An Introduction To Container Gardening

June 10th, 2009 - filed under: The Farm » Flora

img_0703The Essentials: Cilantro // Mint // Thyme // Oregano


Living in a tall, small-footprint townhouse, I’m always aiming to boost my usable ‘acreage’. The front steps and side run host flowers and berries, the backyard is ruled by animals and vegetables, and the second floor deck – directly off the kitchen – is the perfect spot to stage an herb garden. 

I raise my fresh herbs in containers each year, mostly to maximize space but also just because I enjoy the technique. Growing food has been in my life for as long as I can remember, from the single parsley plant we had on our student housing windowsill when I was wee, to the tomatoes I tended amidst the craziness of college. What appeals to me most about container gardening, is that anybody can do it.  Anywhere, in any sort of residence and on any sort of income.


img_0698Basil, my other must-have herb. The 2 small copper pots are sprouting red poppies.


My deck is positioned north-westerly (like my garden) – proof that you don’t need southern exposure in order to cultivate crops. And for potted plants, less sun can come in handy. Remember, these guys are a bit more delicate and they’ll dry out rather easily.  Less insulated than their in-ground kin, they’ll need to be watered frequently and they’ll be more sensitive to temperature shifts. Luckily, they’re portable!


img_0706My big pot of parsley, overlooking the garden below (I spy potato tires!)


This simplified form of farming is truly opportune. It’s especially great for the novice grower, unsure of committing to a proper plot of land. Here’s just a sampling of the advantages:

  1. Firstly, and clearly, it doesn’t require the ground! You can homestead in a high-rise, you can farm in a dorm, I’ve even heard of planting out the flatbed of a pickup. Now that’s a portable garden! 
  2. ‘Mobility grants flexibility’. A movable, manageable garden means you can really cater to the needs of the plants. So, you can grow a wider range of non-native species that wouldn’t make it on their own outside.
  3. Containers are much less susceptible to predators, pests, weeds, and disease. They’re their own little ecosystem, so easy to protect! 
  4. Finally, they’re just so damn convenient. That’s why they’re favored by chefs and florists alike – growing in pots means easy-peasy access. 


img_0704The cilantro springs to life, less than 2 weeks old.


One of my favorite aspects of the technique are the aesthetic options it lends itself to. I haven’t gotten too crazy with my containers, but I’ve seen perrenials planted in boots and shoes, I’ve seen herbs in teapots and flowers in televisions, tomatoes climbing out of bird cages and cabbages crowded into bathtubs. Anything that holds soil can be used as a planter. Have fun and get creative!

I use a supply of terra cotta pots I’ve collected from garage sales and giveaways over the years. I’ve hand painted each one for its herb, and I’ve also considered bedazzling them with rhinestones (if anyone does this I MUST see pictures!) or even découpage-ing them. Craft-tastic!

Another [free] option for a makeshift pot is to re-purpose your old plastic food tubs. If you want it to be pretty-like, just paint it! Or, you can get all Martha Stewart on it:


Use an old camisole or pillow case or other pretty piece of fabric and cut it into a big circle. Fill the tub with potting soil, fold the fabric up and tuck it into the soil, and then plant your intended seedling. And voilà, a precious little planter.



I have grand future plans for an expanded indoor orchard, plans that include some exotic and tropical species. Who says you can’t grow citrus in the Pacific Northwest, am I right??

But for now, I’m just happy it’s summer and fresh herbs are aplenty. Many, many mouthwatering recipes to follow!


  • Ginger Baker

    I’ve been meaning to grow some plants in containers for a while, mainly so I can have basil in the winter, and this may have been *just* the kick in the pants I needed! See, with a pretty large backyard, I have been quite lazy about doing anything with pots. But…now I am quite inspired to see what non-pot options I have at hand!!

    Do you think they line, say, boots with plastic before putting soil in?

  • Meghan

    I live in a sixth floor apartment and our balcony is covered in potted plants! I actually have 8 tomato plants out there right now. :-O I three more tomato seedlings, but I think I’m going to have to freecycle them… I don’t want my balcony falling off!

    I’m also growing: pole beans, cilantro (which I hate, but my husband loves), parsley, basil, mint, bell peppers, jalepenos, kale, and zucchini. Whee!

  • Homegrown Texan

    I live in the desert and can’t seem to get the hang of container gardening out here. Everything dries out *so* fast; between that and the heat, plants can cook *very* quickly. I *did* plant an herb garden in a little brick flowerbed that is outside of our patio. I have basil (3 kinds), tri-color sage, rosemary, and thyme. I’d like to add more basil, as I’m a big pesto fan and my 3 plants aren’t nearly enough! This fall I’m going to plant a full-out garden. Too hot right now!

  • Valerie

    I have decided to make a container garden this fall when the Phoenix summer heat dies down. Right now I am researching what I want to grow and gathering supplies. One problem I have is that it appears that the neighbor’s cat likes to use our back patio (the only outdoor space we have) as it’s own personal place to do messy things. I am worried about it doing said messy things in my plants. Any suggestions on how to prevent this?

  • Anne

    I have to watch myself whenever I go by a nursery so I don’t buy the whole place! I currently have 2 tomatos (1 from last year that is now actually producing fruit, and 1 from this year with fruit but it’s all totally green still), a tree of some sorts, a dwarf lemon tree that doesn’t look like it’ll give fruit this year, 3 strawberries that I might just get rid of next year because they don’t seem happy at all! Chives, rosemary (you can’t kill this thing – I love it!), peppermint, basil, thyme. The most recent purchase was a couple of jalapeno plants, I’m not sure about their growing tendencies yet. I had some trouble with mold flies in the spring *gag* and had to dry out the plants, scrape off a couple inches of dirt and replace with beach sand (to further dry out the soil) and even still had to succumb to a spray. That was depressing and I lost my beloved cilantro in the process. I guess the cause was me overwatering *ops*. So, don’t overwater your plants! And buy earthworm castings and organic feed to secure produce, tomatos especially seem to need some encouragement. We live on the 2nd floor so don’t have cat problems (wish I could offer help!). Really, bugs seem to be the only problem. We tried all sorts of homestyle remedies but to no avail. Now I’m eyeing a dwarf orange tree, some bell peppers and some kind of lettuce.. I might run out of space first!

  • Meghan

    Bah! I seemed to have acquired fungus gnats, which I assume are similar or the same as mold flies! I picked up an organic spray this morning, and I’m hoping it worked! Earlier this season I did battle with aphids, but last season was the worst with spider mites. Pests! Booo!

    With regards to cats… I don’t have any, but I’ve heard people mention in forums that I’m in that if you plant a few catnip plants the cats will menace those and leave the others alone. I’m not sure if it works, but seems somewhat reasonable!

  • Sayward

    @ Ginger Baker- You should do it! It’s a totally different type of gardening, and really fun. The boots/shoes I’ve seen have been unlined (as far as I can tell). If you wanted to put it inside, maybe consider lining it?

    @ Meghan – Good for you for growing such a bounty! Good luck with the pests – I’m dealing with aphids in my broccoli as well . . .

    @ Homegrown Texan – I hear you on the heat issue. I have the same problems when we get into full-on summer here, too. I’ve found my basil is especially susceptible to drying out – how do you keep it from wilting?

    @ Valerie – Hmm, I haven’t run into that problem before, but my first inclination would be to work with the beastie, instead of against it. Like Meghan said, maybe some catnip, or even a makeshift litter box type area, especially for kitty. If you figure out how to make kitty go in one place, then you can just make sure that’s not where your plants are! =)

    @ Anne – Wow, that sounds *wonderful*! Hooray for extreme container gardening! Also, it’s not impossible – I totally managed to kill my rosemary last year. Eek!

  • Laurel

    New to the website and blog here (stumbled on it accidently while looking for something homemade and “green” to use on over-processed hair, fragile hair) – love the info and forums! I’ve never had much luck with container gardens but I keep trying (my basil lasted about 3 months last year, the thyme half that, most times I plant spices I don’t get anything at all – pout) but I’ll keep trying!

  • Sayward

    @ Laurel – Welcome! Glad you like the site. =)

    Container gardening can be quite tricky. Remember to water often, and also to fertilize just like you would in the ‘real’ garden. Also, it may just take a grace period of getting used to. Good luck!

  • Hope Hughes

    Getting ready to start and herb box!! So excited!!

  • Michelle Brown

    Hi I am about to start growing my own vegies in big self watering containers. I am using organic potting mix but the ‘instructions’ say to use blood and bone, manure and dynamic lifter to fertilise the container. I have tried finding alternatives to blood and bone etc and still cant come up with anything. My plants are dying in their little seedling containers as i can’t bring myself to buy blood and bone – goes against everything VEGAN to me… any suggestions???

  • Sayward

    @ Michelle Brown – No way do you need all that stuff! All you need is soil sun and water, really. If they’re dying I’d look into temperature/drying out issues before anything else. But if you really want to fortify (which would only help, so why not) there are tons of vegan options. A good vegetable-based compost will provide all sorts of minerals and nutrients. When I want to do a ‘real’ fertilization I use a kelp-based fertilizer, available at most gardening supply places. Good luck!

  • Natasja

    my mum had problems with the neighbours cat & she swore by sprinkling ground black pepper on the soil around your plants – it irritates their noses I assume! Maybe having a consolation prize at the end of the garden like some catnip will help?

  • Sierra Dawn

    I know this post is super old, but I just have to mention that, first things first, I absolutely love your blog! I”m finding your posts fascinating and inspiring. So, back to THIS post: I am a fellow Northwesterner and currently have a potted 3 year old mango tree. Seattle is anything but tropical, and my mango is thriving! I keep him indoors for most of the year and let him outside in the summer time. Who knows if he’ll ever produce. I just love throwing seeds from random meal scraps into some soil. Most of the time they don’t sprout but sometimes you get a surprise! Good luck with the citrus growing – maybe you can grow a bonsai citrus tree indoors!

  • Sayward

    @ Sierra Dawn – Aw thanks, I’m glad you like the blog! And that’s so rad you have an indoor mango tree – did you seriously start it from seed??

    I DO have a dwarf lemon tree thriving in my living room! I’m just about to put him outside for the summer – his first year out. Awww =)