How to Choose Containers for a Container Garden

Material, color, and size all matter when striving for optimal plant growth.

container garden with flowers

Maskot/Getty Images

Choosing containers for a container garden is important. Make the wrong choices and you won't necessarily achieve the results you are expecting from your plants. New gardeners often focus more on what fills the containers than the containers themselves, but over the years I've learned that choosing the correct containers also matters a lot.

Think About What a Container Is Made From

The first thing I consider is a container's material, as materials can have very different characteristics. Various options include:

  • Terracotta 
  • Glazed ceramic
  • Stoneware
  • Stone 
  • Wood 
  • Metal 
  • Plastic
  • Fabric

When thinking about which material is right for a container, it is important to think about the plants you plan to grow and where, as well as how long a plant will remain in that container. Will it grow there only for a certain period of time, or will it be a more permanent fixture? 

Some of the important characteristics to think about when considering materials are:

  • Water retention and drainage.
  • How well the material retains or dissipates heat.
  • Whether the material is (or needs to be) durable and long-lasting.
  • How heavy or lightweight the container will be. Will you be able to move it as required? Could it be knocked or blown over easily?

You should also think about its sustainability. Consider the true cost of manufacturing a container and what will happen when it reaches the end of its useful life. 

Reclaimed Container Options

Pretty plants in old metal barrels

Simon McGill / Getty Images

One important thing to remember when choosing containers is that you do not necessarily have to purchase new ones.  Often you will be able to repurpose or make a container from reclaimed materials. This is, of course, always the most eco-friendly choice in your garden, and the route that I try to take whenever possible.

When considering your options, think outside the box. Remember, containers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and there are also plenty of ways to think vertically and make the most of your small space.

Consider the Color of a Container

It is not just the material from which a container is made that will determine how appropriate it is for particular plants and situations. There's more to the color of a container than aesthetics. 

White or light-colored vessels will reflect light, while black or darker ones will absorb light and heat up more quickly. As such, this is an important characteristic that determines where certain containers should be used and for which plants. 

In cooler climate zones, black containers may be beneficial for certain plants because they retain heat. In warmer climates with hot summers, lighter may be better. Needs might change not just because of the climate and plants being grown, but also the time of year.

Consider the Size

Another important thing to think about when choosing containers is how large they need to be. This will depend on:

  • Which plants are being grown
  • Their stage of growth
  • Space restrictions on your property

One thing to bear in mind is that larger containers are less likely to require as much water and additional fertilization. I like that larger containers can provide opportunities to try out some companion planting, similar to what conventional gardeners would do. But in some cases, I do recommend building raised beds or planters, rather than using individual containers for individual plants.

If you are only able to grow in smaller containers, then all plants will require containers of a minimum size. Remember, some plants like to fit snugly into a container, while others need more space. Bigger is not always better. A container can be too large, as well as too small. For example, I've found that using too big a container can increase the chance of waterlogging for plants that need free-draining conditions. 

Learning more about the preferences and requirements of the plants you plan to grow will help you make the right decisions. So, before you choose any containers, make sure you are fully informed. These factors may sound small, but making the right decisions when it comes to your containers can significantly boost the yields you are able to achieve—even in the very smallest of spaces.