How to Grow a Perfect Container Garden

Article written by Saturday6TM blogger Steve Asbell from The Rainforest Garden

Whether you'd like to pick fresh herbs right outside your doorstep or have a garden that thrives on neglect, there's a container garden out there just for you. Before you head out to the garden center though, it pays to do a little planning first. First, have fun and dream up your ideal garden and the plants it will contain. Then you'll need to determine where your container design will go, what kind of light it will receive and how often you plan on watering. After that, it's time to plant your living arrangement!

What Kind of Garden do You Want?

Sometimes it's just more fun to come up with your dream garden first and find a place for it later. You can start designing your container combo around your ideal color palette, and choose flowers and foliage that complement the color of your home or outdoor furniture, or select plants that serve a certain purpose. You can decide to use plants that provide seasonal interest with fall colors or use plants with evergreen foliage or berries in winter. You can even make container combinations using houseplants, herbs, vegetables or fruit!

Where Will It Go?

Now that you've gotten excited about your perfect little piece of garden paradise, decide upon a location with the right amount of sunshine to keep your plants happy. For example, vegetables and herbs will have a hard time thriving on a shady balcony, but shade plants like mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus) or cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) will feel right at home.

Plant tags usually note what kind of sunlight a plant requires by telling you if it needs full sun, part sun/shade or full shade. If the spot is covered in direct sunlight for most of the day (6 or more hours) it's considered full sun. It's considered part-sun if it only receives 3-6 hours of sun a day, and it's full shade if it receives less than three hours of direct sun in the morning or evening. Typically a north-facing wall will receive full to part-shade, a south-facing one will get full sun and an east or west-facing wall will get part-sun. Make a note of which type of light your ideal spot will get, and determine which plants will do well in that situation. Full sun is best for most annual flowers, herbs and vegetables, but part-sun will also suffice for plants labeled as such. There are less options for plants in full shade container gardens, but many foliage plants will do well in a shady spot.

How Much Water?

Just as plants have different sunlight preferences, some require constantly moist soil, while others like it on the dry side. Most plant tags will tell you that a plant requires moist, well drained soil, but it's just a fancy way of saying to use regular potting mix and water enough to keep the soil moist.

If you're forgetful by nature or have a busy schedule, choose plants labeled as 'drought tolerant' such as succulents, trailing lantana, natives and grasses. If you're willing to bring your container garden indoors when the temperature dips below freezing, houseplants such as snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), and ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) will survive long periods without water. If it's flowers you want, choose durable ones like crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) or daylily (Hemerocallis selections).

In addition to using a freely draining potting mix, it's imperative that your container has drainage holes, so that the water doesn't collect and rot the roots of your plants. Placing a saucer under your container is a good way to ensure that water has a chance to get absorbed before draining onto your patio, but you shouldn't let a plant stand in water for long.

How to Design and Plant Your Container Garden

Here are some tips to make your arrangement look cohesive and beautiful. Before planting, step back and make sure that each plant will be visible different vantage points. It will make for a better looking display if the tallest plant is placed in the center or rear of the container, trailing plants are placed at the edge and medium-height plants are placed in-between. Whenever possible, choose multiples of the same plant or at least the same colors so that the arrangement will look full and cohesive. A bunch of randomly scattered plants can look jarring and cluttered.

Now that you've decided upon what kind of garden you can't live without, it's time to get plants and get planting. Before you begin, make sure that all of your plants are watered, since moist soil will make repotting easier for the new transplants. Choose a container large enough to accommodate the plants you've chosen and without removing the plants from their pots, arrange them to make sure they fit. Now is also a good time to double-check that the plants all like the same amount of sunlight and water.

Fill the container almost all the way with potting mix, leaving just enough room to accommodate the plants. Remove the plants from their pots, and inspect the root-balls within. Use a sharp knife to break through the bottom inch of extremely root-bound plants, so that new roots will grow after planting. If the rootballs have problems such as rotting roots or pests, return them to the garden center for healthy replacements.

Once the container is nearly filled with potting mix, place each plant in the container and add more soil beneath the plants, so that the crown (where the stem meets the soil) of each plant is level. Continue adding soil around the rootballs until it appears to be level with the crowns of each plant and water the whole container thoroughly to help the potting mix settle in. Continue adding soil around the rootball of each plant until level.

Add some slow-release fertilizer (compost tea, granular or otherwise) to the surface of the potting mix according to label instructions. Some mixes already have fertilizer built in, but you will still need to refresh the planting with another feeding after a couple of months. Since it takes time for the plants to put out deeper roots, you will need to pay special attention to watering for a week or two after planting.

Don't be discouraged if one or more of the plants struggles or dies outright! The other plants will grow to take their places, or you can replace them with new plants as desired. Unless you specifically choose plants that will last a long time, it's perfectly normal to replant your container garden after a few months. If it happens to still look great after that, then you've done exceptionally well and can give yourself a pat on the back!