An Introduction to Growing in Containers

Growing in containers saves space, but it’s also a smart alternative if you are restricted by too much shade, poor soil, too little time, limited mobility or a difficult climate. Container gardens can be much more productive than a regular garden while allowing you to avoid most pest and disease problems.

Container gardening can be done by almost all of us. All that is needed is a reasonably well lit windowsill. So, growing in pots and planters is a great option. Even if you don’t have garden or yard with any soil you can still grow most herbs and a few choice vegetables. Containerized growing also provides a great deal of flexibility and solves problems that might otherwise limit the creativity and enjoyment of those that wish to practice organic gardening. Containers provide the essential growing platform in garden locations without soil such as patios, paved courtyards, and roof areas.

The container gardener provides soil for the plant in the form of bagged, sterilized potting mix. Sterilized soil is good because it prevents the seeds being attacked by fungal disease, and cuts down the number and type of pests you get in the soil. You can also of course customize your mix to suit your plants.

Containerized gardening is a very good option when space is limited. California residents without yards can still grow tomatoes, if they grow container-friendly varieties on their patios or decks. But. Also, at the other end of the scale, trees can be grown in containers providing that fast-draining soil is provided and that they are given frequent watering. Containerized trees, like tomatoes ,need frequent (but light) feeding to replace nutrients that quickly leach away.

Size does matter when it comes to choosing containers for each plant species and selection is governed primarily by root needs. A small 6 to 10- inch container is appropriate for plants such as onions, parsley, and lettuce while a 5-gallon container should be the minimum size for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and other deep-rooted vegetables.

Size depends upon the plants to be grown, and also depends on the number of plants to be grown in each container.

Soil straight from the outdoors is usually not a good choice for us when growing in containers. Nature finds its own ways to drain water from very clay-like outdoor soils, but put those soils in a pot and drainage is usually not adequate. In a container the need to water frequently results in nutrients being flushed out quickly. Also, soil in these pots can dry out quickly. Non-porous containers, like plastic, glazed pottery and metal, are better as they tend not to lose moisture nearly as fast.

The soil mixture and feeding are the next important factors. Containers provide healthy plants best when commercially available potting mixes are used. The best are derived from good potting soils, or you can mix the soil with sand and compost to the exact requirements, giving you better growth and production. Soil depth is also important. As a rule of thumb, deep-rooted plants such as tomatoes should be given at least 12 inches of soil, but radishes thrive with as little as 4 inches.

Most seedlings will emerge in 4 to 7 days after sowing in a warm place. When they do, remove the plastic covering and place the containers in bright light or direct sun if the heat will not be too intense, in a south-facing window or under specially designed fluorescent lighting. Seedlings may require pinching out after germination to avoid them growing too close together. In other cases seed trays of seedlings must be potted on when the seedlings reach a size at which they can be handled. When the young plants reach about 7.5cm (3in) high, plant them out out in containers or in any good soil, in sun or shade to suit the requirement of the species.

Feed the plants well, water and weed them, and they should grow to be clean and healthy. The general care every plant requires is applicable even for a container garden. As a general rule you should feed your plants once in late spring and then again in midsummer. In containers, growth may continue year round, so feed as recommended with controlled-release fertilizers, or with a diluted liquid fertilizer supplied ready to use, or mix as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

In general the many plastic pots and troughs available, look good and can be bought very cheaply. Ceramic pots are the genuine article and on close inspection usually look better but they cost more. We have also found that plastic tubs tend to be popular in southern California where home gardeners, counter the severe water use restrictions by growing their vegetables in containers.

Most vegetables make a heavy demand on water and consume a lot of nutrients. Some advise to fertilize these every week with a pH balanced water-soluble fertilizer. However, genuine composts (not peat based) can provide a slow release of nutrients which reduces significantly on fertilizer demands.

Very many flowers will thrive in containers in the same conditions as we have just described for vegetables. Ever popular roses can be kept in planters and pots, if great care is taken on watering and feeding. Don’t forget though that a container will freeze far more quickly than soil in the ground. Roses can be over-wintered in containers but these must be moved indoors as when in pots are not winter hardy. If in doubt about rose growing in containers ask your nursery about special rose hybrids which have been developed for pot growing.

Herbs are perhaps the best of all plants to grow in containers. The convenience of a potted herb plant grown on a windowsill when just a little is needed for a dish is unsurpassed. However, a further benefit is that the problem of many herbs (eg mint) which tend to produce invasive root growth, and which can result in a whole garden plot being overrun by a particular herb, is solved once they are placed in a container.

Herbs will grow in almost any type of container as long as it has good drainage. Terra Cotta pots are best for herbs, but plastic, wood, or metal will do. Herbs can easily become a hobby in themselves, and of course there are many that apart from the food types, can also be used for medicinal purposes. Others can allow the grower to make perfumes, and others are ingredients for cosmetics, or they can simply be dried and used in lovely smelling potpourris.