Skip to main content

Gardening in Containers

By Nikki Keltner, Program Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension

For those of us that garden, winter is a time of planning. The seed catalogs arrive in our mailbox and we flip through the pages making grandiose plans for the coming growing season. In Extension, we offer educational programs prepping the backyard gardener for the coming spring. During this time, I presented about container gardens so I thought it appropriate to write an article about planning our container gardens. Truth be told, container gardening it is my favorite way to garden.

Almost anything can be an outdoor container garden as long as you can add drainage holes. I have seen some unique container gardens over the years, a few which stick out in my mind: old wooden wheelbarrow, a wood trough, a typewriter and a rusty old toolbox. Antique pieces can be container gardens if that fits you purpose and all around theme for your garden. Be sure the container fits your needs and is cohesive with the style of your house.

Of course, you can buy some great containers as well. Terra cotta pots work well for some plants, especially in shady locations, but they are porous and tend to dry out faster than other types of pots. Plastic pots are nice because they are lightweight, making them easier to move around but tend to hold more moisture and depending on the location may blow over. Ceramic pots can make a beautiful container gardens but can be heavy to move. Wire baskets lined with moss are a really fun container, you can plant in the side through the moss as well as out of the top of the container but they tend to dry out quickly so make sure you keep an extra close eye on them.

For added success with container gardening, start with good quality potting soil, which can be purchased from any garden center. Potting soil is a soilless mix, which contains organic materials like ground bark, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, or compost. Some mixes contain slow release fertilizer. It is important to fill your containers with new potting soil every year. New potting soil contains the nutrients the plants need to thrive.

Once you decide on a container, and purchase a good quality potting mix, next comes the fun part: purchasing plants. Choose plants that with similar cultural needs, shade plants for shady locations, sun loving plants for sunny locations.

Choose plants with various textures. Texture is the appearance of coarseness and fineness. A mixture of ornamental grasses and broad leaf flowering plants can add texture to a container. Choose plants with different forms or shapes: mounding, upright, filler, trailer. An ornamental grass such as purple fountain grass makes a striking upright plant in a container garden, gerbera daisy is an example of a mounding plant, sweet potato vine is an example of a trailing plant and lantana is an example of a filler plant. I prefer a mixed container that contains a plant with each form, in colors that look good together.

Be sure to pick colors that will stand out against the background where they will be placed. Keep in mind that warm colors such as red, yellow and orange tend to stand out; cool colors tend to recede, make sure plant colors compliment their surroundings.

Once you have your container planted, proper care will ensure the garden grows and looks good all season. Water demand will increase as the plants grow. Check the plants daily to see if they need water, in the heat of summer they may require daily watering. When you water, thoroughly soak the root zone, water should drip out of the pots. Fertilize container gardens every two weeks with a balanced liquid fertilizer or add a balanced slow release fertilizer to the pot.

Container gardening is a very fun and rewarding type of gardening; it gives you the opportunity to put cheery seasonal flowers in a location where you otherwise would not be able to garden such as a front entry or patio. If you do not have a yard because you live in an apartment or condo, you can still garden in containers. My favorite part of container gardening: no weeds!

For more information about container gardening visit Illinois Extension's website Successful Container Gardens at: or call the University of Illinois Extension at (815) 235-4125.