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Container Gardening: Choosing Containers

Understand Your Needs

Container gardening is not only for gardeners who lack space or land. It offers all gardeners the greatest potential for change & drama. Containerized plants transform hard-surfaced urban areas, city balconies & rooftops into luxuriant gardens.

Containers also offer a solution to people who live where it is not practical to improve difficult soil. Some plants that are too invasive to grow in regular gardens behave themselves in containers.

Containers are ornamental by themselves & create moods & looks ranging from rustic to formal. When you first begin to consider containers for your garden, the choices seem limitless.

You can find pots & planters in many different sizes, materials & styles. Before you choose, ask yourself some basic questions.


What type of plants do you want to grow?


If you want to grow a collection of alpine rock-garden plants, you won't need the same shape of container required for a tree or large shrub.


vegetables? flowers? herbs? what's your gardening journey about?




What kind of light does your site receive?


Whether the site is sunny or shady, it's important to select plants adapted to your conditions. If it's shady, you'll be wasting your time if you plant tomatoes & certain flowers.


Group plants w/similar care requirements. For example, a sun-loving, drought-tolerant herb & a thirsty, shade-dependent fuchsia could not both thrive in the same container. 

Your container garden will need at least 5 hours of direct sunlight each day & many plants will benefit from even more. Use this general rule:

  • leafy vegetables such as cabbage & lettuce can tolerate the most shade
  • root crops such as beets & carrots will need more sun
  • fruiting vegetables. i.e. tomatoes & cucumbers need the most sun

The amount of sunlight needed by flowers varies depending on the varieties grown. Check the flower guides for sunlight requirements.

slowly absorb the information....

If you consider practical requirements first, questions of style don't seem quite so open-ended. You'll find containers that are formal & informal, traditional & contemporary. Some designers recommend aiming for a good combination of sizes in one or similar materials. But the choice is yours.


The most important characteristic of a good looking container is the lush & healthy plant inside. Once they are growing, many plants - particularly flowers - overshadow containers altogether.


Will containers be outside in winter?

Some materials, such as ceramic & terra cotta, crack & shatter in freezing temperatures. Wood rot accelerates in rain & snow, & glazes on ceramic or terra cotta can be damaged by frost.


If you plan to leave your containers outdoors in severe weather, concrete & stone may be your best choices. Will you water daily in summer heat?

Porosity & insulation vary w/the material used. Hanging moss baskets & unglazed terra cotta lose moisture faster than most other kinds of containers.
Plants in these containers generally will require more frequent watering than containers made of other materials such as concrete & wood.

slowly absorb the information....

What & How to Plant

Deciding What to Plant


Choosing plants is somewhat like choosing containers: before you choose, consider your requirements & the requirements of the plants. Consider the potentials & constraints of your growing site.

more about containers


There are many possible containers for gardening (as previously discussed above). Containers for vegetable plants must:

  • Be big enough to support plants when they are fully grown
  • Hold soil without spilling
  • Have adequate drainage
  • Never have held products that would be toxic to plants or people

Consider using:

  • Barrels
  • Flower pots
  • Window boxes
  • Baskets lined w/plastic (w/drainage holes punched in it)
  • Even pieces of drainage pipe or cinder block

If you're building a planting box out of wood, you can use rot-resistant redwood, cedar or cypress. Some gardeners have built vertical planters out of wood latticework lined w/black plastic & filled w/a lightweight medium, or out of welded wire shaped into cylinders lined w/sphagnum moss & filled w/soil mix.

Depending on the size of your vertical planter, 2 diameter perforated plastic pipes may be needed inside to aid watering. Whatever type of container you use, be sure that there are holes in the bottom for drainage so that plant roots don't stand in water.

Most plants need containers at least 6 to 8 deep for adequate rooting. The imaginative use of discarded items or construction of attractive patio planters is a very enjoyable aspect of container gardening.
For ease of care, dollies or platforms w/wheels or casters can be used to move the containers from place to place. This is especially useful for apartment or balcony gardening so that plants can be moved to get maximum use of available space & sunlight & to avoid destruction from particularly nasty weather.


Is the container large enough?

Realistically, 1-gallon containers are about the smallest practical size you can use outdoors. In smaller containers, plants dry out too fast. The container must be large enough for plant roots to withstand summer heat.


Is container weight an issue?

If you live at ground level or in a modern penthouse or condominium, container weight may not be a consideration, but if you're turning an old apartment rooftop into paradise, it may be. A 1-foot-square container filled w/wet planting soil can weigh 50 pounds.


A 50-gallon container for a tree will weigh several hundred pounds. Plants in several containers distribute the weight more evenly than one large one.

How much do you want to pay?


An antique Chinese earthenware jar & an old whiskey barrel might work equally well supporting healthy plants. However, the barrel might cost as much as a new shovel, whereas the jar might cost more than some furniture in your house.

slowly absorb the information....

What to Grow?


Annuals suitable for containers include:


growing vegetables in containers....

Small salad green such as oak leaf lettuce & mustard cress, or vegetables such as silver beet, which have a quick maturing period are ideal.

You may be able to get several crops of a quick maturing vegetable from your container. Cherry tomatoes & other fruiting vegetables, including peppers or eggplant can be easily grown in containers, as can root vegetables such as baby carrots, radishes or spring onions.

Try planting quick-growing small herbs & leaf lettuces around you larger fruiting vegetables. click here to read more about growing vegetables in containers!


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container gardening - what plants to grow & pots to use - you are here!
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container gardening - the real dirt about gardening
container garderning - watering methods 
container gardening - continued care of your garden
the perfect greenhouse

Container Gardening:

Choosing Containers

Types of Containers: Even the smallest patio or porch can boast a crop of vegetables or a garden of flowers in containers. Planter boxes, wooden barrels, hanging baskets & large flowerpots are just some of the containers that can be used. The container gardener is limited only by his imagination. Consider the following guidelines when choosing your container.


  • containers w/narrow openings should be disregarded
  • glazed ceramic pots are excellent choices but require several drainage holes
  • avoid wood used for containers that has been treated w/creosote, penta or other toxic compounds - vapors can damage the plants 
  • choose containers between 15 & 120 quarts capacity if possible
  • think about the size & number of plants to be grown to determine the size of the container used
  • keep in mind that deep rooted vegetables require deep pots
  • in hot climates use light-colored containers to lessen heat absorption & to discourage uneven root growth

  • sit your containers on bricks or blocks to allow free drainage

  • line hanging baskets with sphagnum moss for water retention

  • keep baskets away from afternoon sun 

You can narrow your choices by considering the advantages & disadvantages of different materials. 

Stone containers


Stone planters are durable & good looking, but rare. In past eras, stone troughs & sinks were common & much prized by lovers of alpine & rock-garden plants. Most stone planters today are made of reconstituted stone. A stone planter works best in a ground-floor, permanent location.


Terra cotta containers


Say "flower pot" & most people picture a terra cotta pot. A terra cotta pot at its most basic is a simple clay pot, a classic of informality. Some terra cotta containers have a tooled design that is more decorative & formal. Terra cotta saucers are widely available.


Unglazed terra cotta loses moisture quickly because of the porosity of the material. In these pots, plant roots "breathe," they are cooler, but dry out faster because of moisture evaporation from the pot exterior.


Does this mean a terra cotta pot is the best kind for plants? That is one of the great gardening debates. However, it's fair to say that serious gardeners frequently choose clay pots because they are inexpensive & because they absorb excess water, reducing the chance of damage to plants from overwatering.


Terra cotta has its disadvantages. The red-brown exterior is rough & tends to become stained from fertilizer or algal growth. Some consider this attractive, but it makes pots more difficult to clean & disinfect. Terra cotta can chip & crack in severe cold & it requires careful handling any time of the year.


Glazed terra cotta, or any ceramic, has a glossy finish that slows moisture loss & evaporation. Glazed pots are easier to clean but more expensive than the porous ones.


 remember: clay is porous & water is lost from the sides of the container - plants in clay pots should be monitored closely for loss of moisture.

Will you need to capture all water runoff?


If so, choose a container w/ a saucer, or devise a tray or other system to hold the containers & their drips.

be sure your pot has adequate drainage - holes should be 1/2" across -lining the base of the pot w/newspaper will help to prevent soil loss

Concrete containers


Concrete can be molded into different shapes w/different textures. It can be used to make reconstituted stone at less cost than authentic stone. Concrete has good insulating properties, buffering plants & soil from sudden extreme temperature changes.


Weight, however, is a limitation w/concrete, constraining its use to ground-floor & permanent locations. Concrete should always be fully cured & weathered so it doesn't affect soil alkalinity.


 Drip trays


Drip trays are important for baskets, window boxes, containers suspended over doorways, or containers placed wherever stains from escaping water might be a problem.


A drip tray can be a simple saucer under a terra cotta pot or a reservoir & drip chamber w/in containers. Sometimes drip trays are trays of gravel or pebbles that hold several containers.


These trays prevent stains, increase humidity around plants & improve overall plant health.

Drainage holes


Most manufactured containers have drainage holes. If you have a container w/out drainage holes, you can make the holes w/an electric drill.


Depending upon the kind of pot, a masonry bit may be required.


In some cases, you may want to set one container w/drainage holes inside a non-draining container. If you do, put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the outer container & set the container w/holes inside on top of the gravel.

fiberglass containers


Fiberglass makes an excellent though sometimes expensive outdoor planter. Because fiberglass is frost-proof, lightweight, & durable, it works especially well in roof gardens where weight is a consideration.

Timber & wood containers


Wooden containers vary as widely as terra cotta containers. They might have the informality of whiskey barrels or the formality of "Versailles" planters.


Wood is a good insulator, moderating temperature extremes, but remember that wooden containers are susceptible to rot. Redwood & cedar are relatively rot resistant & can be used w/out staining or painting. Add cypress to the list for the best woods for containers, since they are naturally resistant to rot & most resistant to weathering.


Be cautious in using treated wood for planters & window boxes. The safest chemical wood preservative is copper naphthenate, which is commonly sold at hardware stores under the trade name Cuprinol.


The use of pentachlorophenol, a wood preservative commonly known as "penta," is restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. The vapors are toxic to plants & animals.


Creosote can also be toxic to plants. If you use creosote-treated wood, such as railroad ties, keep all plants at least 6" from the wood.


Lumber treated commercially w/CCA, a chemical consisting of chromium, copper & arsenicis, sold under many trade names. It is believed to be safe for plants, because these chemicals bind tightly to the wood & do not tend to leach into the soil. However, plants may show damage if planted in small amounts of soil heavily exposed to CCA-treated lumber.


One way to extend the life of window boxes & wooden planters is to line them w/plastic. One advantage of wooden containers is that they can be built to sizes & shapes that suit the location.


Sometimes you can buy liners w/the container, but even a plastic garbage bag can work. Don't forget to make drainage holes.


Plastic containers


Plastic containers are among the least expensive. Because they are lightweight, they are good for balconies & flat roofs & generally are easy to clean. Although inexpensive, remember that cheap plastic pots may deteriorate in UV sunlight. 


Plastic can be manufactured in bold shapes & lines to fit contemporary settings. Because plastic is impervious to moisture, water does not evaporate as it does in terra cotta & plant roots tend to be slightly warmer in plastic.


Some plastic planters have self-watering reservoirs. These containers, which usually must be special ordered, work well for people whose lifestyle makes it impossible to tend to regular watering.

Will your containers be mobile?

If so, select lightweight materials, or styles w/castors or wheels.

Metal containers

Metal is not often used as a plant-container material, except for wire & moss hanging baskets. Metal has no insulating properties & no base metal except lead withstands the corrosion caused by fertilizer salts. Galvanizing or coating metal w/plastic can overcome this, but the zinc coating that results from galvanizing can be toxic to plants.

Paper pulp pots

These are inexpensive, lightweight & available in many sizes. They are more water-retentive than unglazed terra cotta or ceramic pots, but less water-retentive than plastic or wood. Their life span averages about 3 years.

Found containers

You don't always have to buy containers for your plants - in fact, you might already have some. If a container has drainage holes, won't rot in one season & will hold a gallon of soil mix, you can grow plants in it.


Plastic-lined baskets, wheelbarrows, chimney flue tiles, large cans, tree trunks, ammunition boxes, concrete culvert segments, farm troughs, crates lined w/plastic, any of these might suit you. It's all a matter of personal choice & personal style.

Making your container mobile


You can convert a stationary container to a mobile one by using pieces of dowel or pipe to serve as rollers. Set the container on top of several parallel dowels or pipes. As you roll the container forward, move the rear dowel to the front row to keep the container moving.

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