Container Gardening Basics for Beginners


My parents have both been blessed with green thumbs that would make Mother Nature herself proud. Throughout my childhood, the two of them maintained a vegetable garden that was approximately one-quarter of an acre in size and provided our family with fresh vegetables for an entire year from one season’s harvest.

While city living makes doing the same for my family unrealistic, I’ve found a decent compromise in container gardening. 

Before I share my thoughts on getting started with container gardening, I should come clean. To say that city living alone led me to container gardening is misleading. What truly brought me to it was my lack of green thumbs.

A potted plant on a shelf, with a mirror and some art.

It’s true, I am a terrible plant mom. I often joke that a houseplant my husband brought home to our first apartment together nine years ago must be fake. In the entirety of its time with us, I have only changed its soil once and I rarely water it. Somehow, it remains green and appears to be quite alive. All other plants in the house meet their maker and join the compost bin with alarming speed, but darn it, I do keep trying. Much like my attempts at other hobbies such as knitting and anything athletic, what I lack in natural ability I make up for with tenacity. 

While I’m admitting things, I should also tell you that I can be lazy about upkeep. I have not one, but two failed community garden plots under my belt. I planted the seeds, watered the plants, and then stopped going back to actually harvest the food. My containers from last year are still out on the deck filled with dead plants. I know, I should have dumped them out in the fall. Again, fully admitting that I am a bad plant mom.

And so, it was the combination of a deep-seated need to make my parents proud and a lack of desire to walk the four blocks to the community center that brought me to container gardening. 

If my honesty hasn’t exactly instilled your faith in me as a guide, allow my actual results to. After five years of container gardens of varying size and scope, I can tell you that I have actually eaten food I grew on my porch, and it tasted pretty darn good. 

A hand holds a glass bowl filled with green lettuce from container gardening

Here’s what I’ve learned about starting a container garden:

Do your research and plot your course.

Before you start making planters out of bathtubs and shopping the internet for cute pots, do some research on the specifics of container gardening. While one of my favorite things about container gardening is how accessible it is, you will want a bit of basic knowledge before you start the process. Two of my favorite beginner’s guides come from Gardener’s Supply and the Farmer’s Almanac

I found when I was getting started chatting with the folks at my local gardening store was my best resource. They were knowledgeable and more than happy to help set a newbie up for success. You’ll want to be realistic about your goals here, too. I recommend starting small the first year, maybe with something easy to grow like herbs or lettuce, and build on your success each year with small and sustainable expansion. 

Gather supplies.

At the bare minimum, you’ll need the following:

  • Containers (pots, buckets, etc.) Make sure they have proper drainage and are the right size for your plants.
  • Check out the linked guides above for more details on that.
  • Potting mix (do not use topsoil, as it is not designed for the proper water retention)
  • Seeds or seedling plants
  • Watering device: watering can, hose, or a cup with water are all fine options. You can even make your own watering can out of a recycled milk jug!
  • Seed starting supplies like trays, soil, water, and seeds
  • A sunny area

Other things that are helpful, but not necessary:

  • Gardening gloves
  • Trowel or small shovel
  • Liquid fertilizer
  • Compost

seedlings ready for the container garden

Pot your plants.

After making a plan and gathering supplies, it’s time to get to gardening. I haven’t started my own seeds in a couple of years, largely due to a lack of time because of the tiny humans in my home. I usually start my lettuce from seed right in its container, and the rest I put in as seedlings in late spring. Now is a great time to order ahead with your local nursery if you plan to go the seedling route.

Once you have your seedlings, make sure you put them in the right size container. My very first year container gardening, I made the mistake of purchasing a ton of stylish planters that were too small. They looked great, but my vegetable plants all died. While part of the appeal of container gardening is the cute factor of decorative planters, try to remember that function matters more than form. Clay pots are pretty to look at, but they soak up a lot of the water that should be feeding your plants. You also want to make sure that your containers are the right size and depth for your plants to flourish. In general, you want large containers deep enough for roots to grow.

The placement of your containers is important. Potted vegetables generally need water at least daily, so you’ll want them near a water source. They should also be in a place that receives largely sunlight during the day and not in a shaded area. I arrange my container garden on our back deck. Bonus: it doubles as decor!

Maintain, maintain, maintain.

As mentioned before, container gardening means you’ll need to water your plants daily. On extremely dry and hot days it could be twice per day. Watering is a great time to check the plants for signs of illness or lack of nutrients as well. 

To keep your plants healthy, try feeding them weekly with a liquid fertilizer. This can be found at pretty much any gardening or hardware store. 

One of the things I love about container gardening is that if you get a cold night or want to stretch out the life of your herbs at the end of a season, you can bring them indoors. There are also kits you can buy that are meant specifically for container gardening indoors, year-round. That has the potential to be a fun science project if you’re currently social distancing at home with your kiddos.

Do you plan to start a container garden this spring? What will you be growing? Share with us in the comments!

Container Gardening Basics for Beginners


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