Container Gardening

Container gardening. You've heard of it. You've considered it. You may have even tried it. But what exactly is it and at what scale can you accomplish it?

Like everything, there are varying degrees of investment with container gardening. But since we are at the end of July and the end of Minnesota's outdoor growing season is coming into sight in the next month or two, it's time to start thinking about what you can continue to grow and harvest through those colder months.

This is a very brief look at container gardening. It is important to do additional research (there are a ton of sites) and talk to your local nursery with specific questions and help.

Let's start with the basics:

What is container gardening? Simply put: you grow your plants in a container (and there are many, many options) instead of the ground.

Why would someone decide to use containers instead of just putting plants in the ground? Just like the different types of containers one might use, there are a lot of reasons containers might be preferable to in-ground planting. Container gardening is a great option if you are short on space, have issues with poor soil, have physical or mobility concerns that make in-ground gardening challenging, or need to move your gardening indoors. The list goes on and on. But maybe the most important reason: because you want to.

What are some benefits to using containers? Other than easier access to your plants, container gardening is great for those looking to save space, control pests and weeds, or garden even if there is no yard space (think apartment or even classroom). are moving toward container gardening. What do you need to consider?

  • Check your space. Where do you want to put those containers? Will they be indoors or outside? On a window ledge or on the kitchen counter? How much weight can the space support?
  • Check your lighting. What type of light does your space get during the day? Is it direct or filtered? Morning or afternoon? How long will the plants be exposed to light? Spaces that don't get adequate natural light can still be used with the help of a grow light.
  • Check you temperature. What is the average temperature in the room you plan to keep your container garden? Is there a draft? Will the containers be placed next to or top of a register (hot/cold air movement)? These factors can also impact humidity.

Alright - you have looked at some environmental factors. Now on to the pots and plants.

Containers. Go bigger than you think. A plant that is cramped will not do as well or may need a new home (pot) sooner than later. Take into consideration how big your mature plant will be and if there is a dwarf version available.

Drainage is key. Containers with no drainage should either be avoided or have holes added to them. To add drainage holes, or enlarge the ones you already have, you can use a drill (do some research on the type of drill bit needed and method before drilling) or take it to your local nursery (call ahead to make sure). A few summers ago I took a pot that I loved to my local nursery and not only did an employee drill drainage holes in it for me, but they helped me style the plants that I had purchased. I walked out with a personalize planter that could be plopped onto my steps as soon as I got home. Another consideration is the materials that containers are made of. Terracotta is often preferred because it is porous, allows the plants to "breathe," and reduces the amount of water trapped in the pot. Other options include, but are not limited to, ceramic, concrete, plastic, and fabric.

Soil. This one is a bit trickier. Some say to incorporate extras like cardboard, twigs, bark, etc. This will make your container lighter and will allow for more air circulation, but it will also cause your container to dry out a lot faster. It's okay to use just soil as long as it is not coming directly from your garden/the ground (this will be heavy and clump into hardened ball) and you are using a quality soil. If you are going to spend extra money on anything, spend it on the soil. Quality potting soil should consist of manure, compost, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and compost. The vermiculite and perlite will help with aeration and drainage, the rest will help with maintaining moisture and nutrients.

Plants. Keep it simple. Make a list of what you want to plant and then makes notes of their requirements. Plants with similar growing needs should be placed together, whether that means multiple plants in a larger container or smaller containers with individual plants placed in one location. Dwarf versions of plants (if available) are also something to consider if you are short on space.

Other plant considerations:

  • Keep a cheat sheet that you can refer to to help you remember exactly what you planted. This may consist of keeping pots labelled so you can look up information as needed or actually keeping a notebook with all care information in one place. 
  • Acclimate your plants/seedlings. Plants/seedlings do not do well with drastic changes and need time to adjust. If you start your plants indoors and continue to grow them indoors, then this really isn't an issue. However, if you start them indoors and move them outside, do so slowly. This is called hardening off your plants. Place them outside for a few hours a day during mild weather (beginning of growing season when the chance of snow or freezing temps has passed) and avoid placing them in direct sun right away (plants can sunburn!). 

And don't forget...

Fertilizer. While I mentioned above that it is a good idea to spend the money on quality soil, it is important to remember that your plants are living, eating, and growing in the same space for the entirety of their lives (unless you decide to move them to a new pot, with new soil). This means that even with the best soil, they will need to be fed if you want to see optimal growth. You can add in a time-release fertilizer when you first plant, but it is also a good idea to consider a weekly fertilizer. There are a lot of options to consider even beyond using synthetic or organic options, so doing a bit of research is important to find the option that fits your needs. Regardless of the fertilizer you pick, it is essential to follow directions. Too much of a good thing can kill your plants.

If you are caring for plants that are known more for foliage, a high nitrogen fertilizer is good. Plants that flower or fruit prefer fertilizers with lower nitrogen and higher phosphorous.

Watering. It is important to keep your plants hydrated, but you don't want them to sit in constant water. If they are outside some people say to only water in the early morning or later evenings to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun. The reasoning is to help with water absorption and preventing the direct sun from turning a nice cool drink into a boiling hot bath. Some may argue that it doesn't matter - plants get rained on at all times of day and Mother Nature pays no attention to sun position or temperature. Personally, I prefer mornings or afternoons because I am a wimp and would rather not be outside when the heat and humidity is at its worst.  

A few last suggestions...

Don't be afraid of failure. Like people, plants tend to have their own personalities and needs. All gardeners, even the most experienced, will struggle and need to look at the entire adventure as a learning process. 

Have fun. Get dirty. #growyourhappy

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