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Container Gardening for Beginners 

Container Gardening for Beginners Explained

Thanks for taking the time to read our article on container gardening for beginners. This is a wide reaching term, and some gardeners have very narrow thoughts on what a container means, when it comes to gardening.

So if you are new to container gardening, then we would urge you not to limit your imagination, when it comes to picking a container for your garden. Your container can quite literally be anything that will hold some soil.

They can range from pots, tubs, wheel barrows, half barrels, planters, hanging baskets, grow bags, urns and just about anything you can think of.

Where Did the Idea of Container Gardening Come From?

The idea of container gardens came from people who wanted a garden of some kind but were very limited with space. For example people who had only perhaps a small balcony, a widow sill or a small patio or yard to work with.

It would offer those people some natural sanctuary in a busy city street, along rooftops or on their balconies. The real beauty of these is that you are really only limited by your imagination.

You can transform any deck or patio with something as simple as just a few colorful pots or tubs of colourful flowers. Likewise you can use a few window boxes to really brighten up the outside of a home.

When small groups of tubs and pots are well laid out, they can also make small spaces look much larger than they really are.

It is amazing just how quickly plants can help provide a a focal point in the garden, or simply add splashes of colour to any outdoor space. The only thing we would say is to not limit your imagination just to a few pots. As we have mentioned, if you have something that can hold soil, then you can make that into a container.

Windowsill boxes are popular, raised beds, hanging baskets are just a few examples of what you can really do.

You can also use a variety of small and larger containers and even arrange those in smaller clustered groups. Flowers, herbs and vegetables work nicely in small groups and clusters.

several hanging baskets

Beginner Container Gardening Options

You have a few options when you want to start a container style garden:

  • Use containers to grow vegetables
  • Use containers to grow herbs
  • Use containers to grow flowers, plants or shrubs
  • Use containers to grow a mixture of any or all of the above

We explain below what the various options are for all of the above. For now though, let's have a look at container properties and exactly what to look out for.

Container Sizes

The size of the container that you pick will primarily depend on two things:

  1. How much space you have?
  2. What type of plant you plan on growing

Some plants and shrubs are larger and will simply need a larger container to take the deeper roots. The other restriction is the amount of space you have for the various containers that you want to use. The good news is that plant pots come in a wide range of sizes, so you should not be stuck for choice.

Plant pots range in size from 1-40 litre capacities. These are the most common sizes and there are larger ones available though they would not be as popular.

Likewise urns and planters come in many different sizes, so with just a little shopping around, you will be able to find the sizes that you are looking for.

When it comes to plants, we do cover that in more detail below, but the guiding factor should be how big the plant(s) can get should ultimately determine the size of the container that you use.

Container Materials

If you look up and down gardens in the UK, you will find a variety of containers made from many different materials. These can range from cement, terracotta, wood, metal, plastic, fibre glass and even foam. There are many choices of material to be had. All of these materials have the good and bad points.

Terracotta/Clay Containers

These are very attractive and commonly found in yards or on patios. The downside is that they can break very easily, and they are very prone to cracking in heavy frost.

Pros

  • Very attractive to look at  
  • They are porous so air and water can move easily and that helps prevent soil diseases
  • They are relatively inexpensive
  • They do look better the older they get

Cons

  • They are prone to cracking and breaking in frost  
  • Some plants like moist conditions and will need to be watered more when in a terracotta pot

Concrete Containers

Most concrete containers will be made of cast concrete. This is where concrete is poured into a mould and then allowed to set. This makes concrete containers long lasting and they also come in a range of sizes and styles.

Pros

  • Can be left outside in all weathers
  • They are available in many different sizes and shapes
  • They will last for years
  • They do look better the older they get

Cons

  • Theses tend to be heavy, even without soil ad as such hard to move around  
  • Not suitable for decks as they are just too heavy

Plastic/Fibreglass

Many pots are made of plastic, but you will find a few that are made from fibre glass. The thing to look out for is really yhe thickness of the plastic. Avoid really thin cheap plastic pots as they will just break.

Pros

  • These are very light so highly portable  
  • They are available in many shapes and sizes
  • They are relatively inexpensive
  • They are easy to decorate

Cons

  • The thinner cheaper options will become brittle if exposed to a lot of sunlight  
  • They are not the most attractive of the containers available

Foam Containers

Quite a lot of containers are made of polyurethane foam. That means they are very light and don't chip or crack. The good news is that these are also very strong. Depending on the quality of the design, they can look very like the heavier terracotta or concrete containers. The foam is also excellent at insulating so very good for cold temperatures. In hotter temperatures the foam is also good at regulation. They are the best choice for plants that will stay outside year-round.

Pros

  • Very light and with good design look great  
  • They don't chip or crack
  • They are relatively inexpensive
  • They are very good at temperature control

Cons

  • They are not authentic containers

Wooden Containers

You can buy wooden containers and can also easily make these yourself. There is a natural attractive look to wood and they look great in most gardens. Wooden planters are very popular and very easy to make. The wood does of course need to be treated with a non-toxic treatment.

Pros

  • Very attractive to look at  
  • They allow plenty of air and that helps prevent soil diseases
  • They are relatively inexpensive to buy and also very easy to make at home
  • They are popular with many gardeners

Cons

  • They will need maintenance over time  
  • They will eventually need to be replaced

Metal Containers

Metals are of course very strong, but they are prone to rust, and also can easily conduct a lot of heat. Depending on the type of container, such as old watering cans, old wheelbarrows etc, they can add something very unique to your garden.

Pros

  • Some of these such as old buckets are attractive to look at  
  • They are strong and durable especially if the metal is suitable for outdoor use
  • They can be painted and designed

Cons

  • They are prone to attracting a lot of heat which can cause root damage  
  • Many metal containers are prone to rust

Container Preparation

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the sizes and the different materials that can be used for container gardening. It is worth remembering that almost every type of container gets heavy once they have been filled with soil. It is always a very good idea to decide where are going to be located and then move them into position.

It is only then that you should start filling the container with soil, compost before planting.  We would also recommend knowing which types of plants you are going to use, and understanding where the sunshine reaches in your garden.

Your plants may need to be watered on a daily basis. If that is going to be difficult, then look for locations that receive morning sun but get shade during the hottest part of the day. Plants that get afternoon shade will reduce the amount of moisture plants need.

Just below we explain the importance of drainage holes in all types of containers. One big mistake we do see is that some gardeners tend to cover these holes with gravel before adding the potting mix. That is done to stop soil from washing out of the container.

However by using gravel or something like broken pots, it is much more likely that these will end up blocking off the drainage holes.  We would recommend using old newspaper or something like Styrofoam over the holes before adding mix.

Potting Mix

You can buy a potting mix or compost that is perfect for containers. Don't use your ordinary garden soil as in most cases it is just far too dense for container gardening. We recommend asking at your local garden centre but our rule is to use a good quality house plant soil mixture.

A mix of sphagnum peat moss, garden peat, organic worm humus, and perlite is ideal. We like BioBizz all mix.

It is then a good idea to flood the container with water a few times to ensure that the soil is moist throughout before planting.

Planting

The same rules for planting in a garden do not apply to containers. You may read that certain plants should be planted a certain distance apart to allow them to grow. That is because in a garden the roots have plenty of room to grow. In containers those roots will be restricted and so you can plant much closer together.

Once your container starts to get growth, you can prune and thin out at that stage. Once all planting has taken place, firm down the potting mix. Never fill a container with potting mix right to the very top. Allow room for watering.

Container Drainage

All containers, irrespective of material or size need to have good drainage. If water and rain can not drain away, the container soil becomes water logged. If that happens plants simply die and the soil will eventually become prone to a lot of diseases.

If you opt for a container, or happen to have a container with no holes, then simply drill a few holes into it. You don't need large holes, just enough for the water to be able to drain away.

If the containers are very deep, then it is always a good idea to put a level of gravel at the bottom. This helps save on the amount of potting compost or mix that you need. You should however still drill holes at the bottom of the container.

We would always recommend that containers should be slightly raised above ground level. If you have a container sitting on the ground, it will continually draw moisture up and into the container, especially when the ground is wet.

Many plants don't like to be wet all the time (known as having wet feet)

By setting them up on something like a few stones, a couple of blocks of wood, you allow air in and around the container, and it stops the soil in the container from drawing up moisture from the ground underneath.

Picking the best container Plants

Of all of these the easiest way to start container gardening is with some flowers that grow easily in your local area. You can buy them as small plants and just grow them out in any type of container.

Get advice from your local garden centre as to which are the easiest and best flowers to grow. You simply fill your container with top soil or a good compost, and plant the flowers out, leaving a little space between them for growth. This is where the idea of hanging baskets came from.

Select plants to suit the climate and the amount of sun or shade the container will receive. Again your local garden centre will be able to offer you some great advice, especially when you are starting out. We like simple beautiful plants such as marigolds, begonias and geraniums.

If in doubt, simply buy a box of wild flower seed mix, and sprinkle those in a container with compost, and see what happened as they start to seed and grow.

container garden for flowers

Picking the best container Herbs

Likewise growing herbs is also a great way for beginners to container gardening. These are easy to grow, and they are also useful for cooking. They do not have the greatest colours, but they do make a good practical choice, and they do have some very nice scents.

The common herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, basil, and mint, all grow very easily in containers. You can actually sow these from seed, though it is easier to go with young plants. That makes your containers productive, and also creates some lovely scents around those containers.

The list of herbs is endless, and a single large container with mixed herbs can be a great addition to your kitchen and cooking.

herb container gardening

Picking the best Container Vegetables

If you have never attempted to do this, then we would strongly recommend giving this a try. You can grow some fantastic tasting vegetables in individual containers. These can range from a tomato plant in a large container or several smaller vegetables such as broccoli or cabbage.

It is also really easy to grow various types of lettuce, dwarf tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, chives etc. If you want something easy to get started we would recommend salad cress, strawberries or a tomato plant.

In reality, you can grow almost anything in a container unless it has a large, spreading root system.

container gardening for vegetables

Container Care

  • We would always recommend watering container plants thoroughly. The main point of this is to stop the soil or potting mix in your container from drying out. It can be very difficult to get a container moist again once it has dried out. We would recommend that with larger containers that you add a layer of mulch, as this helps retain moisture.
  • You should also regularly feed any plants that are grown in a container. There are lots of slow release feeds on the UK market which will make this task quick and easy.
  • After that it is basically just good general gardening care. You should remove any leaves and deadhead flowers. If you get the odd plant that is not thriving don't be afraid to dig it out and remove it. Prune back plants that get too thick or start to take over the container. Always keep an eye out for pests like snails, slugs, aphids and mites.

Enda


I am someone who enjoys a little gardening. Now I am not someone who spend hours in the garden, but I do like both my front and back gardens to look really nice. Well kept lawns, neatly trimmed hedges, and borders filled with plants, make a huge difference, to how your property looks.

Enda McLarnon

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