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Getting Started With Container Gardening: Beginner Tips

Brittany is a gardener from Indiana who loves sharing tips and advice with fellow garden enthusiasts.

Learn how to choose the right container and soil for your garden, ensure it has adequate drainage, and water it correctly.

Learn how to choose the right container and soil for your garden, ensure it has adequate drainage, and water it correctly.

How to Choose a Container

Choosing the ideal container is an important step to ensure your plants blossom and thrive in an artificial environment. Your plants will need plenty of tender loving care because the odds are against them. There is only so much soil for your plants to gain water and nutrients. Mother Nature can harm your plants with drying winds, the scorching sun, and the freezing cold if they are not properly protected!

Questions to Consider

Choose a container according to your personal taste and style. Roots will grow in anything that contains soil. You're only limited by your own imagination. However, you should consider a few questions before settling on a container.

  • What is the plant's mature size?
  • What is the growth rate?
  • What is the root structure?

Picking the Right Size

Your plant will need plenty of oxygen-rich and nutrient-rich soil to thrive. The container shouldn't be too small or too big. If the container is too small, the roots will not have enough space to spread, and they will die. If the container is too big, plants considered to be "rapid growers" will produce more leaves and may not flower. Eventually, the roots will suffer and the soil will sour. Sour soil can lead to issues such as fungus and disease.

Picking the Right Shape

Choosing the ideal shape for your container is also important for your plant's overall health. Plants with very shallow roots and short top growth will do just fine in a pot that's only a few inches tall. On the other hand, plants with tall foliage and long roots need a deep container to accommodate the roots and balance the upper portion.

Basil grows well in a pot.

Basil grows well in a pot.

What Are Containers Made From?

Technically, containers can be made from anything, but the most popular containers are made of terra-cotta, wood, or plastic. These can all be found at your local gardening center. Each material type has its advantages and disadvantages. You can decide between each according to your climate, the style of your home, and the amount of time you have for garden maintenance.



Very porous. Soil will not get too soggy and this is perfect for cool, rainy or humid climates.

Very Heavy. These pots are stable and ideal for trees and tall shrubs or any plant in a windy location. However these can be very hard to move. Most likely too heavy for a rooftop or balcony.

Very Fragile. All terra-cotta pots can chip or crack even if they are high-fired pots. If the weather is severe in your area, these pots are safest indoors.


Somewhat porous. Untreated wood is kind of breathable. Wood that is treated with waterproof paint or sealer becomes non-porous.

Very strong and stable.

Wooden containers last much longer than other materials if they are made of rot-resistant woods such as cedar, redwood or cypress. If the wood is treated they will last even longer. Wood rarely breaks, chips or cracks and is not affected by changes in the weather.


Completely non-porous. Water will remain in the soil longer which is great for hot, dry climates.

Very lightweight. Plastic is not great for windy or exposed locations and may need to be anchored the ground.

Not so durable. Better quality plastic is not likely to suffer from weather damage but cheap plastic will tend to crack after years in the elements.

Pro Tips

  • Drill a single 1/2–1-inch sized hole for small to medium containers. Drill four or five 1-inch holes for larger containers.
  • Ignore the rule of covering drainage holes with shards. It has been discovered recently that this method hinders plant growth. Instead, use a square piece of window screening to hold soil and release excess water.
  • To promote proper air circulation and drainage, use "pot feet" to lift your containers from the ground. This method will prevent any water stains on your deck or patio.

Proper Drainage Is Important for a Container Garden

Waterlogged soil is the most common cause of death for container plants but there are steps to take if you want to prevent it. You can always use free-draining soil or use pots with a hole in the bottom for excess water to escape. If the container you want to use doesn't have a drainage hole—drill one!

How to Drill Holes in the Container

  • Wood, Plastic, or Fiberglass: Use a hand or electric drill.
  • Stone, Terra-Cotta, or Concrete: Use an electric drill with a masonry or carbide bit. To avoid cracking the pot, drill a small hole to start, then increase the size.
  • Heavy Lead or Iron Container: Use a metal bit. For a lighter metal container like tin, you can easily punch a hole with a hammer and nail.
These indoor plants have been double potted in plastic pots and then decorative metal pots.

These indoor plants have been double potted in plastic pots and then decorative metal pots.

If Drilling Isn't an Option, Then Double Pot

No worries! If you are unable to drill drainage holes, opt for using the "double pot" method:

  • Simply put a smaller pot (with drainage holes included) inside of a larger pot.
  • Set the smaller pot on top of bricks or pebbles so that it never sits in the water.

It's a good idea to remove the smaller pot from time to time to empty any water that has built up in the outer container.

How to Choose the Best Soil for Your Container Garden

When choosing soil for your container garden, it's best to pick a combination of fast draining, rich, nutrient-dense soils so your plants will thrive. High-quality mixes are available and take the guesswork out of choosing a suitable soil.

You can find a container and a hanging basket mix available at most garden centers; they feature peat-based formulas with water retaining gel crystals and slow-release fertilizer granules. These soil mixes will save you time and work, but they are quite expensive. If you're planning to maintain several container plants, this can blow your budget. Opt for a standard potting mix and purchase additives separately.

How to Properly Water Your Container Garden

If you aren't sure when to water a plant, just poke your finger into the top inch of the soil. If it feels dry, then the plant is thirsty and needs to be watered. Just be aware that this is not the universal rule for watering all plants. Depending on the plant and its specific needs, it may need less or more water than other plants.

Consider factors such as the soil type, permeability, and weather conditions. Ask the nursery or garden center attendant about properly caring for the plant, or consult a gardening book. Sometimes a card or sticker with helpful tips is included when you purchase the plant.

Saturate the Soil

When you're ready to water the plant, it's always best to saturate the soil until excess water begins to drain from the bottom. Whether you use a hose or watering can, it's ideal to apply water using a gentle stream, drip, or spray. A gentle flow of water ensures the soil is not displaced and plants or flowers will not be damaged.

Best Fruits and Vegetables to Grow in Containers

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas (dwarf, perennials, grow well indoors)
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cucumbers
  • Green beans (bush beans or pole beans)
  • Herbs (basil, chives, oregano, parsley, sage, thyme)
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini
Yes, you can grow tomatoes in containers!

Yes, you can grow tomatoes in containers!


Thelma Alberts from Germany on May 29, 2016:

Good tips on container gardening. Thanks for the ideas.

RTalloni on May 26, 2016:

Nice introduction to container gardening.

Jill Spencer from United States on May 26, 2016:

Your double-pot method is a great tip! Thanks for sharing. --Jill