Multicolored flowers growing in terra cotta pots along a brick wall
(Image credit: FactoryTh)

Anyone who gardens knows that there are plenty of mistakes to avoid. This is even more the case with container gardening. Container gardening mistakes are more common simply because you are using a small area of soil, which doesn’t always bode well. That said, container gardens are an excellent way to beautify an area, add height and color, or start an herb or salad garden. So don’t despair, and read on to learn how to avoid the 8 most common container garden mistakes.

About Container Gardening

Container gardening is terrific for the urban gardener or for those that want to make a statement with a large container of varied hues and textures. Space efficient and mobile, container gardens are exactly what they sound like, plants grown in containers rather than in the ground.

Container gardening seems very simple, and it is in principle, but it can also be fraught with a multitude of common mistakes. The confined spaces of a container are problematic in a number of ways. Before you plant your next container garden, keep reading to find out how to avoid common container garden mistakes.

8 Common Container Garden Mistakes

  1. Go big or go home. While many containers on the smaller size look charming, avoid the temptation to bring them home for use as a container garden. They are fine if you want to start seeds or transplant a step up in size before final transplanting, or to grow a single houseplant or succulent. But if you want multiple plants and/or sizable plants in your container, get a larger size. Containers should make up either ½ or ⅔ of the total height of the plants and container combined.
  2. While we’re on the subject of containers, make sure that whatever you choose, be it terra cotta, plastic, or ceramic, it has sufficient drainage holes for its size. A single tiny hole in the bottom of a huge container isn’t going to provide sufficient drainage.
  3. Use the correct type of soil for container grown plants. Don’t get garden soil! Instead look for potting soil, which is lighter in weight and actually doesn’t contain any “soil” at all. It's composed of a mix of peat moss, perlite, and bark, which allows for good airflow and drainage of containerized plants.
  4. Choose plants with similar requirements. For instance, it wouldn’t be a good idea to plant cacti and ferns together in the same container. One rarely needs water and the other loves moist conditions. Also, combine plants with a similar growth rate and sun exposure. Do combine annuals and perennials for a more interesting garden of various heights, textures, and aromas.
  5. On the subject of plants, use the rule of proportion. This means that the height of the tallest plant shouldn’t exceed one to two times the height of a tall container. With regards to the actual planting, start at the center of the pot with the largest plants and as you move outward toward the edge of the container, gradually plant shorter specimens finishing with hanging plants at the edges.
  6. Don’t skimp on the water and nutrients. Container grown plants tend to dry out faster than those in the garden, especially those planted in terracotta. This means you should water them more often than you do the garden proper. Also, container grown plants need more supplemental nutrients than those planted in the garden. The root system of these plants only has so far to go to search for nutrients, so they tend to deplete what is nearby. Supplement the container garden with a liquid fertilizer every other watering or add a slow release fertilizer into the potting soil if needed at the time of planting.
  7. Go ahead and prune. Some plants in your container may go on a growth spurt and start to take over the pot. It is okay to prune out branches that are too large or out of proportion, as long as you never remove more than 25% of the plant.
  8. On the subject of maintenance, some plants have a finite growth period, and they die back. Don’t be afraid to remove and replace plants that have died or are looking punky, especially if all the other plants are thriving. Part of the fun of a container garden is that it can be tweaked from season to season, which may mean you vary annuals in the spring, summer, and into the fall.

If you follow our list of container garden mistakes to avoid, you will certainly have a vigorous container garden. If you’re going to use a large container, remember to move it into its permanent position and/or put it on wheels, before filling it with soil. Those things can get heavy!

Be realistic about what you hope to accomplish and how your lifestyle will fit in with a container garden. If you are gone all the time or you can’t keep the cat out of your garden pots, be realistic about the state of your plantings.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.