Mother Earth Living

Green Patch: Selecting the Best Garden Containers and Garden Soils

So many choices your head is spinning? Read on for expert advice.
By Kris Wetherbee
June/July 2009

Colorful begonias stand sentry at the back door with the help of worn footwear. Trailing herbs, like nasturtiums, would be ideal here, too.
iStockphoto.com/Bebebailey
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Q. I’d like to grow some of my herbs in containers this summer, but there are so many different container types and styles to choose from. Can you offer some selection tips?

A. Garden centers, home improvement stores and nurseries offer a cornucopia of ready-made containers and planters in a variety of styles, colors, sizes and materials. Common materials include plastic, wood, metal, cement, stone, and glazed pottery or clay. Lightweight faux planters that resemble more expensive materials are typically made of polyethylene, polyurethane foam or fiberglass resin.

All types of pots have good and bad points. Plastic pots are inexpensive and lightweight, but they deteriorate in outdoor conditions after several seasons of use. Wood containers can be relatively lightweight and portable (depending on their size). Just be sure to steer clear of wood treated with creosote, penta or other phenolic compounds. Redwood or cedar, which are naturally rot-resistant, are good choices for containers.

Clay pots are porous and therefore dry out quickly, making them well-suited for rosemary, oregano and other drought-tolerant herbs. They do break easily, so take care when moving them indoors for the winter. Natural materials like stone or cement containers last a lifetime but are more difficult to maneuver.

You also might want to think beyond the confines of a ready-made container. For example, recycle a leaky birdbath into a stylish container for growing lady’s mantle, nasturtiums or a sprawling rosemary. Turn an old pair of leather boots into a unique pot for growing trailing herbs and flowers. Even a vintage washbasin, rusty wheelbarrow or unused enamel pot can be turned into a container for herbs as long as the item is large enough to accommodate your plants.

Whatever object catches your fancy, be sure it has drainage holes in the bottom. You can always poke or drill several holes in the bottom of any object lacking sufficient drainage. A masonry bit works great for drilling holes in old crocks, earthenware pitchers, stoneware or other ceramic items. If a recycled item leaks, so much the better. Think leaky watering cans, chipped crocks, a cracked ice bucket or a punctured enamel pot. Elevating containers on pottery feet, bricks, stones or even a pot turned upside-down also helps improve drainage.

In addition to a variety of materials, containers also come in various styles, colors and sizes. You can narrow down your choices by picking pots suited for your garden style, as well as for your climate, growing conditions and the type of herbs they will contain. Pots as small as 10 inches in diameter are fine for single plantings of small herbs. For larger herbs, herb displays or groups of culinary herbs, choose a container that’s 18 inches or larger in diameter.

Here are some general guidelines:

• Avoid planting a permanent herbal display in a plastic pot, which will deteriorate quickly.
• Avoid planting a moisture-loving herb in a clay pot, which will dry out quickly.
• Avoid planting a tender herb that needs to overwinter indoors in a large or heavy stone container, which will be difficult to move.

Q. Can I use garden soil to fill the pots? If not, what kind of soil mixture do you recommend?

A. The type of soil you put in your container can make the difference between a plant that thrives or fails. Soil straight from the garden is usually too heavy and dense to provide adequate aeration and drainage. It lacks the porosity needed to grow a healthy plant. As the soil compacts, plant roots are deprived of oxygen, leading to a plant’s demise.
For lush, healthy container plantings, you need quality potting mix. Commercial potting mixes incorporate organic ingredients for a porous medium that drains well, yet retains adequate moisture and nutrients for plant growth. A good potting mix usually contains peat moss and perlite or pumice, and sometimes other ingredients, such as vermiculite (similar to mica in appearance), compost or finely shredded bark. Packages labeled “potting soil” usually contain some garden loam or topsoil, as well as shredded or composted bark, manure and other ingredients. You can use a quality commercial potting mix or potting soil straight from the bag.
To give your potted plants an even better environment, you can fortify a commercial mix with compost and other ingredients. Compost provides additional nutrients and improves drainage, while releasing moisture gradually, as plants require it. Perlite helps prevent compaction, allowing air to reach roots. All of these materials are available at your local garden center.

Garden Soil Recipes

Mix Up an Easy Potting Blend

• 3 parts commercial potting mix
• 1 part compost
• 1 part perlite

Mix Up an Easy Potting Soil

• 4 parts commercial potting soil
• 2 parts peat moss
• 2 parts compost
• 2 parts perlite 

3 Fabulous Pots and a Planter

• The New York Botanical Garden sells inexpensive, durable pots ($10 to $14) made from renewable grain husks. www.nybgshop.org  

Yard Zooks’ terra cotta pots ($29.95) are well-suited for drought-tolerant herbs, such as rosemary and oregano. www.yardzooks.com

• These glazed ceramic pots from Jayson Home & Garden ($40 to $155) retain more moisture than terra cotta pots. www.jaysonhomeandgarden.com

Clean Air Gardening offers a raised cedar planter bed ($189.99), which will hold plenty of herbs, while naturally resisting decay. www.cleanairgardening.com

Tip: Slick Shoes

Reuse old boots for container gardening this summer. It’s a great way to repurpose items you already have and lend charm to your garden.



Kris Wetherbee, a frequent contributor to, muses, writes and grows herbs in the hills of western Oregon.

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