Contain Yourself: How to Plant a Container Garden


Here’s a secret: Gardening in containers is easy and rewarding.

Why? Well, really it’s because a vast number of plants seem to love the container environment and are often more productive than when planted in the ground. Additionally, maintenance is usually minimal once plants are rooted in and a proper watering schedule is determined.

Aside from large trees, the types of plants which can be grown in containers is almost limitless.

Flowers and vegetables are used most commonly and combinations of these two are certainly possible. However, ornamental grasses, shrubs, herbs, aquatic plants, succulents, and many other types of plants will thrive and provide plenty of enjoyment as well.

Vegetables for containers can be divided into two types, those whose  leaves and flowers are eaten (e.g. lettuce, broccoli) and those whose fruits are eaten (e.g. tomatoes, cucumbers). Plants whose roots are eaten are not normally grown in containers.

The leafy vegetables tend to like it cool and are best planted early- to mid-spring. The fruiting crops are most productive in warmer (summer) conditions and don’t do well if subjected to cold, wet weather, or frosts.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to consider planting and harvesting leafy vegetables in an April/May timeframe and then replace them with fruiting plants as summer sets in. For the most part, herbs will do well mixed in with either type and can be harvested all season. Two of my favorite fresh cut herbs for culinary purposes are chives (these often overwinter in containers) and rosemary, but there are many more.

A wide range of annual flowers do extremely well in containers and often provide color from late spring well into fall. Combinations of different types of flowers is pretty much the rule but using just one flower type can provide a striking mass of color.

For combinations, flower and foliage color provide contrast and “sizzle” but foliar texture, shade/sun preference and the plant’s growth habit play important roles. Growth habit, in particular, should be taken into account. In most cases, a mix of upright, mid size and trailing plants works best. The list of plants in each of these categories is extensive but here are some suggestions.

  • Uprights: Dracena, Ornamental grasses, Cannas, Cleome, Geraniums, Salvia, Calendula, Marguerite Daisy, Cosmos, and certain perennials and shrubs.
  • Mid-size: Million Bells (callibricoa), Petunia, Marigold, Lobelia, Celosia, Dahlia (compact varieties), Dianthus, Dusty Miller, Geranium, Salvia, Zinnia, Begonia (shade), Coleus (shade), Impatiens (shade).
  • Trailing: Million Bells, Petunia (trailing “Wave” types), Lobelia, Bacopa, Bidens, Brachyscome, Felicia, Helichrysum, Sweet Alyssum, Sanvitalia, Verbena, Ipomea (Potato Vine), Begonia (shade), Impatiens (shade). Most trailing plants are well-suited to hanging baskets which are just another type of container with the caveat that watering with hanging baskets is critical in that they are more susceptible to drying out.

Choices for the containers themselves are nearly as numerous as those for plants. Really, anything that will hold soil and has drainage will suffice. My favorite are the plethora of beautiful ceramic pots available in a wide array of colors and shapes  but wooden, plastic, concrete, metal, and wire (lined with moss or other material) all work along with repurposed vessels such as bathtubs, barrels, boots, cans, and…..use your imagination.

Containers with larger soil masses are easier to maintain and are better for plant growth once the plants have had time to root in. In other words, use larger pots when possible. A high-quality potting soil will minimize pest problems and provide an ideal environment for healthy roots which, in turn, will ensure vigorous plants. Always be mindful that, regardless of container size, the soil can and will dry out.

When first planted, watering is critical and each plant in the container must have moisture constantly until it has had a chance to begin extending its roots into the surrounding soil. In a couple of weeks, though, the plants will be much more resilient and a general watering of the container is all that will be necessary.

At the same time, an appropriate watering schedule for the rest of the season can be determined through observation and, aside from some other minor maintenance, the plants will thrive and provide tremendous pleasure for an extended period.

In my case, I install drip irrigation to each pot and run it off a timer which is attached to a hose spigot. I set it to run once a day for about 5-10 minutes and don’t have to worry much after that. This is particularly fantastic when I leave town and come back to plantings which have actually grown in my absence. Your schedule will depend on conditions, exposure, soil type, and other factors. (Remember, hanging baskets and smaller containers may dry out more quickly and have to be watered more frequently.)

Other ongoing care includes checking for pests (which are generally few), snipping off spent flowers (if you choose), and fertilizing. There are a number of organic fertilizers such as fish fertilizer which work well but water soluble fertilizers like Miracle Gro also work. I use a slow release granular fertilizer once, at the start of the season, and have found that to be sufficient for the whole year!

Growing plants in containers is simple if one just follows a few common sense rules. Like me, I think you’ll find it to be astonishing how productive plants in containers are with so little care.

The enjoyment and ambiance they provide over a very long period of time is truly amazing.


Like hearing the perspective of Master Gardener, Bill Caras?  Chances are you’ll like these other “Grow It” blogs:  The Snow is Gone and The Spring Gardening Rush in Missoula. You may also enjoy reading about Green Living in Missoula. Back to Grow It home page.

Go to the Grow It archive page. Go to the Grow It archive page.


Bill Caras is a lifelong Missoulian whose family has been here over a century.  The family business, Caras Nursery and Landscape, has operated from the same location on S. 3rd W. since 1896. Bill is a plant nut and draws from many years observation of all things related to gardening in western Montana. Still, he says, he learns something new every day.