Container Gardening for Beginners

EarthBox container gardening systems

Are you looking to grow plants with limited outdoor space? If you live in an apartment with a small balcony, your yard doesn’t have suitable soil, or there’s a spot on your deck crying for some greenery…there's a solution: container gardening!

You can use any gardening containers for flowers, but planting boxes are the perfect solution for growing fresh produce if you enjoy vegetables and herbs. So, let’s look at container gardening for beginners.

What is Container Gardening?

Container gardening is growing plants in planting boxes or other gardening containers versus planting them in the ground. You can buy containers in all shapes, sizes, and materials like plastic, terracotta, metal, or wood.

Container gardening is perfect anywhere, especially in small areas with limited outdoor space. Alternatively, container gardening is ideal for anyone who wants to grow plants unsuitable for their climate or where the soil is poor. You can use this zone chart map to determine the plants best suited to your location. The seasonal plant selection available at your local garden center is also a great indicator of what you can successfully grow in your area.

Planting in gardening containers also adds mobility. As the seasons change, you can readily move plants to different locations to take advantage of dwindling sunlight or protect them against excessive heat.

Outdoor garden space with swing and EarthBox gardening containers
City apartment balcony utilizing EarthBox garden box planters
Several container gardens on a brick patio

The Benefits of Container Gardening

Container gardening brings the garden to you. With planting boxes, you can grow your produce, harvest, and eat it—all without leaving your home. Talk about fresh!

Here are eight reasons to try container gardening:

  1. Flexibility: Container gardening lets you move plants around. If a plant isn't doing well in one location, you can move it to another without digging it up and transplanting it.
  2. Space: Container gardening is the perfect choice for anyone with limited space, like apartments, condos, or city dwellers.
  3. Soil Control: When you use gardening containers and planting boxes, you control the soil. As a result, you can select a specific growing medium that’s perfect for the plants you want to grow.
  4. Easy Maintenance: Container gardening is less labor-intensive than traditional gardening. The smaller size of gardening containers makes it easier to maintain your plants. Equally important, they require less water and fertilization.
  5. Pests: With container gardening, checking for pests and plant diseases is easier by keeping plants spaced out. It’s also easier to treat plants if a problem does arise.
  6. Aesthetics: Depending on your gardening container, you can add visual interest and color to beautify your outdoor space.
  7. Accessibility: Container gardening opens the door for people of all ages and abilities to garden.
  8. Variety: You can grow numerous plants in container gardens. If you like tomatoes, you can dedicate a planter just for tomatoes. For example, the EarthBox® Original gardening system makes a great planting box for tomatoes and is available as a specialized tomato growing kit.

Are you a fan of herbs and greens instead of tomatoes? Plant a gardening container with herbs or lettuce instead with the EarthBox® Junior™ Gardening System that serves as an herb planter box.

Herbs growing in a brown EarthBox Junior herb planter box

The Best Plants for Gardening Containers

You can grow various plants in gardening containers. Still, the best plants for container gardening depend on the specific conditions in your location and how much care you can provide with watering and fertilizing. You must also pay attention to the sunlight they'll receive.

Here are some ideas for what to grow in gardening containers:

  • Herbs: Plant whatever herbs you like to use regularly. Basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and parsley perform exceptionally well in gardening containers. You can plant them in individual pots on a windowsill or grow them together in a larger gardening box.
  • Fruit and Vegetables: You can even grow vegetables in gardening containers—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, spinach, and many more do well.
  • Annuals: Want to add a burst of color to your balcony? Planting boxes are a great way to do it. Annuals such as petunias, marigolds, impatiens, and geraniums perform nicely in gardening containers.
  • Succulents: Cacti, agave, aloe, and other succulents are well-suited for gardening containers with drainage. You’ll also have the added benefit of having to water less frequently.
  • Ferns: Ferns perform well in gardening boxes if you like a tropical feel.
  • Bulbs: Gardening containers are perfect for daffodils, tulips, and lilies. You can place them in a planting box and move them after they've stopped flowering. Then, they'll be ready to come up again next year.
  • Small Trees or Shrubs: With larger gardening containers, you have the option of planting dwarf citrus and fruit trees, not to mention boxwoods, holly, and dwarf conifers. They provide texture while adding greenery to your space.

Regardless of what you grow, remember to care for the plants. They'll require watering, fertilizing, and protection from extreme weather. And before you plant, you'll want to make sure you pick the right gardening container filled with appropriate potting soil. You also must provide adequate drainage to avoid root rot.

Several EarthBox container gardens growing various crops
Various color flowers growing in EarthBox garden containers
Strawberries growing in a brown EarthBox Junior container garden

How to Select a Gardening Container

With so many different gardening containers on the market, you might wonder how to choose a suitable garden. First, you’ll need to consider these seven factors for how to select a suitable gardening container:

  1. Size: Choose a gardening box large enough to accommodate the plant’s root system with extra room for growth. As a rule, the gardening container should be at least two inches wider and deeper than the plant’s root ball.
  2. Material: Gardening containers are made from all different materials, but each has its characteristics. For example, plastic is lightweight and highly durable but may lack the upscale appearance you want. Clay pots are undeniably beautiful but also porous and can dry out quickly and break easily. Metal containers are trendy but get hot in the sun (so you'll need to water them more frequently) and are prone to rust. Wood planting boxes provide a classic look but can rot if not properly treated.
  3. Drainage: Proper drainage is critical for container gardening success. Any gardening container should have drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain away to prevent your plant’s roots from rotting.
  4. Style: Choose a gardening container that fits your style. If whimsical is your fancy, pick a colorful and fun container. Select a metal or concrete container with a simple silhouette if your taste is modern. If your vibe leans rustic, wood or white-washed planters are a good fit.
  5. Portability: If you anticipate moving the container, select one that's easy to move—whether it be something lightweight or with wheels. Remember, it will get heavier once you've added soil and water and the plants begin to grow.
  6. Cost: Set a budget. If you're not entirely sold on container gardening, spend less on your planter. Even if you're convinced about the merits of container gardening, planter costs vary considerably.
  7. Durability: Select a gardening container that’s going to last. Metal, plastic, and fiberglass containers are more durable and require less maintenance than wood, clay, or other porous materials.

Don’t forget to consider the plant's size you plan to grow. Some plants start small and grow large quickly, so you'll need a container to handle that growth. Tomatoes are just one example of a tiny seedling that can grow more than 6 feet tall in a container in just a few months. When in doubt, choose a gardening container larger than you think you need.

Types of Gardening Containers

Just like there are different materials for containers, there are different gardening containers. Of course, personal preference dictates the type of container you select, but you'll also need to consider the plants you're growing.

Some popular types of gardening containers include:

  • Pots: Pots come in an assortment of sizes and shapes. You’ll find them in various materials like clay, concrete, resin, or metal. Most people are familiar with classic terracotta pots. Pots are generally smaller, lightweight, and easy to move around.
  • Planters: Similar to pots, planters are typically larger and tend to be more decorative. Planters are often used in groupings to create a focal point.
  • Raised Beds: Often used for vegetable gardening, raised beds to allow you to grow more plants for better yields. In addition, gardeners often used raised beds to improve the soil while providing better plant drainage.
  • Planting Boxes on Stands: You can also find elevated planting boxes that act as raised bed gardens. They usually have a small footprint, and elevated planting boxes eliminate the need to bend when caring for your garden.
  • Window Boxes: Window boxes are excellent for small spaces and ideal for adding color to a home’s exterior by mounting them outside a window. Often used for showcasing flowers, they also make great herb planters.
  • Hanging Baskets: As you'd expect, these containers hang from a bracket or pole. Apart from adding greenery to a smaller space, hanging baskets work nicely for plants that trail or have cascading flowers like fuchsia or petunias.
  • Self-Watering Containers: If you're a beginner looking for lower maintenance, consider a self-watering gardening container. They include a reservoir at the bottom, which allows plants to draw water as needed.
  • Grow Bags: These work well with shallow-rooted plants, especially potatoes—they’re lightweight, inexpensive, and reusable.
  • Vertical Container Gardens: Vertical containers can be a lifesaver when space is at a premium. They take up little space while creating a living wall of sorts. Like hanging baskets, vertical gardening containers are helpful for cascading plants and herbs.
Dog laying down next to 2 EarthBox container gardening systems
Flowers growing in an EarthBox elevated planting box
Greenhouse with various gardening containers

How to Plant Your Container Garden

Once you’ve determined the plants you want and selected the best container, next comes the fun part—planting! It’s not a matter of just tossing any soil into the gardening box and haphazardly planting. As a container gardening beginner, you’ll want to pay attention to these steps for the best gardening container:

  1. Drainage: Make sure your gardening container has drainage holes. Some containers have them in place; for others, you may need to punch out or drill the drainage holes.
  2. Add Soil: Fill your container with high-quality, well-draining potting soil labeled for container gardening. The better quality of the soil, the better chances your plants will grow to their potential. Keep the soil watered regularly but avoid waterlogging it by overwatering.
  3. Plant: Carefully remove plants from their nursery pots, then loosen the root ball. Place them in the gardening container, ensuring the top of the root ball is level with the soil.
  4. Don’t Overplant: The old rule “less is more” applies to container gardening. You must use the correct number of plants in your container; if you plant too many, you’ll stunt their growth. Generally, use three to four plants in 10 to 12-inch planters. Use four to six plants in 14 to 16-inch containers. And use six to eight plants in 16 to 20-inch gardening boxes. Some companies, like EarthBox®, include specific plant placement charts to help.
  5. Add More Soil: With your plants in place, add more soil around the base of the plants. Pack the soil gently to remove air pockets, which can prevent the natural movement of water through the soil.
  6. Water Your Plants: Water plants thoroughly after transplanting to help establish a sound root system.
  7. Mulch: Adding mulch on top of the soil helps retain moisture and keeps the soil cool.
  8. Light: Place your gardening container where your plants receive the appropriate amount of sunlight.
  9. Fertilize: Once your plants begin to establish, fertilize them. Plants vary with their fertilizer requirements, so make sure you use the right fertilizer at the right time and in the correct amount.

You’ll need to monitor your plants throughout the planting season. Ensure they get enough water, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged. A moisture gauge can help you determine when to water. It’s a great little device for container gardening beginners.

Why Drainage is Important with Container Gardening

Drainage allows excess water to escape your gardening box, which prevents your plants’ roots from becoming waterlogged. When that happens, your plants can’t absorb oxygen and will begin to rot, ultimately killing them.

Plants need to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the air. Unfortunately, excess water closes off the air pockets in the soil, so even if the soil’s surface appears dry, the container’s bottom may be oversaturated, leading to root rot.

Signs of root rot include wilted leaves that don't perk up after watering, yellow leaves, and leaves dropping.

Drainage helps prevent salt buildup in potting soil. Tap water and fertilizers contain salts. So, when roots take in water, they leave the salts behind. Residual salt can concentrate in the soil over time, harming the plants. When you water thoroughly where the water flows out the drainage holes, those salts flush from the soil.

Always pay attention to drainage when watering. If the container is waterlogged, check the drainage holes, as sometimes they can become clogged.

Watering Your Container Garden

Container gardens can dry out more quickly than plants in the ground, so you must check the soil moisture frequently and water as needed. You should water container gardens when the top inch of soil is dry. Here are some tips when watering:

  • It’s better to water early in the day. Doing so gives plants enough water to get them through the hottest midday hours and allows the leaves to dry before night. Water on plant leaves overnight encourages disease spread.
  • Water deeply. You want to ensure the water reaches the roots. Water should run out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the gardening container.
  • Water sparingly. You're better off watering less frequently with more water than often with small amounts. Deep watering encourages plants to put down deeper, healthier roots.

Fertilizing Your Container Garden

Like watering, container plants need more frequent fertilizing than ground plants. For example, the fertilizer gets depleted reasonably quickly in a gardening container. Moreover, some nutrients flush out the drainage holes when you water deeply.

Use a balanced fertilizer and follow instructions for application rates. Slow-release fertilizers at the start of the planting season are especially beneficial. You can mix them into the soil during planting or sprinkle some on top of the soil after planting.

During their growth, flowering, and fruiting, you can use liquid fertilizers a couple of times a month at a minimum. After that, you can apply solid organic amendments like seaweed, manure tea, or fish emulsion.

Other Container Gardening Considerations

Most vegetables and herbs require at least six hours of sunlight per day, so be sure your container is in a suitable location. You’ll also need to pay attention to extreme heat and cold fluctuations.

As plants grow, you may need to prune or pinch them to keep them from becoming too large for your container. Pruning also improves air circulation, trains a plant to grow a certain way, and improves the yield and quality of flowers and fruit. Here’s a good primer for pruning tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetable plants.

In some instances, you may need to transplant a plant into a larger container to allow adequate room for your plant’s roots to grow.

Have Fun with Container Gardening

Not only do you get the benefits of luscious, fresh vegetables you’ve grown and picked yourself, but—equally important—container gardening is fun, so enjoy it!

If you’re a beginner looking to join the crowd of container gardeners, check out EarthBox®, a leader in container gardening products since 1994. Our planting boxes and accessories have been top-rated, a favorite among container gardeners, and are virtually maintenance-free. It’s the easiest container gardening system for beginners.

EarthBox container gardening system with trellis that's growing tomatoes
Flowers growing in a small container gardening system
Carrots growing in an EarthBox Root & Veg planting box