, 'Genovese' basil, and flatleaf parsley) are nothing more than old tin cans that used to hold tomatoes. Large coffee cans would also work for something like this. All I did was clean the cans well, poke holes in the bottom of each can with a nail and hammer, give them a couple of coats of paint, and plant them up. I got this idea from Gayla Trail's beautiful book, "You Grow Girl." She also posts great ideas for reusing containers on her blog - definitely worth a look if you're looking for inspiration.

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Vertical Container Gardening

Lettuce growing a vertical gardening containers made out of wood.

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For those of us with very limited garden space, the best container gardening solution is to go vertical. This great idea, from Suzanne Forsling, is to attach rain gutters to a wall, poke holes for drainage, and plant right into them. You can grow plenty of plants this way, from herbs to mesclun and flowers, and it definitely turns a boring wall into something beautiful. If you have an architectural salvage or used building supplies store nearby, check there for inexpensive gardens. Another idea for gardening vertically uses the cans in the previous slide, mounted to the wall.

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Container Garden Maintenance

Watering a container garden with a hose.

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So, you've got your container garden planted. Now what do you need to do to keep it looking great?

  • Watering. Container gardens dry out more quickly than traditional gardens. During hot weather, it's common to have to water once or twice per day to keep your garden healthy. Stick your finger into the soil. If the top inch or two of soil is dry to the touch, you need to water.
  • Fertilizing. Container gardens also benefit from regular feeding. Since they require such frequent watering, they also tend to leach nutrients from the soil more quickly than in-ground gardens do. Water with a diluted (1/4 of what's recommended on the label) solution of fish emulsion, liquid kelp, or compost tea every week. A good way to remember this is to fertilize "weekly, weakly." You can also topdress the soil in your container garden monthly with a bit of vermicompost or screened compost.
  • Deadheading and pruning. If you're growing flowers, you'll need to remove the spent flowers regularly to keep the plants blooming and looking good. Certain veggies, such as tomatoes, benefit from pruning when grown in a container. In general, remove any yellowing leaves, dead stems, or old flowers/fruit regularly to keep your container garden looking good.
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Container Garden Troubleshooting

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Container gardens tend to be easy to care for. If you keep them watered, fed, and harvested, chances are good that you won't have any problems. However, there are a few things to look out for.

  • Rootbound plants. If your plant is drying out and wilting often, no matter how much you water, pull the plant out of the pot (gently) and take a look at the roots. If the roots have filled the pot, and are now circling around the rootball, you need to repot. Simply select a pot an inch or two bigger than the one you're using, add fresh soil. tease the roots of your old plant out gently to help them grow into the new soil, and replant.
  • Wilting plants. If your plant is wilting, but not rootbound, it's possible that you're watering too often. The effects of overwatering are annoyingly similar to those of underwatering: wilting, yellowing leaves.
  • Pests. Aphids and other pests attack container gardens as well. Keep an eye on your plants, especially the undersides of leaves, for any signs of pests. Aphids, cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, whiteflies, slugs, and scale are all common container garden pests.
  • Diseases. Just as with pests, container gardens are also susceptible to some of the same diseases found in regular gardens. Powdery mildew, late or early tomato blight, and blossom end rot are all common issues to watch out for.

In general, pest and diseases are less common in container gardens. Proper watering and regular feeding and pruning will go a long way toward keeping your container garden healthy.