If you’re about to embark on your first container growing experience, there are a few decisions you’ll have to make first, the most important of which is what type of containers you’re going to use. Plant pots come in many different materials, including clay, glass, wood, plastic, concrete, ceramic and fabric.
Often, the decision comes down to how often you will be around to water the plants, as the material, color and size of your chosen containers will affect how often you need to water them. For example, a smaller, darker, denser material will absorb and retain more heat, which means you will have to water more frequently than you would if you have larger, lighter-colored containers.
Where you will set up your containers will also play a large part in what type of material you should go with. For example, wooden containers in a wet area will rot quickly, and metal will rust, so fabric or plastic pots are the better choices in damp environments.
In hot, dry locations, metal and concrete containers will absorb a lot of heat and require more watering to keep roots cool and happy. Wood would be more suitable for these conditions, as will fabric pots since they allow plant roots to breathe. For hydroponics, fabric and plastic containers are both good options as they are durable and reusable, making them highly cost-effective options.
Choosing the Right Containers for Indoors, Outdoors, or Hydroponics Gardens
If you’ve chosen to start a container garden indoors, the kitchen is an excellent place to plant some herbs, as it will provide you with easy access when cooking. You can use individual containers or one big container that houses them all. For bigger indoor gardens, a basement, attic or spare room can accommodate the artificial lighting and ventilation required for tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables.
As for your outdoor container garden, the perfect spot will depend on whether you are growing sun- or shade-loving plants. Just make sure your deck or patio can support the weight of the containers, and that you’re close to a convenient water source.
If you have the capacity for it, hydroponics will produce bigger plants and higher-yielding fruits than plants in traditional, soil-based containers. You can make your own containers, or choose from a variety of pre-fabricated hydro systems designed to hold one or many plants. There are a few different hydroponic methods ideal for container gardening, but deep water culture is among the most user friendly and easy to set up.
What is Best for Container Gardening: Soil or Soilless Media?
There are a few key things to look for when choosing suitable grow media. Specifically, you want to understand the grow medium’s:
- Water retention (how well it holds water)
- Air retention (how well it holds air)
- Anchorage (how well it holds plants in place)
- pH fluctuations (how acidic or basic the medium is)
Loam, a fertile soil of clay and sand containing organic matter, is a great, all-purpose soil that can be used to fill containers. Other popular potting mixes come premixed, often with perlite, a lightweight expanded volcanic glass that increases aeration and drainage, and vermiculite, a naturally occurring mineral composed of shiny flakes that expand when heated and increase water retention.
Perlite and vermiculite are too light to use on their own, but work well in mixtures. I also find that straight peat or peat moss is too acidic to use on its own and is better suited for use as a soil amendment to lower pH.
Coconut coir, a by-product of the coconut industry, resembles peat and is a popular grow medium because of its good water-retention capabilities and its neutral pH of 7. I use a recipe that consists of one-third coconut coir, one-third vermiculite and perlite (50% of each) and one-third compost (either homemade or store-bought).
Most hydroponic gardens use some type of soilless media to anchor plant roots. In the deep water culture method, expanded clay pebbles or stonewool are commonly used to fill mesh pots. These mediums have no nutritional value, but this is not a problem, as all hydroponic nutrients are fed through the water with water-soluble fertilizers.
The Right Fertilizers for Your Containers
Regular fertilization is a must for any container garden. Even though soil and some soilless mixes contain nutrients, they are often present in small amounts that leach out with repeated watering. You can mix pellets of slow-release fertilizers right into the soil or soilless mix, or mix an all-purpose fertilizer into the feed water about once a week throughout a plant’s life. This is often enough to do the trick, but I prefer using fertilizers specifically created for each stage of growth: seedling, vegetative and flowering.
There are many different additives for flower and growth enhancement available at your local garden center or hydroponics shop that come with basic instructions. Keep in mind that fertilizing will lower pH levels, so measuring your pH levels periodically is important. Plants cannot take up certain nutrients when the pH is too high or too low, and may suffer from nutrient toxicities or deficiencies. There are many pH testers on the market to choose from.
Transplanting Tips for Container Gardeners
When you’re ready to start your containers, simply remove your plants from their starter trays and gently break up the soil from around the root balls. This will encourage roots to branch out into the potting mix. Place the young plant into a partially filled container, gently pressing down around the plant roots. Water with quarter-strength, growth-stage fertilizer for the first watering. After that, a general rule of thumb is to fertilize at full strength once a week, or at quarter-strength every third watering.
If planting into a hydroponic system, remove plants from their starter tray and rinse the roots clean with cold water. I find using cold water has an anesthetizing effect on the roots, which helps them hold up better during the transplanting stage.
Plant into the containers used for the hydroponic method you have chosen, and again, start with quarter-strength nutrients, building up to full strength after a week. You will need to add water to the containers as the water levels get lower. Keep a close eye on things, as plants in hydroponics prefer water to be kept at a constant level.
If this article has left you with more questions than answers, I suggest turning to the professionals at your local indoor gardening shop, who will be happy to assist you.