Container Gardening: A Complete Guide to Success

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One of the most popular ways to grow plants is container gardening.

Instead of planting flowers, vegetables, herbs, etc. into the ground, they are planted in containers.

Container gardening has become increasingly popular over the past 10 years.

Garden centers now sell containers filled with gorgeous flowers and foliage that are ready to take home or you can buy the supplies to design your own.

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced gardener, the tips below will help you create, grow and maintain a beautiful, productive container garden.

Container Gardening Palm Tree next to white garage in back yard
Palm Growing in a Container on My Patio


The Benefits of Container Gardening:

  • Planting in containers makes gardening possible when yard space is limited or unavailable i.e. condominiums, apartments, urban spaces.


  • Container gardening uses a special soil mix that is light and airy. This is a great option for gardeners with hard, compacted soil that is less than ideal for planting.


  • Traditional gardening can be very physical. Container gardening requires less digging and bending, so a better option for those with physical limitations.


  • Some backyards do not have enough sunlight to grow many types of flowers and vegetables. To overcome this, place containers in sunny locations that perhaps couldn’t be planted otherwise- i.e. driveways and walks.


  • Container gardening allows the beginner to start small without becoming overwhelmed with a large garden.


  • Container gardening is a great way to bring nature to your back door. Landscaping your deck and patio with containers (“deckscaping” and “patioscaping”) creates a beautiful outdoor living area.

Selecting a Container

Since container gardening has become increasingly popular, the selection of containers is amazing!

There are endless shapes, sizes, colors and materials to select from.

This is a great way to express your personal creativity and create an outdoor living space that reflects your style.

Flowers growing in Containers on side of red brick home
Container Gardening on My Patio

Container Size

As a general rule, the goal is to find a container that is in scale with the mature size of the plant.

For instance, if planting a tomato that will grow 2-3’ high, a minimum size container would be 12” in diameter and depth.

A container any smaller will be challenging to keep watered and fertilized over the course of the season.

When in doubt, I always “size up.”

The larger the mature size of the plant, the larger the pot.

It is always easier to add plants to fill a large space than “nurse” a plant that doesn’t have enough space to grow properly.

In general, it will be difficult to maintain plants in containers that are smaller than 10” in diameter and 8″ in height.

The combination of heat and wind will quickly dry the soil and roots.

In this situation, it is challenging to provide enough water to sustain the plants.

Consequently, they will suffer heat stress.



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Drainage Considerations

When selecting a container, I highly recommend using only those with at least one drain hole; preferably, multiple drain holes.

It is very difficult to successfully grow any plant in a container without drainage.

I tried it last summer and although the plants grew adequately, the soil was waterlogged and had a foul odor.

The smell would occasionally drift onto the patio and create a less than relaxing environment!

Fortunately, these pots are made of resin, so I will be drilling holes in the bottom for next season.

More Tips for Selecting a Container

  • Succulents prefer to grow in soil that dries between watering, so they thrive in containers made from porous materials such as concrete, clay, and terra cotta. When unsealed, these materials “breathe” allowing air to flow from the soil. This facilitates drainage and keeps succulents healthy.


  • Try a self-watering container. There are many different styles on the market. They can be a great asset during an extremely hot and dry growing season.


  • Talk to the experts at your local garden center if you have any concerns about selecting the correct size container for your plants. They will be happy to help!


Soil for Containers

One of the critical keys to successful container gardening is using a soil mix that is designed specifically for containers.

You can easily find this at any garden center or online.

Don’t use soil from your yard as will become hard and compacted in containers.

Some containers are quite large and require a lot of soil.

You can place a “filler” such as packing peanuts, Styrofoam pieces or empty water bottles in the bottom third of a large pot to reduce the amount of soil needed.

There are reports that plastic items such as these may leach chemicals over time.

If you want to err on the side of caution, consider natural fillers such as rocks and broken clay shards when growing edibles (vegetables, fruits, herbs etc.).

However, note that it has been proven that adding these materials will not improve the pot’s drainage, but actually make it worse than if it was consistently full with soil.

Therefore, I recommend filling the entire pot with container soil whenever possible.

Pro Tip:

  • Use pot feet or a pot trolley under containers that sit on a deck or patio. This will prevent any discoloration of the wood or concrete over the course of the season. Fall clean-up will be a breeze!

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Designing the Layout

Before planting the container, consider where it will be placed and which direction it will “face” the outdoor living space.

This will enable you to put taller growing plants toward the back and shorter, vining plants to the front.

The horticulture industry identifies container gardening plants as either a “thriller, filler or spiller.”

Thrillers are typically the tall, showy, plants that are the main focus of the container.

Fillers are those that are placed around the thriller to provide complimentary foliage or flowers to fill in the container.

And the spiller is generally a vining plant that can grow over the container’s edge creating more dimension and interest.

Window Box Container Garden containing white, yellow and pink flowers
Window Box Container Garden with Thriller, Filler & Spiller

If the container can be seen from 3-4 sides, I recommend putting the thriller in the center of the pot and adding filler plants around it.

Follow by adding spillers around the container’s edge.

If the container is only seen from 1-2 sides, I suggest planting the thriller toward the back with the filler in front of it, followed by the spiller along the container’s edge.

The same principle can apply to planting a vegetable container.

Tomatoes and peppers are ideal for thrillers.

While herbs, lettuce, and onions make great fillers and cucumbers and squash are vining spillers.

Click here for an example of a simple vegetable container garden for beginners.


How to Plant

When adding the soil to the container, don’t add it to the top of the rim.

Depending on the size of the container, leave space (for a larger pot, an inch or two) so that there is room to add water.

If the container is filled with soil, water will roll off the soil surface before it has time to soak in.

Before adding plants, thoroughly water the soil so that it is moist.

This may take some time as most container soil is extremely dry out of the bag. It is almost as if the soil needs “primed” with water.

Click here to see detailed instructions for planting annuals and vegetables.

3 containers with white and pink flowers, red flowers and yellow flowers


Another key to successful container gardening is to water regularly so that the plants don’t become too dry causing stress.

Rain alone will not be enough. Rain water tends to bounce off leaves and there is very little “run-off” into the containers.

Therefore, supplemental watering is critical.

Observation is really the key. Note the environmental conditions- amount of sun/shade, wind etc. to help gauge when plants need water.

I use a watering wand attached to a hose as it allows me to apply water directly to the soil.

Watering just the leaves will not provide enough water for the plants to thrive.

In fact, I prefer to keep the foliage dry to help prevent leaf diseases.

When watering, fill the space between the soil surface and the container’s rim with water.

Allow the water to soak into the soil. If it is hot and the soil is very dry, it may be necessary to repeat this process several times.

During the heat of the summer, it is very difficult to overwater containers.

As mentioned earlier, the heat and wind will dry out soil and roots within a day.

However, plants in a shady location may need to be watered less frequently.

If you have a lot of containers, it is worthwhile to consider a drip tube watering system.

It can make watering a breeze for those with busy schedules.

A timer can be added to automatically water during vacations.




Another key to having beautiful, productive container gardens all season is to fertilize regularly.

Plants in containers have a limited nutrient resource available to the root system.

Therefore, nutrients must be added regularly to keep the foliage dark green and encourage flower bud development.

I recommend adding a slow-release fertilizer to the soil surface after planting.

Follow-up with a water-soluble fertilizer every 7-10 days.

I use a watering can to mix and apply the water-soluble fertilizer.

Be sure to follow the rate instructions. It is fine to use less than the recommended rate, but more may burn the plants.


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Pro Tip:

  • Don’t apply water-soluble fertilizer to dry plants as this can burn roots and leaves. First, thoroughly moisten the soil with plain water and then fertilize.

More Container Gardening Tips

  • A local garden center is a great resource and can help identify any plant health issues. Show them leaf samples or photos of any concerns and they can give you great advice.


  • Document your successes and challenges with notes and photos in a gardening journal. This will make planning for the next season much easier.


  • Gardening is not a perfect science. Some plants may not do well in your landscape even if you do all the right things. It happens to everyone, even professionals!


  • Container gardening can transform a patio into an outdoor retreat. Click here for the easy design tips I use to make my patio a restful haven.


Thanks for visiting! Please let me know if you have any suggestions for future articles. Click here to send me a note

3 thoughts on “Container Gardening: A Complete Guide to Success”

  1. This information is so helpful! Just like all of your articles! I am grateful to learn about, Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers. I will always remember this!

  2. I’m starting with gardening and honestly this article has helped me a lot. Thanks for sharing !


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