Never successfully grown anything before? Think you don’t have a green thumb? Then a small container garden could be right for you. You don’t need to be a natural-born farmer to have success with a container garden outside on your deck, balcony, or patio or inside on your windowsill. By growing a variety of plants in small containers, you’ll get a feel for what it takes to nurture a seed to a full-grown plant. Not only can you save a little green by growing your own herbs and veggies, you’ll feel the pride of having grown it yourself. If you’re wondering how to start a small container garden, start here.
Pick the Plants
First, choose what you want to grow, as that will dictate what kind of containers you’ll need. Many flowers, herbs, and vegetables are well suited to life in small containers; you just need to pick the ones that appeal to you and will do well in your hardiness zone. (The USDA Hardiness Zone Map helps gardeners in different areas of the country figure out which plants are most likely to do well in the climate where they live.)
Herbs. These are great to grow because they smell great and they’re so useful and versatile. Many herbs can thrive in containers, including basil, cilantro, lemon verbena, tarragon, marjoram, and mint.
Vegetables Fruits. Imagine the sense of satisfaction you’ll feel when you make your first meal with food you grew yourself. There’s nothing else like it! For your first container garden, select produce that’s known to do well in containers. Good veggies include tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, and leafy greens like spinach, kale, and lettuce. For fruits, try strawberries. They look pretty and grow well in containers.
Flowers and decorative plants. What’s more cheerful than an array of colorful flowers? Get your bright color fix by planting a variety of vibrant blooms, like chrysanthemums, daffodils, dahlias, geraniums, impatiens, pansies, and petunias.
If you live in a very dry climate, consider growing succulents. The advantage of growing these unique plants – besides their unusual beauty – is that they need less care than other kinds of plants. Drought-resistant, they don’t need to be watered as much and are a good choice if you know you travel a lot and need to be away from your plants for short stretches at a time.
Pick the Spot
Now that you’ve chosen the plants, it’s time to decide where they will live. On the back of the seed packet it should say how much light the plant will need, and that’s your first priority. Here’s how they’re generally divided:
Full sun: 6+ hours of direct sunlight
Partial sun: 4-5 hours of direct sunlight
Partial shade: 2-4 hours of direct sunlight
Shade: <1 hour of direct sunlight
Look for a spot on a deck, balcony, patio, fire escape, window ledge (inside or outside), or by a window that gets the right amount of sun.
The right spot should also have a somewhat stable temperature, i.e., right next to the radiator or under the A/C vent is not ideal. It should also be easy to access; you’ll need to reach your containers easily for frequent watering.
Buy the Supplies
So you have your seeds and you have your spots. Now it’s time to get the rest of your supplies. By picking the location first, you’ll know how much room you have to play with. Maybe your small window sill can only accommodate a few diminutive ceramic pots. Or maybe your generous terrace or fire escape can handle a few very large containers. Just make sure whatever containers you get work for the space you have. Here’s what you’ll need:
Containers. The heart of container gardening! Go classic with terracotta pots, go eco with recycled planters, or go whimsical and grow your plants in anything from an old telephone to a toilet. The size and type of container will depend in part on what you want to grown. Lettuces, for example, do better in a more shallow container while tomatoes need more space for deeper roots. Or, since mint has a tendency to take over any container it’s in, you may choose to plant mint in a small container by itself.
Potting mix. This is the soil you’ll grow your plants in. Buy it from the same place you got your seeds or make your own.
Fertilizer. This is food for your plants. Again, you can buy great fertilizers at the store, or you can make your own.
Tools. Optional but helpful. Gloves so your hands don’t get dirty, a trowel to dig up dirt, and a mister to spray indoor plants with water are just a few things that make the job easier.
- Prepare your containers. What you want is a container where water can drain out leaving the soil and seeds inside. You can put a layer of rocks on the bottom of a terracotta pot or line containers with a plastic screen, mesh, or landscape fabric.
- Potting mix comes next. Fill the rest of the container loosely with potting mix until it’s about three quarters full and add some fertilizer. (For succulents, you’ll want a different soil mix.)
- Plant your seeds! Follow the directions on the packet to see how close together you can put seeds and how deep they should be planted.
- Do not disturb. You’ll need to be patient while your tender seedlings take root and grow. Take care of them (see below) but don’t disturb them too much, or they won’t grow at all. Expect to wait several weeks.
Keep Your Plants Healthy
Water regularly but not too much. Overwatering can be just as damaging as under watering. Make sure your containers drain well and check that your soil is moist but not too wet or dry. Watch out for the signs of overwatering and under watering.
Fertilize as needed, about once every two weeks for many plants and flowers. Fast-growing plants may need fertilizer a little more often, as they are using up the nutrients more quickly.
Take care of the temperature. Keep an eye on the sunlight to make sure it’s getting as much as it needs and that it’s in a good, stable spot. Many containers you keep outdoors in the summer and fall can come in during the winter to avoid the frost and cold.
Enjoy What You’ve Grown!
Now that you know how to start a small container garden, I hope you’ll give it a shot! If you have a few plants that fail to thrive, don’t be too hard on yourself; it can take years to develop the instincts that make gardeners successful. Just keep trying and enjoying the journey along the way.