How to Start a Container Garden for Beginners: Ultimate Gardening Guide + Tips

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An ultimate beginner’s guide to container gardening to learn how to plant a container garden the easy way.  From an herb container garden to potted vegetable plants. Learn which vegetables are best for you to grow well in pots for beginners. 

Growing food in containers can bring you joy and sometimes even despair. When you see your plants grow in a container garden and how they bear their first fruit, it’s a great feeling. It can be relaxing and also give you real happiness. Imagine biting into a sun-ripened tomato fresh from the tomato plant. Or you have strawberries that taste sweet from the sun. And it’s great to know that you know exactly what you put on your vegetables and fruits. 

You can grow pretty much any vegetable in pots and you can save a lot of money in the process. Maybe not in the first year with the purchase of the buckets and soil. The following years will all be easier.

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However, a potted garden can also be frustrating, especially when the plants don’t want to grow the right way or don’t bear fruit. It is important to read more about how to grow a certain plant in a container so that your plant will be happy. And happy plants will bear a good amount of fruit. 

Pots, old tubs, barrels with flowers and edible plants don’t just beautify every garden, they are also very practical. If you don’t have a lot of yard space, buckets are especially ideal for a balcony garden or city garden.

We move very often, so I like to use containers that we always move with. And most of the time we only have to buy fresh soil. Not only do herbs such as chives, parsley and dill grow in containers well, but most vegetables also feel great in containers.

Potted gardens are not only practical, they also give an ambience and make every area more homely. For example an herb garden on the balcony, a few plants in pots on your porch, plants look inviting there. Window boxes and hanging baskets offer even more options for growing plants such as herbs and salads.

I can give you the following container gardening tips and tricks on the way to simplify your vegetable garden in pots. Now let’s see what steps will help you get started with a container garden.

1 Which light is available?

It is often overestimated how much sun your plants actually get. There are plants that grow in all possible light conditions, shade, partial shade, sunny. But in order to choose the right plant, you first have to see how much light your pots get.

Find out how long you have sun on your balcony or in your garden. Just look at when the sun hits the spot where you want to place your container garden and how long it stays there. To do this, check the spot every 30 minutes to see whether the sun hits the spot directly. Write this down.

It is important that your vegetables or flowers get the right light and temperature.

In principle, it can be assumed that most vegetables need a lot of sun, which means that your garden should have at least 6 hours of sun.

It is also important that the plants do not overheat with the afternoon heat; you may have to shade them in the afternoon if necessary.

Now that you know how much light you have available, we come to the next step.

2 How much space do you have?

After you have determined how much sun you have available. It is important how much space you have so that you know how many plants you need and which ones you want to grow with your available space. Based on the space you can see how many plants you can grow of one variety.

Should you only have a smaller balcony and have more space problems for a garden, a vertical garden is also ideal for you.

For example, you can use the space up here and use hanging baskets or cake stands to grow herbs, radishes and strawberries.

Climbing vegetables such as cucumbers and zucchini, which grow vertically upwards, are ideal for a garden with less space, and you just have to use climbing aids that are stable enough to hold the fruit that is bearing.

For tomatoes, I recommend bush tomatoes or balcony tomatoes. These stay smaller and do not grow in height.

3 Choose plants

Are you wondering which plants you would like to have in your container garden? First of all, you can really plant almost anything in pots. The decisive factor here is always the size of the pot. You can plant vegetables, flowers, herbs, shrubs, even small fruit trees.

Especially dwarf variants of popular vegetables or fruits are perfect for planting in the pot.

When deciding which plants you would like to plant now, I recommend that you primarily consider your climate. And then start with the plants that suit your lighting conditions. We are talking about sunny with at least 6 hours of sun, partial shade with 3-6 hours of sun and shady with 3 hours or less of sun.

Seeds or saplings

After you have decided which plants to plant. Then the next question comes up, would you rather sow seeds or plant seedlings.

For example, you can start the seeds indoors in late winter / early spring (early March), which is a lot of fun for children. We always do it with our kids.

But you can also buy seedlings directly from your nearest nursery or hardware (big-box) store. Or you can also sow some yourself and also buy some of the seedlings.

Self-sowing is particularly useful when you want to plant unusual plants.

However, this comes with a little effort. For one thing, the seeds need enough light (12-16 hours), good air circulation, and you mustn’t forget to spray them with water. The earth must not dry out, but it should not be too wet, which in turn can be harmful.

Now you might be wondering which plants are relatively easy to grow from seeds. Here I can recommend: tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce, beetroot, radishes, herbs.

If you want to buy more dwarf or container varieties, then I recommend that you sow them yourself. Usually you won’t find such special varieties in a nursery.

Plants according to light conditions

Let’s take a look at a few plants for light conditions.

Sunny to partial shade (approx. 6 hours of sun)

Eggplant

Tomatoes

Paprika

Strawberries

Zucchini

Basil

Oregano

Coriander

Tarragon

Thyme

Lavender

Rosemary

Dill

Parsley

Beans

Spinach

Green Salad

Swiss Chard

Cherry Tomatoes

Tomatoes

Everbearing Strawberries

Radish

Spring Onions

Potatoes

Rhubarb

Garlic

Carrots

Parsnips

Brussels Sprouts

Garlic

Kale

Lamb’s Lettuce (Corn Salad)

Gooseberries

Wild Strawberries

Raspberries

Blackberries

Currants

Blueberries

Flowers:

Marigold

Nasturtiums

Pansy

Marigold

Shady: (3 or less hours of sunshine)

Cauliflower

Beans

Broccoli

Peas

Lamb’s Lettuce

Chives

Spinach

Wild Garlic (under deciduous trees)

Dill

Mint

Parsley

Chives

The following are suitable for balcony boxes:

Salad

Spinach

Mint / Lemon Balm

Basil

Nasturtiums

Pansy

Geraniums

Sage

Thyme

Chives

Parsley

Hanging Cherry Tomatoes

Strawberries

Bush Cucumber (mini varieties)

Plant Support

The point here is that you give climbing vegetables the necessary stability through support with nets, stakes, trellises, cages and bamboo sticks.

For example, you can build a teepee out of bamboo, which is great for peas, cucumbers and runner beans.

It is important that you put the support in the box before you put the plants in the pot. This will prevent you from damaging the roots later.

4 Companion Planting

Especially for tub gardens, there are plants that work well when planted together. This way you can save space, especially if you only have a small balcony.

For example, you can grow root vegetables, low-growing vegetables and climbing vegetables together. The climbers eagerly grow up the trellis, while the small plants grow along the ground.

The advantage is that you hardly need to pull weeds as there is little space for weeds. And the advantage of leafy vegetables is shaded by the vertical plants.

However, caution is advised which plants you put together. Not all plants get along well. If you think now, this is getting too complicated for me. Wait! It’s not that complicated at all. Plants that require the same light conditions and moisture are ideal in a pot. For example, you don’t want to have plants in the same pot that one can handle a lot of water and the other less. That won’t work and a plant will die.

Here I can recommend you to check the label of the seeds or the seedlings. Here you can find out the properties of the plant.

Also, make sure that the plants aren’t competing for the same nutrients.

The following combinations are available:

Salad and herbs

Lettuce and spring onion

Beans and eggplant

Beans and carrots

Tomatoes with basil and lettuce

Zucchini with mint, oregano or borage

Paprika with asparagus, basil, carrots, cucumber, aubergine, endive salad, oregano, parsley,

Potatoes with beans, celery, garlic, marigold and onions

Read the more detailed Guide: How to companion planting

5 Make a list

This step is essential and you need to prepare a shopping list of what you will need. This will prevent panic and make it easier for you to decide what to plant before you go to a nursery.

Here I recommend you to look online what is best for you or to look up plant catalogs.

Your list should say:

Number of pots

Size of the pots

Seeds

Seedlings

If you go into the store now, you can actually see how much sun the plants need from the label. This should help you make a decision.

What is the correct bucket size?

First and foremost, make sure the plants are growing in large containers rather than small ones. Large containers contain more soil, it stays moist longer and can therefore withstand temperature fluctuations better. For example, smaller pots or hanging baskets dry out faster and have to be watered more often.

Depending on the temperature, it may have to be watered several times a day so that it does not dry out.

Decide which plant you want to plant in which container, so the depth and diameter can be different.

If you want to plant several plants, I recommend a large bucket or even a tub or a raised bed.

Keep checking how much space you have and then decide on the size.

5 Gallon (18 l) Pots

Beans

Broccoli

Carrots (at least 40 cm deep)

Cucumber

Aubergine

Paprika

Garlic

2-3 Gallon Pots

Beets

Spinach

Kale

10 Gallon Pots

Tomatoes

Zucchini 

8-18 inch deep pots

Lettuce – 10 inch pot

Arugula – 8 inch deep pots

Beans – 12 inch deep pots

Lavender – 12-16 inch pot

Basil – 18 inch deep pot

Mint – 8-12 inch deep pot

Parsley – 18 inch deep pot

Green Salad (balcony box)

Onions (balcony box)

Radishes (25 cm deep, balcony box)

Container Types

Let’s take a look at the types of pots and briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages that will help you decide which type to choose. In principle, you can choose between the materials yourself.

When buying buckets you should definitely pay attention to the size and if you want to buy buckets for growing vegetables, I recommend you buy at least a 12 inch (30 cm) bucket or even better with at least a capacity of 5 gallons (18 L). The bigger the better!

Clay and terracotta containers

These containers are attractive but can also be easily broken. They can be easily damaged, especially in frost. In winter, they should be stored frost-free to avoid cracks. Clay also removes water from the earth, which in turn makes the soil more difficult.

Plastic Pots

They are light, easy to move and relatively inexpensive. You can buy plastic flower pots in all sizes and shapes. When buying, pay attention to robust containers that are flexible at the same time. Otherwise the containers may become brittle with age and cold.

Wooden bucket

Wooden buckets always look natural and are pretty to look at. The roots are protected from temperature fluctuations. You can even build raised beds and other sizes yourself. Wood that is rot-resistant is best suited for this, e.g. Cedar, larch, Douglas fir.

Self-watering bucket

Buckets with a water tank come in different sizes and are very easy to care for, you just have to make sure that the water tank is full.

Ceramic pots

As a rule, these are cachepots, as they are permeable to water, which leads to mineral deposits. It is therefore recommended to use a plastic saucer here.

5 gallon (18 L) bucket

You can also buy inexpensive buckets from the hardware store, make sure that there is at least 5 gallon (18 l) capacity here. You can also use jars that you have lying around at home, they should just be big enough.

Plant sacks

Plant sacks are light and easy to stow away when you don’t need them. Furthermore, plant sacks are breathable and water permeable. They drain off excess water, for example, by too much watering or rain. So that the plants don’t drown.

6. Read the plant label or the back of the seed pack

Every plant has different requirements and, especially as a beginner, you often don’t know about such things. I recommend that you inform yourself about the requirements of the respective plant. The first point of contact is to read the plant label or the seed packaging.

On the packaging you will find information about location (sunny, partially shaded, shady), water, food. You can also find information about whether the plant is annual or perennial. And if it is a perennial plant, in which zones it will survive.

You will also be given information on how the plant will grow. This will help you decide which type of container is right for your plant.

For example, you can put vertically growing plants in your pot and add plants that spread out on the ground. Or hanging plants that also grow beyond the edge of the container and hang down from the pot.

7. Preparation of the bucket

Before you put the soil in your bucket, decide where you want it to be later. Plant pots filled with soil can become heavy and can then only be moved with great difficulty. If it is a location that is difficult to water, I recommend looking for a location with morning sun and offers more shade in the midday heat.

Drainage

Make sure your pots have drainage holes in the bottom. If you have plastic pots with no drainage holes, drill some in the bottom.

If your pots have enough drainage, then you don’t need gravel or pot shards, as these can actually clog the holes and then no water can drain off. Instead, you can put newspaper over the holes to keep the soil from washing away.

If you have deep buckets, I recommend putting gravel over the newspaper, so you need less soil.

However, the more soil you have in your pot, the better. The pot does not dry out as quickly and you have more space for roots to grow, which in turn supports plant growth.

Soil

Don’t skimp on good quality soil here. Many people make the mistake of buying cheap soil with containers. Buy organic quality and good potting soil here.

In principle, the soil can be compared to the food you consume. Your body needs healthy foods like vegetables and fruits to function, and your plants need good soil to provide the plants with nutrients.

You can also make your own compost and make good potting soil with a worm composter.

Watering

Water the soil well before planting plants in the soil. It is important that the soil is evenly moist.

Planting the plants

If you put different plants in the same pot, then you don’t have to adhere to the spacing requirements. When you plant the plants, take them out of the small pots and loosen the roots apart a little. Now set it so deep that the roots are completely covered with soil.

8. Acclimatize

Not only do we have to acclimate ourselves when moving or on vacation. Plants don’t like abrupt changes either and need a certain time to get used to the changed light conditions, temperature and so on.

Especially with seedlings that you have grown indoors or plants that you have bought from a greenhouse, this is an important point that you should not skip.

It is about hardening your plants. Are you now wondering how to harden seedlings?

This will drag on for a long time, but your plants will thank you and they will do better.

For example, you can start by exposing the plants for 30 minutes daily for a few days and then gradually extending it to about 4 hours.  After the plants have experienced outside for 4 hours, you can put them out.

In the same way, you have to acclimate the plants for the winter time if you live in a cold area where it gets crisp cold in winter. It is important that you get the plants used to wintering, less light and dry air.

9. Fertilizing

Fertilizing the soil is inevitable, especially with plants that are placed in a bucket. Minerals and nutrients are washed out of the soil by rain and watering, which is why you should definitely use a fertilizer.

The best thing about your own cultivation, you can decide what you fertilize with, whether you use chemicals or rather whether you use natural fertilizers.

You can either get an organic fertilizer at your local nursery.

I, for example, like to use stinging nettle fertilizer because it contains a lot of nutrients and it is even a natural pesticide. I use the liquid fertilizer once a week.

Coffee grounds, banana peels, egg shells all serve as natural fertilizers.

10. Watering

In addition to fertilizing, watering the plants is inevitable.

Many vegetables, such as tomatoes and zucchini, require a lot of water. Make sure that you don’t give the plants too much water. I recommend sticking your finger about 1 centimeter into the soil and if you now have the feeling that the soil is dry, you should water the plant.

If you are not sure, please try again later.

In midsummer you will probably have to water twice a day. Basically I recommend watering in the morning so that the soil is no longer totally wet in the evening / night, which attracts snails, for example.

As a support for watering, you can also use empty wine bottles or water bottles, fill them with water and stick them upside down in the earth, so the plant takes the water it needs. You could also decorate the wine bottles nicely to make them look nicer. An alternative to irrigation balls.

11. Learning by doing

Container gardens require hard work. It takes time, attention and experience. Even if you have experience, it is possible that one plant will thrive in one year and die the next year. No matter what garden system you use, plants can always die.

Testing is above studying. See gardening as a hobby and try new things and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Even if gardening involves some work, seeing your plant grow, thrive and bear fruit will bring you such relaxation and happiness. Well worth a try.

 Plants are going to die!

There’s nothing nice to talk about here. Plants will probably die and they will die on you too.. The more plants you grow, the more plants will die. That is a fact and you cannot change a thing about it.

This happens to even the most experienced gardeners. It is only important to abandon the plant at the right time and remove it from a mixed container, for example, before the container becomes unsightly.

You can either nurse a plant by pruning it back and hoping it will recover and grow again. So our tomatoes had recovered after we’d put them out too early. And we had such a big tomato harvest.

You can also take the plant out and put a new plant in its place.

However, if your plant shows signs of a disease, remove it right away before the disease spreads to the next few plants. You can put them in a single pot and keep them away from other plants and care, maybe the plant will come back or you may throw it away.

Bottom Line

At first glance, the start of a container garden can be overwhelming. I hope these first steps will take away your fear and help you start a pot garden.

With this beginner guide you have everything you need for the first steps. When you have your container garden, it is important that you learn from your experience. And once you have started you will enjoy the harvest!

Do you have any tips and tricks that help with a container garden?

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