Tips for Growing Container Plants

Containers are an excellent way to learn about gardening because they're easy to plant and give great results quickly. They also provide color to highlight patios, steps, garden gates, or anywhere else you find to be a little drab. In addition, pots are the best places to show off rare and exotic plants.

When you're gardening in containers, you can control the soil.
When you're gardening in containers, you can control the environment. See more pictures of container plants.

Containers eliminate much of the guesswork in gardening. There is no need to tolerate difficult soil or make do with marginal sites. You can start with any potting mix, picking the perfect blend for the plants you want to grow. You can set the pot where it will have the ideal amount of sun or shade. You provide water when nature comes up short, and you schedule the fertilization. There is nothing left to chance, assuming of course that you take the time to tend the potted plant.

In return, containers become living flower arrangements. With lively color schemes, varied textures, and handsome containers, potted plants grow, flower, and flourish close at hand where they are easily enjoyed.

Keep a succession of new flowers blooming in pots throughout the seasons, so your home and yard will never be short on color.

  • In spring, enjoy cool-season flowers like forced bulbs, primroses, and pansies.

  • In summer, grow tender perennials and annuals like impatiens and begonias.

  • In fall, enjoy late bloomers like asters and mums.

Materials for Containers
  • Plastic
  • Clay
  • Ceramic
  • Fiberglass
  • Brass
  • Bronze
  • Tin
  • Stone
  • Cement
  • Cedar
  • Redwood
  • Compressed fibers
  • Compressed peat moss
Are window boxes the right container for you, or does your patio cry out for a clay pot? Keep reading for tips on selecting the right container.

Want more gardening tips? Try visiting these links:
  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Choosing a Container for Container Gardening

Window boxes, decorative containers, and even bags of soil can make good vessels for your container garden.

  • Plant annuals in a big bag of potting soil for a quick, easy balcony garden. This method, commonly used in England, is still a novelty here and will make a great conversation piece:

    • Lay the bag flat on the ground where you want a mini garden. Punch a few small drainage holes in the bottom.

    • You can cut one large opening in the top side for several plants, letting them intermingle in a decorative planting scheme. Or make several individual planting holes for a working garden of annual vegetables and herbs.

    • The plastic wrapper will help to keep the soil inside moist. But when it does begin to dry out, or needs water-soluble fertilizer as a plant pick-me-up, carefully drizzle water or water-soluble fertilizer inside to moisten the entire bag.

      A bag of potting soil makes a quick, easy container garden.
      A bag of potting soil makes a quick, easy container garden.

  • Use care when planting in decorative containers. Lovely bark, wicker, wood, and even fine pottery pots and urns make handsome containers. But some of them have one big drawback -- they can be damaged by water. Regardless, you can still use them for plants, but only as an ornamental cover over a working pot below. Here is the trick:

    • Plant in a plastic pot that has no drainage holes or that sits on a plastic saucer, which will prevent moisture spills.

    • The pot, and saucer if used, must be smaller than the decorative container.

    • Put a layer of plastic inside the container, then set the potted plant on top.

    • Cover the top of the pots with sheet moss or other natural fibers to hide the mechanics below. This combination will be temporary at best and require careful watering so the plant roots won't be drowned or dried. Once every couple of months, remove the potted plant and water thoroughly, draining off the excess moisture to wash out salts that will build up in the soil.

      This combination will be temporary at best and require careful watering so the plant roots won't be drowned or dried. Once every couple of months, remove the potted plant and water thoroughly, draining off the excess moisture to wash out salts that will build up in the soil.

  • Use window boxes to brighten your house with flowers and add height to surrounding gardens.

    • Elegant window boxes can feature flowers that match the color of nearby curtains, carpets, shrubs, or shutters.

    • Some cascading ivy, vinca vine, or vining petunias will soften the geometric outlines of the window box.

    • Grow herbs such as thyme, basil, and parsley in a kitchen window box.

  • Look for self-watering planters if you aren't home enough to keep potted plants from drying out (or if you forget to water every day or two). Self-watering planters have a water reservoir in the bottom that's connected to the pot by a water-absorbing wick. When the soil begins to get dry, the wick pulls up more water from the reservoir.

Keep reading for more tips on preparing your containers for planting.

Want more gardening tips? Try visiting these links:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Preparing Plant Containers for Container Gardening

Take some time to prepare your containers before planting. Doing so will extend the life of your containers and protect your plants from disease.

Clay and plastic pots can crack or chip in cold weather.
Clay and plastic pots can crack or chip in cold weather.


  • Put clay and plastic pots in the garage before cold winter weather arrives. This will help keep them from cracking and chipping when the weather turns bitterly cold.

  • Wrap heavy urns and pots that are too bulky to carry indoors in plastic for winter protection. Do this on a dry autumn day, securing the plastic across the top, bottom, and sides of the pots to prevent moisture from getting inside. Moisture expands when it freezes. This causes terra-cotta, ceramic, and even synthetic stone and concrete containers to chip and break.

  • Store pots under tarp for protection in mild climates. This will save space in your garage or basement and keep the pots handy for when you need them in the spring.

  • Sterilize old pots with a 10 percent bleach solution before using them for other plants. Saving old pots from flowers, vegetables, poinsettias, even shrubs transplanted into the yard is a great way to economize. But you have to be certain to eliminate any disease spores that may have come, like extra baggage, with the previous occupant.

    Begin by washing out excess soil, bits of roots, and other debris with warm soapy water. Mix 1 part household bleach with 9 parts water and use the solution to wipe out the pot. Rinse again, and the pot is ready to plant.

On the next page, learn how to prepare potting soil for your container garden.

Want more gardening tips? Try visiting these links:
  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Preparing Soil for Container Plants

You can create your own custom potting soil for container gardening. Use a peat-moss-based potting mix as the foundation. (It works well for houseplants, seedlings, and many other plants as is.) Peat-based mixes won't compress like true soil, which is a big advantage in pots. But they are low on nutrients and liable to dry out quickly, complications that can be minimized with special potting blends.

Premoisten peat-based soil mixes in a wheelbarrow.
Premoisten peat-based soil mixes in a wheelbarrow.


  • To make a richer mix for annual flowers or for perennials like daylilies, you can blend 2 parts peat mix with 1 part compost.

  • For a more fertile, moisture-retentive soil for tomatoes or lettuce, blend 1 part peat mix, 1 part garden soil, and 1 part compost.

  • For a lighter mix for propagating cuttings or growing succulents or cacti, add 1 part coarse sand or perlite to 1 part peat mix.

  • Premix a wheelbarrow full of potting blend. If you have plenty of houseplants that need repotting, or you like to put more than just a few pots or window boxes of summer flowers outdoors, this will save you time and effort. And if you buy the peat mix and extras in large, economy-sized bags, it also will save you money.

  • Premoisten peat-based mixes in a large tub or wheelbarrow. Prewetting peat moss, which soaks up a surprisingly large amount of water, ensures there will be enough moisture left over to supply new plantings.

    Premoistening is easily done with a garden hose. Sprinkle in a generous amount of water, and work the moisture into the peat mix with a trowel (or a hoe if you are making large batches). Continue to add more water until the peat clumps together in a moist ball. Then it is ready to go in a pot.

  • Use slow-release fertilizers to keep plants growing and blooming all season. Because peat-based mixes contain little or no natural nutrients, plant growth depends on a regular supply of fertilizer. Slow-release fertilizers keep working for several months to a year, depending on the formulation.

Watering plants in a container garden takes some special consideration. Keep reading for tips on how to water your container plants.

Want more gardening tips? Try visiting these links:
  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Watering Container Plants

You need to take a few special steps when watering plants in containers.

  • Use water-holding gels to reduce the need for watering, especially when planting in quick-drying, peat-based mixes. These gels -- actually polymers -- look like crystals when dry and safely sealed in their package. But once you add water, you'll be surprised to see them swell up into a large mass of quivering gelatin look-alikes. You can blend the gel into potting mixes, following blending instructions on the package.

    A narrow perforated PVC pipe can be used to water strawberry pots or large containers.
    A narrow perforated PVC pipe can be used to water strawberry
    pots or large containers.


  • Foliage Plants for Containers
    These plants look great when they're mixed with flowering plants in pots.

    Set a narrow perforated PVC pipe in the center of a strawberry pot or large container before filling in around it with potting mix. When you need to water your plants, run the hose gently into the pipe, and the water will ooze out from top to bottom, inside to outside, giving every plant an even share.

  • Place a circle of fine mesh screen over pot drainage holes instead of using pebbles or pot shards. The screen will help to hold the soil in place until the roots fill out and claim every particle. But it's still a good idea to water outdoors, in the sink, or over a pot saucer so a little oozing dampness or soil won't damage anything.

    The problem with covering drainage holes with pot shards (the clay chunks left after a pot is broken) and pebbles is that they can shift to clog up the drainage holes. With no place for excess water to go, plant roots may soak in saturated soil, a condition few plants emerge from alive.

  • Seal the bottoms of clay saucers with polyurethane to keep them watertight. Then they will be safe to use on floors and carpets. Or, instead of buying clay saucers, you can buy watertight plastic saucers made to look like clay. When one is sitting beneath a pot, it's hard to tell the difference.
Want more gardening tips? Try visiting these links:
  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.