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Container Gardening

Aggie Roberts, Vocational Education Instructor

Container plants usually require more attention than those growing in the ground, but their potential advantages may make the extra care worthwhile. For the gardener with little or no garden space, planting in conatiners is the only way to have a garden. Even those with plenty of garden space can enjoy plants such as seasonal flowers, vegetables, herbs and even small shrubs or trees, grown in containers.

Choosing A Container

Pots, boxes, baskets or anything that holds soil in which a plant will grow may be used. The function of a container is many fold: hold a plant and its root system together; provide a reservoir for water and nutrients; provide stability for the plant as it gets bigger; and compliment the plant with its color, texture, shape and size.


Each type of container has its advantages and disadvantages:

Clay or Terra Cotta - Clay or Terra Cotta containers are attractive but breakable and more easily damaged by freezing and thawing. Clay has salt accumulations over time, but a tablespoon of white vinegar in a gallon of water helps remove the salt crust easily.

Cast Concrete - Cast concrete is long lasting and comes in a range of styles and sizes. It is easy to make an attractive container with this material. Plain concrete is too heavy.

Plastic and Fiberglass - Plastic and Fiberglass are lightweight, relatively inexpensive and available in many sizes and shapes. Purchase sturdy and somewhat flexible pots. Avoid stiff pots because they become brittle with cold and age.

Wood - Wood is natural looking and protects roots from rapid temperature changes. Wooden planters are easy to build. Choose rot-resistant wood and protect it with paint or a preservative.

Metal - Metal is strong but can conduct heat, exposing roots to rapid temperature fluctuations. Metal must be lined with plastic when growing vegetables.

Note - Porous containers such as unglazed clay; Terra Cotta, and Cast Concrete tend to dry out more rapidly than most containers. This should be compensated for by adjusting the irrigation schedule.


Drainage holes are essential. Without drainage, soil will become waterlogged and plants may die. The holes do not have to be large but there must be enough. If the container has no holes, try drilling some so excess water can drain.

Since a potted plant is a dependent captive, restricted by the area of the container, it demands greater care. Observe your plants and inspect the soil to determine when and how much water they need. The faster a plant grows, the more water it needs. Expect to water most plants daily on hot days. Remember, also, that plants need water during winter months.

Once the soil in a container dries out completely, the soil shrinks and water naturally takes the course between the dry, shrunken root ball and the sides of the pot. It runs out the drain hols without even penetrating the soil. To bring potted plants into full water capacity so they will take up a water supply evenly, halfway submerge pots in a pail of water until the soil stops bubbling. This indicates that the water has taken the place of air in the soil.

Do not keep the soil constantly soaked. Water thoroughly but allow enough time between waterings for the plant to take up a good portion of the water in the soil. Test the soil by feeling it or lifting the container. If the potting mix feels moist or if the pot is comparatively heavy, there is water in the soil. Over-watering endangers plant growth. If the soil is waterlogged over a long period of time, the air will be forced from the soil and the plant will suffocate or drown.


Container plants need to be fertilized occasionally. One good fertilizer is diluted fish emulsion, but there are other good fertilizers that can be used. Start by feeding once every two or three weeks, then adjust the frequency depending on the plant's response and the variety of plant. Excessive fertilizer can accumulate, so please follow the directions on the label.

If a good time-release fertilizer has been used at planting, little, if any additional fertilizer, will be needed. The compost incorporated at planting will also add nutrients. Remember, though, not to place compost or organic mulch next to the stems of plants because that can encourage stem rot. Either liquid or granular fertilizer can be used, as needed, during the growing season. A lower nitrogen fertilizer will help encourage minimal growth and better flowering.

After flowers have completed their blooming cycle, cut or pinch off faded blossoms to promote more flowering. The object of pinching off those faded blooms is to prevent the development of unsightly seed heads that drain energy from the plant that could otherwise be used in flowering.

Insects and disease can be a problem to annuals. Plants should be checked on a regular basis. At the first sign of a problem, the less toxic method of control should be used. Never spray any chemical agent until the problem is identified and spraying is necessary.

Winter annuals are cold hardy, but the blooms are not. During severe cold temperature, they should be covered (but never use plastic next to plant material). It is a good idea to cut the winter rates of fertilizing in half or to stop applications in the winter and resume them again in the spring.

Pruning and Training

The main reason for pruning potted plants is to modify their growth to fit the size and shape of the container. When grown within the confines of a container, a plant seldom takes on the same character as it would if it were set out in the garden and allowed to grow naturally. Therefore, at some time most every potted plant will need some pruning.

Pruning can be used to help increase the yield and quality of flowers and fruits; to give special effects; to give the plant a unique shape and character; or to make a miniature out of a potentially large plant.

Pest and Disease Control

Since container plants are close at hand, it is easy to keep an eye on them and control attacks by pests or diseases before the condition becomes serious. Occasional hosing with water can help keep the plant clean and attractive, as well as to help discourage build-up of pests (such as aphids and spider mites).


After two years most plants are likely to be root-bound and in need of fresh soil. Because feeder roots of container plants tend to mass next to the container wall, most plants become root-bound and stop growing. Actually, the plant is ready when roots show through the drain holes or when, after the plant has been knocked out of its container, roots are matted on the outside of the root ball.

A day before transplanting, water the plant well. Then, remove the plant from its container. Run an old table knife around the root ball to loosen the damp soil so it will be easy to tip out of the container. Turn the pot upside down, supporting the top of the root ball with your hand. Rap the pot lip sharply on a firm survace to loosen the root ball so it can slide out of the container.

A good planting mix is probably the most important element in container gardening. Using a clean container that is one size larger than the original is also important.

Before placing the plant in the container, make sure the mix is damp but not wet. If using new clay pots, soak them before planting so they will not rob moisture from the soil mix. Check the consistency of the mix. It must be the same throughout the container to allow capillary action that draws the water down to the roots. Fill the container with the soil mix to within one-half inch of the top. Water slowly to give the mix a chance to settle, adding more if necessary.


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