How to Plant a Container Garden

Outdoor planters are perfect for accenting your landscape, whether it’s your yard, porch or patio. Container planting has more than aesthetic appeal; it also provides flexibility and added control over your landscaping through the seasons. Many plant species are well-suited for container planting.

Benefits of Container Planting

Outdoor planters create interest, focal points and ambiance in your outdoor space. They can also increase your available gardening space. When a planter’s placement is well thought out, it can add a natural decorative touch to what may be mostly utilitarian areas of your home, such as along walkways or entranceways. If used on a back patio, for example, you can create a theme or add to an existing one by using planters that match colors or textures from patio furniture and other decorative items. Choosing the right plants to go with your décor and other patio features can create a custom, backyard oasis.

Backyard and patio with flowers and plants in pots and plantersBackyard and patio with flowers and plants in pots and planters

Container gardening allows for flexibility in what you plant, where you plant it, and when you do so. Containers can be easy to move, giving you the advantage of starting seasonal plants indoors for later movement outdoors, as well as the ability to rearrange your design for special events, or even everyday changes. Container planting also allows you to change up your landscape without having to plant and then later remove plants from the soil. Planting in containers also lets you use plants in your outdoor décor that may be invasive to other plants in your soil. A planter can contain an invasive species so that it doesn’t crowd out or otherwise damage other plantings in your garden.

There are many plants that are suitable for container growing. Bulb plants, annuals, perennials and even small trees and shrubs can be planted, and thrive, in a container.

Here are a few of each:

  • Bulbs – Flowers such as daffodils and tulips are good choices for container planting. They pop up year after year in the spring and require little maintenance as long as they get the water they need, outside of the occasional fertilization. Growing in a container protects them from other potential invasive species. Mix flowers that are compatible so their colors work together to complement and contrast each other. Flower arrangements work almost anywhere you place your containers, whether they are window planters or larger containers that give a small garden effect.
  • Perennials – Perennials are plants that live for at least a couple of years and come back year after year from their roots according to their specific bloom cycles. A drawback is they don’t all bloom for an entire season. Plant perennials that bloom at different times of the year in the same container for full coverage from spring until fall. You can plant perennials with annuals for seasonal coverage.
  • Annuals – Annuals grow for a season then their seeds restart new plants again the following year. The advantage of using an annual plant compared to a perennial is that they bloom for the entire season.
  • Trees and shrubs – Small species of trees and shrubs can thrive in containers. Larger species’ root systems can easily outgrow a container, so be sure you choose an appropriately sized plant for your container.

Note: There are species of plants that work best in containers and certain species that thrive better in specific regions, so visit your local nursery to buy plants and to get help if you are unsure which plants might be best suited for container planting in your area. Nurseries will also have plants prepared for taking home, with their root balls wrapped in a layer of burlap to keep them safe and ready for planting.

Step 1: Choose a Container

Succulents growing in old drawer as DIY planterSucculents growing in old drawer as DIY planter
Basil growing in hanging coconuts as DIY plantersBasil growing in hanging coconuts as DIY planters
Flowers in painted clay pots flanking front doorFlowers in painted clay pots flanking front door
Plants and flowers growing in cluster of wooden plantersPlants and flowers growing in cluster of wooden planters

Your planters can be made of almost anything. You can reuse wood barrels, plastic drums, buckets or even create your own planter. Also, your local True Value hardware store has a variety of planters in different styles and different constructions, such as terra cotta, plastic, wire baskets, ceramics and wood.

Safety Alert!

If you’re reusing a container that once held chemical products, don’t plant vegetables or fruits in the container as there may be left over residue that could be ingested. It’s best not to use such a container for any of your plantings for the healthiest results.

Select a planter that is appropriately sized for your desired plant or group of plants. This is especially important for larger groups of plantings or small trees or shrubs. You must be very careful of this when planting from seeds. The container will need to be able to accommodate the plants when fully grown. The container must be able to hold enough soil to nourish all of the roots and provide enough capacity for adequate watering. The more soil there is the more water is retained; without enough soil, plants can dry out between waterings. A general rule of thumb is a container should be at least 12” deep with a comparable, if not larger, diameter.

Helpful Tip

Keep the entire planter’s weight (with water) in mind if you plan on moving it frequently. If a tree or shrub is already in a heavy container, the weight of added water will make it that much heavier. Plan your planter’s placement accordingly or place planters on wheeled platforms that can be easily moved when needed.

Adequate drainage is as important as size. You want plants to get as much water as they can without getting waterlogged. Too much water in soil leaves no room for oxygen. It also can foster mold growth and plant disease. Choose containers with multiple drainage holes in the bottom. Many containers will also have drainage holes on the sides. If you’re creating your own planter or repurposing something as a container, you can also drill or punch the needed holes into the container. You can place the planter in a planter saucer to catch overflow if you don’t want water leaking on patio surfaces, etc.

Potted plants in vintage kettles

Step 2: Use Quality Soil

Use high-quality organic potting soil in your planters. While it may seem like “dirt is dirt,” it is best not to skimp on quality by choosing a cheap, low-quality potting soil. Good potting soil is usually almost completely free of weeds, insects and other organisms that can harm the plants. It also usually has a slightly acidic pH, which is good for growth for most plants. When selecting potting soil, choose a mix that specifically identifies what it’s made of. Avoid bags that just say “peat” or “compost.” Instead, look for potting soil with specific ingredients, like “Sphagnum Peat Moss.” This potting soil will be higher quality and better for your plants. Where possible, choose a potting soil that has organic amendments such as manure or compost mixed in. If not, you can also add these amendments separately to your soil. Be sure to ask someone at your local nursery how best to use these natural bloom boosters. Follow all package instructions.

Step 3: Fill Planters

First, place your planter in the desired location, especially if you will be filling large containers or using larger plant types. When filling your container, pour the potting soil or soil/amendment mix to about 1/3 of the way full. For purchased plants, take the plant out of its pot and gently shake off the old potting soil from the root ball. If the roots are tightly wound with burlap, gently slice the sides of the root ball in two or three places. Insert the plant stem or root ball. Fill in around the sides of the root ball with more potting soil, pressing lightly. The plant should be at the same soil level as it was originally growing, and there should be a 1/2” – 1” space from the top of the soil to the lip of the planter.

If you’re starting from seed, plant them as instructed by the seed manufacturer, according to the package. Spread the seeds lightly into the soil then gently rake them into the soil with a hand rake You can also use a garden trowel to move dirt around when you’re seeding. Lightly tamp down the loose soil so it makes contact with the seeds to insulate them and better provide nutrients.

Step 4: Feed and Water Plants

Container plants need more watering than plants that grow in the ground. The containers themselves can draw water from the soil inside of them through evaporation. Also, because there is less all-around soil, the water is used quickly.

Helpful Tip

Plastic containers don’t dry out as quickly as natural-material planters such terra cotta, stone or wood.

Check to see if the container needs water by sticking your finger into the soil. If it feels dry, add water with a garden hose or watering can. Water your plants by thoroughly soaking the soil, then allow it to drain. To ensure your plants grow healthy and strong feed them immediately after potting, and on a regular basis, as directed by the manufacturer. Use a liquid plant food, available at your local True Value hardware store.

That’s all there is to it! Get started on your container planting now to make your outdoor spaces beautiful this season.

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