Plants in containers table chairs
Container gardening is a popular and useful way to garden. From individual pots to barrels, long planters and balcony boxes, you can grow almost anything in containers.

Helpful information

Timing: All year around (you may prefer to take a rest in winter!)

Where to do it: Outdoors, indoors

Garden space: Small garden, large garden, balcony, indoors

  • Whatever your outdoor or indoor space, you can grow plants in containers and enjoy the sense of wellbeing that comes from nurturing life
  • Growing in containers requires less planning and physical effort than growing in the ground
  • Caring for your plants requires different levels of activity, developing fine and gross motor skills
  • You can be hugely creative with container gardening, choosing the container types and plants you most want to grow
Succulent dish garden finished
A dish based container filled with succulents

There are many good reasons to grow plants in containers. Many gardeners have a mixture of plants in the ground and in pots.

Container gardening is good because:

  • You can find the container size to match your space. That could be a large raised planter outside, or a small pot that becomes a centre piece on your dining table
  • If you want to garden from a sitting or standing position, you can find planters at the right height
  • Containers give people who only have a balcony or paved areas outside the chance to grow
  • If you are creative, you can have fun decorating containers. Clay pots are perfect for painting
  • You have more control over your soil. Some plants are very fussy about the soil they grow in. Blueberries and rhododendrons, for example, only grow in acidic (ericaceous) soil
  • Some bulbs and tender plants won’t survive outside during winter. You could grow these in transportable containers. Then you can easily move them to a warm, sheltered spot or indoor area
Painted cans recycled as hanging plant containers
Painted cans recycled as hanging plant containers

The good news is there are almost no limits to what counts as a container!

You could …

  • Collect a selection of plant pots together in different sizes and colours
  • Buy a growing trough at height that has leg room underneath so you can sit comfortably
  • Repurpose old items – like an old bathtub or sink, used wellington boots, or old tyres
  • Use grow bags from the garden centre. They come in a range of different sizes. Deep ones are good for vegetables like potatoes, shallow ones for plants like tomatoes
  • Fill hanging baskets with trailing flowers, or even grow strawberries in them. Hanging baskets are brilliant in smaller gardens as they don’t use up floor space.

Find what works best for you. If you have difficult bending, a container raised well off the ground might suit you. Or you could use long-handled tools to help reach containers that are lower to the ground.

Another option is to grow in raised beds. Many raised beds do not have a bottom and sit on the soil. This makes them slightly different to a container. Some raised beds do have a bottom, even if that's just some weed fabric. So, you could argue they are a type of big container.

Containers filled with herbs
Containers filled with herbs

Top tip

Always choose frost-proof pots, so they don’t crack during cold winter months outside. Clay / terracotta pots and containers dry out faster than plastic ones. Water them more frequently, particularly in summer.

Vibrant pink petunias growing in a container
Vibrant pink petunias growing in a container

There are some important steps to take when growing plants in containers.

1. Match pot to plants. There should be enough space in your container for your plant’s roots to grow. Generally, a plant’s roots are roughly the same size as the plant itself in height and width.

2. Check for drainage holes. Containers are basically just big buckets. If there is no way for water to escape, your plant will get waterlogged (too wet) with a risk it could die. Make sure your container has enough holes in the bottom so water can drain away.

3. Line the bottom. To improve drainage, put a layer of stones or broken pieces of old clay pots (crocks) at the bottom. If you will need to move your container, you could use sticks instead, as they are much lighter.

4. Add compost. Choose a good quality multi-purpose compost. Using a scoop or smaller pot, fill your container with it. Remove / break apart any large lumps. You may want to fill the container to the top edge then water it so the compost settles down. If you do this, you may need to top up the compost level again after watering.

5. Place plants. Position your plants where you want them in the container, still in their pots.

6. Plant and fill. Carefully remove the plants from their pots, put back in position and fill around them with more compost. Water well after planting.

Making it easier

There are plenty of ways to make container gardening more comfortable and less energy to do.

Avoiding strain
Plan for easy access all around your containers, so you can reach them without stretching.

Choose narrow planters, so you don't have to strain to get to the middle. The average person’s reach is around 50cm.

If it helps to have containers off the ground, smaller pots can go on a table, plant stand or windowsill.

Plan a comfortable working position. Keep a natural posture and avoid bending your back.

Big containers can be heavy to move. Pot movers on wheels / trollies help avoid back strain.
Gardening in a wheelchair / sitting down
If you are gardening from a wheelchair, some planters have room to tuck yourself underneath. If they don’t, you may end up sitting side on. This can mean a lot of stretching and twisting. It may be easier to reach things if you work from the corners of the planter.

If you are gardening sitting down, have your elbows and shoulders at right angles. This avoids adding pressure to tendons and joints. This might mean containers are better placed on a chair than on a table.
Saving energy
Pace yourself. You could spread planting over a few hours, a few days or even longer if you need to.

Put containers in a spot that gets reached when it is raining so you don’t have to water them so often. Having a group of containers gathered in one place also makes watering easier.

Water retaining granules are handy if you would like to water less. Add them to the compost in your containers and they will absorb then slowly release water.
Tools to help
A kneeler with handles is helpful if you are working in a kneeling position.

Because there are so many different types of container available, there are almost no end of possible plants you could grow. What do you like the best? The chances are, it will be suitable to grow in a container!

You can even grow small trees in containers, like dwarf Japanese maples or magnolia.

Here are some ideas to get you started. It's often a question of experimenting and seeing what does best in which container and where.

Planting annuals in containers

Bright yellow bedding flowers in a container
Bright yellow bedding flowers in a container

Annuals are plants that live for one year only. A container filled with annuals can give you a glorious explosion of colour. You will need to replant them each year – a chance to try out new combinations!

Plants to try: petunias, zinnias, sunflowers, lobelia, marigolds, calibrachoa (million bells)

Planting alpines in containers

Alpine plants in a container with a layer of gardening grit on top
Alpine plants in a container with a layer of gardening grit on top

Alpine plants are ones that originally grew in mountain areas. There is an amazing variety to choose from, with incredible shapes and textures. Some alpine plants will survive outside through winter.

Plants to try: dianthus, saxifrage, sedum

Top tip

Alpine plants don’t like being too wet. You might want to mix some sand, grit or perlite with your compost to help speed water away from them. Put a thin layer of gardening grit or gravel on top of the compost to control weeds – it looks great too.

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