Not everyone has access to a lovely yard full of rich soil and abundant sunlight. For those of us in cities, container gardens—growing plants in individual pots—is often the only option. But there are special considerations for container gardens. We spoke to Meredith Sheperd, founder of urban agriculture firm Love & Carrots, about how to get the most out of a container.
Most urbanites, and many suburbanites, are restricted to containers when planting a garden. Containers have a lot of advantages: they’re portable, cheap, and can be placed in awkward places, from yards to fire escapes to roofs. But they have special needs, too, and many home gardeners make some key mistakes that can prevent their fruits, vegetables and herbs from delivering home-grown deliciousness. So we’re going to walk you through the basics of setting up an expert-approved container garden.
It’s All About Sun
“When I’m helping someone set up a container garden, the first thing I look at is sunlight. That is the number one limiting factor as far as what’s possible,” says Sheperd. You want south-facing light, because you want the majority of your light to come in the morning. You might think that the more sun you can get, the better, but that’s not always true: harsh, broiling afternoon light can burn your plants and evaporate water too quickly for your soil to really absorb it. And in containers, that problem is amplified. “There’s less soil volume, so things do dry out more quickly,” says Sheperd.
Does The Container Matter?
There are hefty price differences among pots. You might think that a beautiful ceramic or terra cotta or galvanized steel container must have some superior growing ability compared with cheapo plastic containers. You’d be wrong. “It’s not really going to make a difference,” says Sheperd. All of those materials will work equally well (though Sheperd says terra cotta can tend to break down after a few years). If you want an expensive glazed ceramic pot because it looks great, that’s fine! But Sheperd actually recommends a cheap all-purpose bucket of the sort you can get at Home Depot for under $3 apiece.
The most important thing in container gardening, and the thing that almost everyone gets wrong, is not the material of the container but the size. “I’d say that size is the first factor,” says Sheperd. “You want to go bigger. Bigger means more soil volume, which means more root mass, which means it can hold more nutrients and water.” Small ornamental pots are cute when they hold seedlings, but they’re going to significantly retard your ability to grow plants. “I’ll often show up at people’s houses and they’ll have, like, a solo-cup-sized pot with a pumpkin plant in it,” says Sheperd. “And they’re like ‘I don’t know why I didn’t get any pumpkins!'”
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