Mother Earth Living

Gardening Rookie: Starting Containers

Last spring–my first as a homeowner with my own yard–all I could think about was the garden I wanted to plant. I started flipping through gardening books, looking at seed catalogs and fantasizing about the many edible delights I would harvest in no time. 

And then reality hit. 

Our little backyard was far too shady for a full-fledged garden, and our front yard was dominated by trees and bushes. 

After my initial despair over the fact that I wasn’t going to have my dream garden, I realized I still could have a garden. It just had to take a different shape. Specifically, it would involve pots–lots of pots–on our front walk. 

Eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, herbs, marigolds and geraniums get their start in the front-yard container garden. Photo By Julie Collins.

So, armed with a random assortment of terra cotta, clay and recycled plastic pots, and a few big bags of organic potting soil, I got to work planting my sidewalk garden. The beauty of container gardening is that it requires less preparation and less space than regular gardening–in other words, it’s pretty darn easy–yet you can yield a terrific harvest.

But it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of planning before you start planting. I learned (often by trial and error) that before you tackle container gardening it pays think about: 


Because this rookie wasn’t ready to grow her own plants from seed quite yet, I headed to the greenhouse and purchased transplants. As I learned from the Colorado State Extension, good transplants are at least as wide as they are tall, have stocky stems with dark green, thick leaves and are free of disease and insects. I stayed away from tall, thin, sickly looking plants in favor of healthy ones–gardening is one area where beginners should avoid taking on charity cases. 


Place the right plants next to one another, and they can help each other out. That’s the premise behind companion planting, and that’s why I scattered pots of marigolds and geraniums among my veggies and herbs. (Marigolds deter pests such as whiteflies; geraniums ward off cabbage worms and Japanese beetles and distract beet leafhoppers.) Gold Harvest Organicsprovides a handy rundown of which plants work best next to one another to help you plan your pot placement. 

The right pots

Picking the right container for your plants is key to success. I did well in some cases (a medium pot loaded with a variety of herbs thrived all summer long) and failed with others (my big boy tomato didn’t produce many big boys because its pot wasn’t big enough for its root system). Ohio State Universityoffers a great fact sheet on container gardening, complete with recommended container sizes for different types of plants. 


I would have liked to make my own garden mix (one part garden soil, one part compost and one part sand), but my compost I started a few months earlier wasn’t ready yet, so I opted for purchased organic potting soil. Either works. 


Just like in-ground veggies, many container vegetables require support. My transplants were so small when I first bought them that I didn’t even think about tomato cages, so then I ended up struggling to fit cages over my tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers after they were already too big. That’s painful for plants, which is why it’s a good idea to stake or cage well before it’s needed. 

The first cherry tomatoes and cucumber blossoms signal the beginning of a successful container garden harvest. Photo By Julie Collins.

Once you’ve considered these basics, you’re ready to plant. Then, of course, it’s a matter of keeping your plants healthy and happy all summer long. I learned quite a bit about that too–again, by trial and error–so we’ll get into those basics next time. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my pots out front need a drink.

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  • Published on Jul 30, 2009
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