Container gardening tips for growing great plants

By Nan Fischer
Posted 4/11/19

Not all gardens have to be in the ground.

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Container gardening tips for growing great plants


Not all gardens have to be in the ground. If you itch to grow but your soil isn't optimal, you have limited space, you live on an incline or you are too busy to take care of a large garden, a container garden may be your answer.


A planter can be anything that holds soil. Ideally, it needs drainage holes in the bottom, but there are workarounds. If you find something you love and must have, put a few inches of rocks in the bottom where water can collect. A better solution is to plant in a regular nursery pot and place it on the rocks with or without a plastic tray under it. Excess water will still collect in the rocks, but your soil will not get soggy and kill your plants.

Your imagination is the only thing limiting your choice of container. Garden centers and nurseries sell containers, of course, but you can also find creative planters at second-hand stores, flea markets and yard sales. You may have something at home to repurpose into a planter. Even a wooden box could be sealed and lined with plastic.

Containers should not be porous, because the soil will dry out too quickly. Terra cotta is pretty and has a Southwestern feel to it, but it is best reserved for succulents and other plants that don't need much water.

Think of your planters as design elements. Consider color, shape, size and style to match your outside décor or create an eclectic design. For visual impact, cluster several together with a wide variety of plants in them. Add drama to your entryway with large container plantings on either side. Place them in your flower beds as decorative accents like you would a sphere or sculpture.

Containers are portable, allowing you to move them around if your needs change outside. When frost threatens in fall, bring them indoors to decorate your home in winter.


The soil for a garden container needs to be fluffy enough for water to drain through but hold water at the same time. I know, it's a paradox! Water will be absorbed by the soil particles but will drain out from the spaces between them. Good soil is light and allows aeration for the roots.

The exception for water retention would be succulent and cacti plantings. They need a sandy soil that drains quickly.

You can buy potting soil at any garden center. Spend the money for good quality. It's almost impossible to improve inexpensive soil. There are specialty mixes for certain types of plants, such as orchids and cacti, so buy the type you need for the best results.

If you're feeling ambitious and adventurous, make your own potting soil. The standard recipe, called the Cornell Mix, is:

1/3 compost

1/3 topsoil

1/3 sand

Approximate how much you need, and then figure out quantities of each ingredient. Make extra if you have space to store it, such as a covered soil bin or large trash cans with lids.

Even though there are nutrients in the compost and topsoil, you can also add a slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer. The amount would depend on how much soil you have.


For each container, choose plants with the same light and water requirements. Cacti in a pot of impatiens will surely rot and die.

When choosing a location for your planters, be sure to provide a little afternoon shade. Our summer sun is too hot for plants in containers, because the roots cannot reach into the earth for supplemental moisture to stay cool and hydrated.

Utilize basic design elements of texture, color, size and form when planning your container garden.

Short plants go in front, and sizes increase in height as they are placed farther back when the planter is up against a wall or fence. To use a stand-alone container that will be seen from all sides, put the tallest plants in the center, and decrease the heights as they come out to the edge.

Experiment with color. There are so many variations here, your container garden can look different every year.

You can opt for a traditional color scheme based on the color wheel. Complementary colors are opposites, monochromatic colors are tints and shades of one color and analogous colors are three next to each other on the color wheel.

Another option is a theme, such as all yellow, or blue and white. Get a cottage garden look with a wide variety of colors and shapes. Use foliage colors and variegations in your design, too, and don't forget to consider the color of your planters.

Use tall spiky plants for a dramatic effect. Combine them with softer textures, such as fuzzy leaves, for contrast and visual interest.

You can also plant a vegetable garden in containers. Some plants, like peppers and herbs, actually prefer the confines of a pot. Crops such as tomatoes and squash need large pots, at least the size of a five-gallon bucket. The nursery pots that trees come in are excellent for large vegetable plants.

Planting and maintenance

Once you have all your supplies and a design, it's time to plant! Fill your containers with soil and tamp down gently. Leave a few inches at the top.

According to your design, place your plants in the soil with the top of the soil ball about an inch below the top of the pot. Backfill with more potting soil, tamp it down again and water it in gently.

With very large containers, make sure you plant them where they are going to be all summer. They are heavy to move.

Water your planters every day. Later in the season as the plants are getting to full maturity, they will probably need water twice a day. You can put trays under the pots to hold water they can absorb as needed or set up a drip irrigation system to run along the tops of the pots.

Fertilize every two weeks once the plants are established. Deadhead flowers to encourage more blooms. Check for insects, and pull diseased plants and put them in the trash. Container plantings don't seem to be as plagued with problems as in-ground gardens are.

Take photos of your beautiful planters as a reference for future years. Make notes of what worked and what didn't as far as growing conditions or design. This is valuable material to learn from over the years.

When the plants have died back after frost in fall, put the dead stalks in the compost. Empty the soil from the planters, and either compost it or save it as a base for next year. Wash the planters out, put them away and start dreaming about and planning for the following year.

If you are eager to get started gardening this month, add some color with pansies! They and other violas are foolproof spring plants that love containers.

Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange and has been in the garden for over 40 years.

Sidebar: (BOX)

Garden Centers in Taos

Rio Grande Ace South

1381 Paseo del Pueblo Sur,


(575) 758-4268


120 Bertha Road, Taos

(575) 758-9131

Petree Nursery and Greenhouses

25 Petree Lane, Taos

(575) 758-3021

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Places to buy creative containers

Habitat for Humanity ReStore

16 Highway 522,

El Prado

(575) 776-2165


1024 Paseo del Pueblo Sur,


(575) 737-0500

Casa Cristal Pottery

1306 Paseo del Pueblo Norte,

El Prado

(575) 758-1530


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