Skip to main content

Container gardening: Good things in small packages

Container gardening allows the green thumbed-set to plant everywhere

By |

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners

The size of your garden doesn’t matter when it comes to container planting. Containers works in large yards and on small balconies.

Regardless of your ground soil quality, you can create exactly the type of soil you need for a particular plant in a pot. Containers offer a choice of heights, which is beneficial for both ease of gardening and interesting design, allowing you to move the plants from place to place as needed for colour or season. Here are the four basic components of beautiful and healthy container gardens.


Unlike in-ground planting, choosing the container for your plants is as fun as choosing the plants. You can use anything with an opening: children’s outgrown rubber boots, chipped teapots, and pots and boxes specially designed for the purpose.

Colour and design are part of the fun of container gardening. Simply decide which you want to be the star of the show: the container or the plant it holds. If the plant is colourful and showy, use a plain container. If you have a whimsical container you might want to use a single plant colour or herb.

Your container choice can make your garden maintenance easier. A porous container (such as clay, unglazed terra-cotta, or rattan) will dry out quickly and require watering at least once a day, perhaps more. Non-porous vessels (including plastic, stone, and metal) require drainage holes in the bottom, and can overheat in the sun, which can damage plant roots.

Size is important. Small pots are easier to handle, but large containers keep the soil moist longer, so think about what will make gardening easier for you. If you prefer smaller containers you can use similar types clustered together so that they are easy to water. Hanging baskets are particularly susceptible to drying out, so choose the largest you can find, at least 35 centimetres in diameter.


Soil is so much easier to deal with in containers. Simply purchase good, lightweight potting soil from your nursery. Many of these are considered “soilless mixes” which means they do not contain any regular garden soil, but are made up of peat moss, perlite or vermiculite, dolomitic limestone, and fertilizer. You can also mix your own if you need large amounts.

This style of garden allows you to customize your soil to your plants’ needs. Are they heavy feeders? Add more fertilizer. Do they prefer acidic soil? Add less limestone. Check the labels and ask nursery staff to help you find soil your plants will thrive in.

Learn to mix your own potting soil here.


Container plants require attention to fertilizing because their only source of nutrients is what they find in their pots. While you may start with a full, lush, and colourful planter, without fertilizer it will begin to deteriorate in approximately three to four weeks.

There are two ways to keep your container plants looking their best: slow release fertilizer or weekly liquid fertilizing. If you purchase a pre-planted container be sure to ask if the soil contains slow-release fertilizer, and how long it will last.

If you plant your own container, mix slow release granules into the soil. It doesn’t hurt to add weekly liquid fertilizer from late July until the season is done. The plants will use up the nutrients, and regular watering will wash some of this fertilizer out the container’s drain holes.

Remember, plants absorb nutrients through their leaf pores. You can sometimes see a residue on the leaves of plants you’ve purchased. Foliar fertilizing, watering the leaves with a water/fertilizer mix, supplies nutrients to the plants immediately. This is especially effective with vegetables.


Unless your container features one special plant, you will need what the trade calls thrillers, fillers, and spillers to make a beautiful show. These are planted in groups of one, three, five, or more plants, depending on your container size.

One or three thriller plants that yell “Look at me,” with their colour or shape, three or five filler plants to add fullness and colour balance (something more neutral than the thrillers), and three or five plants that spill over the container sides to create a lush, finished look.

This is the chance to feature plants you love, either for their foliage or their blossoms. You can plant everything from tiny annuals to trees in containers, and bring them inside during the winter. Perennials are newly popular container plants. You can remove them from their summer homes, and plant them in the ground in the autumn to re-grow the next year.

Fill each container with plants that require the same type of watering, fertilizing, and sun or shade. A shade plant next to a plant that requires full sun will only result in one dying.

Whenever your planter starts to look a little straggly, usually around mid-July, trim back the fillers and spillers. Within two weeks you should see a real flush of growth and flowering, so plan your house parties accordingly.

East Coast Living