Get growing: container gardening for beginners

14 April 2015 - 14:56 By Laurian Brown
Low-maintenance Dianthus will attract birds and butterflies to your garden.
Low-maintenance Dianthus will attract birds and butterflies to your garden.
Image: Thinkstock

The great thing about container gardening is that anyone can do it with a minimum of time, space and effort.

Here's everything you need to know to get started.


Choose containers that are in harmony with the style of your home. Invest in a couple of large pots with bold, simple outlines — classic or modern, sized to suit the scale of their setting. They will make a valuable impact, in formal pairs or rows or as anchors in an informal group with smaller pots. Plain pots of similar or complementary shapes in different sizes work well in groups.

Some plants, for example bulbs such as agapanthus, cyrtanthus and haemanthus actually like being confined in pots, growing and blooming happily until they crack their home. On the whole, however, bigger pots are better than smaller ones, especially for seasonal plantings. The roots stay cooler, the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly and they allow for a much bigger root run and more nutrients. In smaller pots you need to compensate by stepping up feeding and watering.

With long-term plants however, such as shrubs and trees, you need to do what is known as potting on i.e. replanting in a larger pot every year or two. If you put a relatively slow-growing plant with a small root ball in a huge pot, the unutilised compost may go sour or get waterlogged and the roots may rot. So if you’ve bought a large pot for a major statement, be sure to get a large plant with a sizeable root ball to plant in it.


If there is one key factor in successful container gardening, it has to be water. Good drainage is essential, otherwise roots will rot. Make sure your pot has enough drainage holes; flat-bottomed pots should be raised on bricks or special pot feet to allow for free drainage.

And hold that can — more plants are killed by overwatering than by drought. Some need to be kept gently moist, others like succulents and Mediterranean plants need to dry out between waterings. Invest in a moisture metre, which has a little rod with a sensor that you insert into the soil. This will tell you if you need to water or not.


This will vary from plant to plant, so check individual requirements before you start. Remember that potting soil in bags may not be particularly nourishing; it’s always a good idea to add compost. One part river sand, two parts potting soil and one or two parts compost is a good basic mix. Add a general organic fertiliser according to the producer’s instructions. A slow-release formula will save you time and ensure your plants get regular nutrition. Save on watering by adding water-retaining granules or coir peat, excellent stuff (it comes in briquettes that you soak in water and crumble into the potting mix).


  • Make sure your pots are clean. Washing them out in a solution of Jeyes fluid is a good way to make sure they’re disease-free.
  • Cover the drainage holes with broken crocks, stones, old teabags – anything that will allow the water to drain out but prevent the potting soil from going with it.
  • Measure the depth of the root ball in the pot and add potting mix up to the base level.
  • Tease roots out gently and place the plant in the pot.
  • Pack soil in around the plant or plants and firm down gently.
  • Water slowly and gently until you see the water flowing out from the base.
  • Dress the top of the soil with an attractive mulch to help conserve moisture and stop your pots from drying out. Try pebbles or grit for succulents, river sand for grasses, bark chips for ferns.

This feature is adapted from an article originally published in Sunday Times Home Weekly.