Container gardening is simply growing plants in containers instead of in the ground. It's the easiest, simplest way for someone new to growing to get started, it also allows those with limited space to still enjoy the satisfaction out of growing some of your own food!
"Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes." -Author Unknown
Benefits of Growing in Containers
→Less to NO weeding
→Better control over soil quality
→The garden is mobile
→Uses very little space
→Great for those with limited mobility
What Type of Container to Choose
The selection is as endless as your imagination, from store-bought pots to baskets, wood boxes, old metal boxes and so on.
A few things to consider when planning your container garden:
1. Size of the container
Large enough for the crop when it's at full size.
Deep enough for the plants roots to stretch out.
Tall enough that the height of the plant won't cause the container to tip over.
Keep in mind, smaller containers will need watered more often.
2. Container material and color
Black containers will absorb heat more readily and dry out faster. In very hot conditions, the containers may absorb enough heat to burn the roots of your plants.
In colder areas black containers may work to your advantage.
Unglazed clay/terra-cotta containers will dry out faster than plastic. To mitigate this, you can pop a plastic pot inside your clay planters.
Unglazed clay/terra-cotta pots are also more sensitive to cracking in the winter if left exposed to moisture and freezing temperatures, be prepared to move them to a sheltered spot in the winter (more on this below).
West or Southern-facing will give your plants the most sun exposure.
Most vegetables require about 6 hours of sunlight a day, observe your chosen spot before you lay out your pots and consider modifying what you plan to grow if you have less sun than that (see below).
Herbs, Greens and Root Crops can get by with less sun than others if you don't have an adequately sunny spot for your garden.
If the sun changes throughout the day and there are significant shadows, you can put your pots on castors/wheels to make them easy to move around.
Clustering your pots together will help to create a small microclimate of increased moisture and protect more sensitive plants from wind.
If you are using trellises in your pots, place them in the most wind protected area, or up against a wall, to help prevent them from being blown over.
4. Soil Type and Drainage
You want a soil or soil-less mix designed for containers, it will resist compaction and will properly drain.
You can add a slow-release fertilizer right into your soil mix, or add in a few handfuls of aged compost (must be aged, fresh compost can burn your plants)
Add some liquid fertilizer (I like fish emulsion) a few times throughout the season (diluted with water about 50%)
Place some small rocks/stones in the bottom of the container to improve drainage.
Plants in containers require watering more often, sometimes every day in very hot weather, but don't over-water - you don't want your plants soaking in water, this will kill them just as quickly as under-watering.
If you're using non-traditional containers, be sure to drill drainage holes in the bottom.
How to tell if your plants need water?
If it's very hot, water every day. If your plants are drooping water them! Otherwise, stick your finger in the soil, if it feels dry past your middle knuckle, then water.
Leaving your plants for a few days or more?
If you're someone who travels a lot consider investing in self-watering containers. They're available online and at most big-box stores now.
You can also place deep plastic trays under your pots and fill the trays with water, the soil and roots will slowly absorb the water they need.
Start out with the deepest pots you can find, that will ensure a larger supply of moist soil to your plants as you water.
Care of your empty containers in the winter
Unglazed pottery/ceramic/terra-cotta/clay pots can break easily in the winter if left in the elements at below freezing temperatures (from wet soil freezing or water freezing in them). Consider bringing them into an area that doesn't get hard freezes, or is at least out of the elements and empty the soil from them.
If you can't move your clay pots to a protected area-->raise them up on something and allow the water to drain (clay feet, boards, anything you have that won't block drainage holes). Emptying the soil will also help to prevent them from cracking during freezing temperatures.
Remove spent or dead plants at the end of the season, this will help the soil to dry out.
Grab an old moving blanket, tarp, board or a regular blanket, huddle your pots together and cover them for the winter. You can also turn them upside down to prevent snow and water from getting into them.
Consider using some of your containers on a sunny window sill to grow salad greens and herbs all winter long!
Overwintering Perennials in Pots Outdoors
If you are also growing plants that are considered perennials (come back every year) in your growing zone (check your zone here), there are a few things you can do to protect them in the winter:
Group your pots together to protect them from cold winds (avoid northern-facing areas in winter) and excessive rain.
Avoid leaving your pots sitting on concrete-->sitting right on the soil, or burying the pots in the ground is best.
Continue regularly watering them until Fall sets in and it's about to be consistently below freezing, at that point give them one last good watering.
Mulch! Covering the soil and part of the stem of the plant with something like leaves or straw prevents soil compaction, erosion from rain and melting snow, and offers some protection from very cold temperatures. You can also give them an added layer of protection by wrapping the pot itself in bubble wrap or burlap (especially ceramic containers).
Keep in mind-->there is a greater fluctuation in temperatures above the ground in winter and plants may be less cold-hardy than they typically would be if grown in the ground.
Plants in bigger pots tend to do better in the winter because of the volume of insulating soil.
Potted perennials generally do best in the winter in warmer climates and in areas with a reliably thick layer of snow cover (despite snow being cold, a thick layer actually protects and insulates the plants).
Place them in a garden shed or unheated garage for more protection. You don't want perennials in a heated area (unless they are not rated a perennial in your USDA zone, then bring them inside), because most need a period of cold in order to bloom/grow in the spring.
Tips for Keeping Your Houseplants Happy in the Winter
Winter in your home will be dryer with less sunlight, which can slow the growth or harm your houseplants, some things you can do to combat this:
Cluster your plants together to create an area around them with higher humidity.
Rotate them through your bathrooms for some extra humidity for a few days every now and then.
Your plants will need less water as they'll essentially be somewhat dormant in winter.
Keep them away from too much heat: heater vents, fireplaces, radiators.
Relocate them to the sunniest spot in your house in winter.
Fertilize your plants twice a season.
As they get bigger, remember to pot them up into bigger containers.
If your soil is old, plants can benefit from re-potting with fresh soil.
"There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments" -Janet Kilburn Phillips