No Garden? No Problem! – Container Gardening Basics

There has been a resurgence of people who wish to raise their own food for personal and family food security, both with produce and with poultry.  Growing you own food is a healthy activity that promotes wellness while maintaining social distance.  Plus Veggies!

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My backyard is deep shade under maple, walnut and hackberry trees.   I am a community gardener as a result, and heading in to my 24th year of growing at my local community garden.

But given that my community garden is open from April to October, and Ohio is a four season gardening environment, I needed to add some growing space at the house.  I have a little sun on my driveway.  I have a small container garden.

Would You Like a Container Gardening Class – No Problem!  Email Me

There are four key parts to Container Gardening:

  • The Container
  • The Soil
  • Watering Strategies
  • Fertilization

The Container

Improper container sizing for the plant is the NUMBER #1 reason plants die in container food production.  Size your container for the plant at the plant’s fully grown adult size.  If you do not do that, then the plant will outgrow the container right at the minute you want to eat the food.

L: Plastic Pot R: Clay Pot

Here are two examples of common containers that have been used for many years.  They have pros and cons:

  • Plastic Pots
    • Pros: Lightweight, easy to find, does not dry out as fast.
    • Cons: Expensive for larger sizes, hard to store.
  • Clay Pots
    • Pros: Very common and easy to find. Good looking, can be painted or glazed.
    • Cons: Heavy, especially larger sizes, breakable, dries out faster than plastic, expensive.


This is a grow bag.  They are a big favorite of mine.  A new-ish technology from the landscape and nursery industry.  They are lightweight, inexpensive and come in a large array of sizes from small to giant.

Grow Bags:

  • Pros: Inexpensive, lightweight, multiple sizes, easy to store, drain very well (controlled).
  • Cons: Not as long a shelf life as plastic and clay. Can be less decorative.

I keep mine off the soil to get a longer shelf life.  I recommend placing them on gravel, mulch, concrete, landscape fabric or similar.  This will influence the micro-climate.

The micro-climate is the pocket of temperature around the plantings due to factors such as buildings, pavement, frost pockets, etc.  I have a warm micro-climate where my bags are.  They are black and sitting next to my house on black asphalt.  This provides extra heat in the cold weather and also extra heat in the warm weather, so it has pros and cons in my micro-climate that I have to incorporate into my production system.

The Soil

I recommend the best product that fits in your budget.  I use about 60% compost from my compost pile on the bottom with the rest a bagged soil product,  inexpensive if possible such as bagged compost, humus or manure.  If you have multiple bags to fil then a bulk delivery from a local company might be the best decision. If I am planting seed, I will put an inch or so of seed starting mix on the top to plant into to minimize fungal disease for the baby seedlings.


I fill my containers to the very top.  I do not waste space with rocks or packing peanuts or any other filler in the bottom of the container to promote drainage as that decreases the soil volume that the roots need for soil that will hold water, air and nutrients.  Fill your pots to the top. Fill your pots to the bottom as well.

You are saying, Tim, that containers need filled to the top but this is not full to the top like you said, and you are right. This container was intentionally kept a little below the lip to allow for season extension with row cover and spinach does not need the depth of soil as a tomato or pepper would.

Watering Strategies

Clay pots and Plastic Pots have their pros and cons as well.  I say that watering a container is a little bit art and a little bit science.  I realize that does not sound as definitive as I would like.  Watering problems are the NUMBER #2 reason for plant death and usually related to the NUMBER #1 reason,  too small a container.

  • Plastic Pots – for watering
    • Pros – less permeable to water and air, so dry out slower.
    • Cons – need control of water flow from multiple holes in bottom of pot.
  • Clay Pots – for watering
    • Pros – drain faster, allow transfer of water and air through wall of the pot
    • Cons – dry out faster as a result,  unless glazed or painted.  Large hole in bottom needs a filter to control fast water drainage.

Instead of rocks or similar, think of a very small filter over the holes that will allow controlled water drainage such as a coffee filter, old piece of row cover or landscape fabric cut to fit the bottom of the pot.  This promotes CONTROLLED DRAINAGE which is the ultimate goal of the container gardener.

Make sure to water so that the soil mix is moist all the way through the root zone.  Please note that mature plants will need more water generally than a younger version of the plant and that the watering timetable can change and increase as plants grow and bear fruit.

Grow bags have some great benefits, plus a few detractions in terms of water management.  They have micro-pores in them since they are woven.  This provides a very controlled flow of water out of the bag which is great in terms of minimizing loss of both soil and fertilizer in case we get a three inch rainfall which seems to be more common these days.  One con is that since they drain so easily, they dry out very easily so you really need to watch your plantings during warm and dry periods. You may need to re-evaluate your fertility protocol in case of large rains regardless of your system.


Keep in mind that all the needed macro and micro nutrients that plants need have to be added to the soil mix either through fertilizers or organic matter such as compost. 

I add a slow release granular fertilizer to the soil mix in the bag when I plant transplants or creating a seed bed.  It also can be top dressed around an existing planting.  These generally fertilize over a several month time period depending on product, on plant variety needs and how much rainfall leaching occurs.

Slow release organic fertilizers usually contain all the needed macro and micro nutrients being based on formerly living things.  It is important to have all the needed macro and micro nutrients available to plants as if their is a deficiency then the plant will suffer and not grow correctly.

It is important to become a label reader when choosing fertilizers.  Since you provide all the plants nutrition,  you need a complete fertilizer.  Mind that different plants need different levels of nutirents as well.

This label shows that the N-P-K ratio of this fertilizer is 24-8-16

I do companion plantings in container production if I have a large enough container to do so, as well as will use staggered harvest so that I can plant thickly early on and then harvest will provide spacing over time.

This is planted with radish and green onions. As I harvest the radish the green onions and remaining radishes will fill the space.


This pot received 12 heads of lettuce. As they mature I will harvest every other head every few days which gives a harvest over a staggered period of weeks.

The filled in container looks like this.  The remaining heads fill the space when the neighbor is harvested.

I tried to do overwintered spinach in containers this year and was pleasantly surprised by how well it did.  I do need to factor in the mild winter, but this will be repeated this winter for sure.

Spinach seed was sowed on Thanksgiving weekend as an afterthought. I would normall plant closer to mid-October.

Row cover was used for frost and freeze protection and was doubled up when it dropped below 30 degrees.

I have been surprised by how much spinach is produced in this method.  I have harvested gallons so far and it is only now going to seed.

I have two classes upcoming on Container Gardening that are free and open to the public if you would like to learn more:

  • Tuesday April 28th in Partnership with Highland Youth Garden. LINK
  • Wednesday May 20th in Partnership with University Libraries. LINK

11 thoughts on “No Garden? No Problem! – Container Gardening Basics

  1. Great tips. Now that I am a senior citizen I have shifted to container gardening and am learning as I go, so this information really helps.

  2. Do you have suggestions for managing the bags during our hot/dry/but prone to downpours summers? I tried them last summer for tomatoes and the bags did well, but I had to water them all the time and the water seemed to filter right through. I thought about wrapping the bags in plastic. I don’t have a drip water system just a hose or watering can. The bags I use are very large and would not fit inside another container to conserve water. I used a good soil/compost mix that held water well in the spring and early summer.

    • Susan, I would make sure the container is big enough for a tomato plant, recommending a 20 gallon bag for a container listed variety and bigger for an indeterminate. I would maximize the amount of organic matter in the bag as it holds water well and then I would mulch around the plant on the top of the bag to conserve soil moisture. It sounds like roots filled the bag, which causes the water to run right out.

  3. Mr. McDermott, I enjoyed reading your article (No Garden? No Problem! Container Gardening Basics). In this information available on an OSU Extension Fact Sheet? It is my understanding there are a series of virtual classes held in partnership with OSU Extension Franklin County & OSU Thompson Library. Please explain how virtual classes work. I have a desktop computer with Windows 7 and a I-Pad, but no I-Phone. One statement I read was bring your friends and your questions about starting the 2020 gardening season. I have a garden in my back yard and many questions.

    • Bob,
      I am unaware of a container gardening fact sheet on Ohioline. I have a series of classes held in partnership with University Libraries, CLICK HERE to get details and register. It is free and open to the public. A virtual class is held live via ZOOM and hosted online as we work from home right now. Feel free to contact me at with questions as it is an easier format that this forum.

  4. This is a really helpful webpage!

    We do not have a car and are reluctant to go to stores much these days, so I’d like to use what we have in the house for containers. Is there any problem with using Rubbermaid Roughneck 18- or 20-gallon containers for growing vegetables? Should I put rocks or holes in the bottoms for drainage?

    Thanks so much for helping us garden!

    • Karen, thanks for the kind words. I think that those containers should do fine to grow in. I would avoid the rocks, but I would drill holes for drainage.

      • Thanks very much for this info! I had seen stuff on the web about dangerous plastic-y chemicals leaching into the vegetables, but wasn’t sure whether to take it seriously.

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