December 2, 2023
How to Create a Container Garden: 6 Design Tips

Container gardens are good not only for saving space and limiting lawn impact. They’re also great for trying unique plants that require special soils and preventing invasive varieties from running amok. Plus, you can move the containers if you find that your plants are getting too much or too little sun.

Container gardens are ideal for both beginner gardeners and experienced landscapers looking to introduce more variety. They’re perfect for urban dwellers with little access to green space or renters with no authority over their yards. They are, in fact, for everyone.

Here are six design tips to get you started.

Add Dimension With Shelves and Stands

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How does a container garden help conserve space, you ask? When working with containers, you can eschew the vertical layout of the traditional garden for a stacked arrangement. You can grow upwards, not just outwards. Many use this technique for privacy—the plants can act as a barrier between you and a close neighbor.

Create height by employing plant stands or installing a shelving unit. Another trick: Use tall and/or pedestalled planters. Avoid wasting soil by placing a plastic pot (or several) upside down inside the large planter first, then fill it the rest of the way with soil.

Get Creative With Your Containers

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Here’s where you get to tailor the broad idea of a container garden to your own personal style. Just about anything can be a garden container. An old colander, a retired rainboot, zhuzhed-up paint cans, coffee tins, empty coconut shells—think outside the box. Just make sure you drill holes in the bottom to allow for proper drainage.

Plan out what you’ll be planting and, if your aim is ornamental, color-coordinate flowers with pots. Use varying shapes and sizes for “visual weight.” This has the same aesthetic benefit as texture and color diversity in an indoor space.

Don’t Use the Same Soil for Everything

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Even if you do have decent soil beneath your lawn, it’s best not to use it for your container garden. Potted plants—especially edible plants—need lots of nutrition, aeration, drainage, and moisture retention, and you’ll get all these qualities with potting mix. Potting mix is soilless and therefore sterile, free of fungus and diseases.

The all-purpose kind is fine for most plants, but do your research. Some require more drainage than a standard potting mix can provide or an especially high or low pH. Succulents, for example, need a special cactus mix whereas ferns benefit from the high drainage provided by tropical potting mix.

Follow the Thriller, Filler, Spiller Method

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Some people really have container gardening down to a science. The formula? Thriller plus filler plus spiller.

The “thriller” in this popular method is the showstopper—the big, bold focal point of the pot. For an ornamental container garden, this means spiky bloomers like asters, cosmos, and dahlias, or ornamental grass. For a container vegetable garden, anything that grows vertical—tomatoes, snap peas, pole beans, borage, or dill—could work.

The thriller should be tall and planted at the back of the pot. It’s planted alongside a filler, which is medium-sized and mounded or rounded like geraniums, petunias, carrots, parsley, or cilantro. Finally, the third part of the equation is the spiller. Ivies, cucumbers, squashes, and nasturtiums are great for cascading over the sides of planters.

The thriller, filler, spiller method helps container planters squeeze more into their pots. But remember: The species you plant together should prefer the same soil and light conditions.

Aim for Year-Round Action

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Just like a traditional garden, you can keep a container garden blooming and beautiful year-round. Plant bulbs in pots during the fall for spring color. Fill your containers with cosmos, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and other summer bloomers throughout the hottest months. Then, continue harvesting your leaf lettuce through the fall.

The beauty of planting in containers is that you can better control their conditions and prevent invasive species from taking over. Better yet, fill your container garden with different varieties of native flora that take turns blooming. Your resident pollinators will thank you.

Keep It Low-Maintenance With Perennials

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Starting a container garden is a lot of work, and many people aren’t keen to plant the gamut year after year. This way of gardening is already high maintenance with frequent watering (potted plants dry out quicker than in-ground plants) and trimming. Make it easier on yourself by planting perennials.

Perennials, contrary to annuals, come back every year. They’re a little tricky to grow in pots because their root systems are generally larger than annuals’, but rest assured the payoff of not having to replant everything come spring is well worth it. In addition to ornamentals, herbs are great for this.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How deep should a container garden be?

    Each plant has its own preference, but generally, you want containers that are 10 to 12 inches deep for your garden. Some, like leafy vegetables, can grow in more shallow soil, while others, like fruiting vegetables, need up to 16 inches.

  • Can you grow a vegetable garden in containers?

    You can absolutely grow vegetables in containers. In fact, this could be an easier way to get an edible garden growing because you likely won’t have to deal with the weeds, pests, and diseases that crop up from ground soil. Plus, containers are mobile, so you can switch up the location of your vegetables if you find they aren’t doing well. 

  • Which vegetables will grow in small pots?

    Edible plants that grow well in small containers include radishes, leafy greens, herbs, nasturtium, and peppers.

  • What do you put in the bottom of a planter for drainage?

    Rocks are a popular filler substance to put in the bottom of your planter for drainage, but they can also add a lot of weight to your garden. You can get creative here and use things you already have instead, like the plastic pots your plants came in. They already have drainage holes. Place those upside down in the bottom of your pot and put the soil on top of them.

  • Should you line your planter boxes?

    You should certainly line your planters with plastic or porous landscape fabric if they are made of a material that will rot or rust—i.e., they are metal or wood. Landscape fabric allows for drainage (it simply creates a barrier between wet soil and the planter), but if using plastic, make sure to cut your own drainage holes.