If you are a new gardener, consider using containers first. Get your feet wet and hands dirty this way before you till up half an acre and overwhelm yourself.
A container can be anything that holds soil, water and plants. Its only requirement is that there are drainage holes in the bottom for water to run out. The best containers are recycled or upcycled. Scour yard sales, flea markets and second hand stores, or look in your own garage, basement and attic.
Container gardens are the easiest to design. There are no rules. You can combine vegetables with fruit, succulents, flowers and herbs. Basic design rules apply, though – keep the tall plants to the back (or center, if it’s to be viewed from all sides), and consider texture, shape, color and bloom time of flowers. You can plant containers of all one variety, and then design a garden using the containers. Scented flowers, such as stock and nicotiana, should be placed where you sit or by a door or window so you can enjoy the fragrances.
Not only food and flowers can be planted in containers. You can use grasses – the tall ones are very dramatic and make an excellent backdrop or central focal point. Small trees do well in large containers, which are an effective design element on their own. I plant small succulents on the edge of a container for visual interest.
Water requirements for all the plants in one pot should be similar. You don’t want to plant a cactus with a water loving tomato plant. The cactus will die! Add a drip system and a timer to a grouping of containers, and you won’t have to water it at all. You will have to check that the system is working and that you are giving your plants the right amount of water – excellent for a busy person who wants food and flowers.
Soil & Planting
The soil for a container should hold moisture yet be well-draining. Potting soils are sold everywhere, but don’t be afraid to pay for the best. It’s worth it. I learned that from experience. No amount of vermiculite is going to lighten up an inexpensive, heavy soil.
Consider making your own soil. One third each compost or topsoil for nutrients, peat moss or coir for water retention, and vermiculite or sand for drainage. It does not need to be sterile, like most bagged mixes are, because you will be using it outside. Topsoil is fine for this. If you are bringing your pots in for winter, use bagged soil.
You can put an inch of gravel in the bottom, but I have never found this necessary. Fill your pot to the top and tamp it down gently. Arrange your plants on top, then put them in the soil at the same level as they were in the pot they came in. Don’t bury them deeper! I know there is a tendency to do this, but if you do, the stems will rot.
Water the container slowly and gently so you don’t flood it and float soil around and over your new plants. Make sure water comes out the bottom of the pot. That’s how you know it is thoroughly watered in.
Get some good organic fertilizer (I like Age Old liquid the best), and feed your container plantings once a week. Pots need more food than gardens in the ground, because they don’t absorb nutrients naturally occurring in the soil. Keep your flowers trimmed back to keep them producing.
Containers need some shade during the day. Because the plant roots do not tap into moisture in the soil, they need more water and less sun. Even sun loving plants in containers need shade.
If you get freezes, you can bring your containers inside. Try and plan for this ahead of time, so you are not crowding yourself and so the plants get adequate light. On the other hand, plants and containers left outside for winter create visual interest with their seed heads and structure. Snowfall on dead plants is art, to me.
Most of all, have fun! Experiment! Note what works and what doesn’t, what you like and don’t like. Go to garden centers and botanical gardens to see what they are growing. There are ideas for container gardens everywhere, even outside businesses and other homes! Get some ideas from my container gardens Pinterest board.