The Playpen is the ‘for fun’ area of The Mothership, where each month there is a focus on a different optional hobby / fun challenge for you to try out if you want to. We know that being busy mothers, it’s not always easy to research new hobbies or to find easy and quick ways to try them out without too much commitment, so each month we’ll put in the hours to research and curate some easily accessible free resources to get you off the starting blocks if you want to.
For March’s Playpen, we decided to have a stab at container gardening. Lots of you said you’d love to learn how to create a basic garden of your own. Many of you might already be proficient gardeners, but for those people like me who have literally no clue and whose sum total garden knowledge consists of buying ready-flowered plants from Homebase in June, enjoying them for a few weeks then watching them die, we wanted to provide a few simple resources for getting started.
Lots of us don’t have access to a proper garden, or workable soil. Many of us live in cities with only concrete yards, balconies or windowsills instead of actual gardens with ‘real’ flowerbeds. So we decided to focus on ‘container gardening’, providing some simple resources that will enable anyone to have a whirl at growing their own plants, flowers and vegetables, irrespective of what outdoor space they have access to. There are obviously a multitude of different things you can grow in a container garden, but we’ve gone for just a few simple basics that are the easiest to grow to start with, and that can be planted around this time of year.
What is container gardening?
Container gardening, as its name suggests, involves growing things in containers rather than directly in the ground. There are many advantages – people can create gardens in this way if they don’t have a ‘proper’ garden or workable soil, there’s no need to prepare a plot, no extensive weeding, you don’t need a lot of space, it’s easy to get good quality soil as you buy it yourself rather than making do with whatever soil you have in the ground, you can bring plants inside if weather becomes inclement, and it’s a really easy way to get kids involved in gardening as they can have their own ‘containers’. Plus they can look really great as you can make use of the containers themselves as aesthetic features as well as the plants themselves.
STEP 1: Get containers
- You can buy containers from garden centres or homeware stores, such as terracotta, wooden, glazed ceramic or plastic pots. Clay pots will need more watering than other types as they soak up the water. You can line them with plastic to avoid this if you want to.
- Alternatively you can use found containers from around your own house – buckets, jars, tins, barrels, teacups, food packaging containers, old tyres, teapots, hessian sacks, wooden palettes, chimney pots, wine boxes, fruit crates, suitcases, bathtubs, sinks, boots etc – anything at all.
- The most important thing for container gardening is that there is adequate drainage – there must be at least one decent hole in the bottom of the container – at least half an inch diameter for small to medium containers and at least 1 inch diameter for larger ones. If there isn’t one already in the container then you can easily drill one or several yourself.
- Consider the shapes of the containers and try to have a variety of different shapes and sizes. If the plant will be tall, you need to make sure the base of the container isn’t too narrow or it will topple over. Square, rectangular and cylindrical pots are the most stable.
STEP 2: Assess the light
For the purposes of simplicity in this article, I’ll refer to your outdoor space as your ‘garden’ – but this might not be a traditional garden – it could be a yard or balcony etc. Work out where the sunlight hits your garden and for how long. Many plants will need a ‘sunny spot’, meaning that they will need constant sunlight for at least 6 hours a day. Most vegetables need full sun. Other plants can be better in shadier spots. Just be aware of which areas of your garden provide the most light and shade so you can plan your plants and their locations accordingly. Where possible try to provide a sheltered spot for your plants, next to walls, partitions etc, to protect from wind.
Step 3: Create some good soil/compost
Buy some multipurpose potting compost, as good as you can afford. Soilless composts are usually better for container growing as they hold moisture better and have a more open structure that plant roots can easily grip to. You must mix it with a slow release fertiliser as most multipurpose composts only hold nutrients for about 4-6 weeks so they’ll need this supplement to sustain growth.
Step 4: Buy plants, remove from nursery containers and plant in your own containers
Don’t pull out by the stalks, push the soil out of the pot from the base, ‘pop’ it out gently. Make sure everything is planted at the same level as the nursery container, sitting at the same height, with its stalk covered to the same level. Make sure there are no air pockets in the soil, and pack the soil tightly around the roots so they don’t dry out. Save the plant tags so you have care instructions. Take photos of them on your phone if you don’t want to keep the actual tags.
Step 5: Water and prune regularly
Water according to the instructions on the tag. Check the soil daily. As a rule of thumb, stick your finger in the soil up to the second knuckle. If your fingertip is dry, the soil needs watering. Water slowly and make sure the water reaches the plant’s roots, and that water comes out of the bottom of the container. Water once to twice a day in warmer months. Be careful not to overwater – keep the soil damp but not wet. In particularly wet or cold weather bring them inside or move them to a covered area. If you’re going to use liquid plant food, start feeding your plants after they’ve been growing for about 6 weeks. Feeding should take place from April to September and you should only use plant food if the compost you’re using does not contain a slow-release fertiliser. Remove dead leaves and flower heads regularly to encourage growth.
PROJECT 1: BASIC FLOWER GARDEN
Great flowers for spring container gardens are gladioli, lilies, agapanthus, dahlias, azaleas, sunflowers, sweet peas, nigella, nasturtiums, petunias, marigolds, fuchsias, geraniums, pansies, cosmos, busy lizzies, daffodils, lavender, crocuses, roses, hydrangea, poppies, antirrhinum.
PROJECT 2: BASIC HERB GARDEN
- Easy herbs to grow include basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, mint, parsley, sage, coriander
- Choose containers that give herbs a deep root run where they can be left undisturbed. Keep the compost moist but never soggy
PROJECT 3: BASIC SALAD GARDEN
- Lettuce / salad leaves – these can grow in relatively little soil and are ideally suited to window boxes or shallow trays as they can be grown in as little as 4cm of good compost. You could even grow them in old tin cans or shallow fruit or wine boxes. Use ‘cut and come again’ varieties of salad where you harvest leaves over a number of weeks rather than taking the full head in one go. Choose an area that gets morning sunshine and afternoon shade.
- Tomatoes – these can be grown in either containers or hanging baskets. They just need lots of sun and support for their stalks. Starter plants from the garden centre are the easiest to grow, especially the smaller varieties such as cherry tomatoes and ‘patio’ varieties. If you plant basil next to the tomato plants, you’ll naturally repel pests and even improve the flavour of the tomatoes.
- Cucumbers – these like sunlight and warm temperatures, and need support for climbing.
- Radish – sow early in the spring in a container at least six inches deep. They grow in sun to partial shade. You can harvest the tops as they grow and they grow really easily and quickly.
PROJECT 4: BASIC VEGETABLE GARDEN
- Peas and Beans – great if space limited as grow ‘up’ rather than ‘out’. Need support coming from container as they climb. Large pots, bins or large tins make excellent containers for these, with bamboo poles to wind them round. Peas can’t climb smooth vertical poles so use twiggy branches or a web of gardening twine as a support around the bamboo poles. Containers ideally at least 30cm deep to ensure compost holds enough water. Peas can rot in wet compost so make sure there are plenty of holes in the bottom and that the container is raised off the ground on bricks or blocks. Planting marigolds with beans keeps aphids and beetles at bay.
- Courgettes – great choice for container gardening as you get a lot of crop from a single plant. They need a lot of water and a lot of fertiliser. Seeds best started off indoors in March/April, then transferred outside at the end of May.
- Squash / pumpkin – as above for courgettes
- Carrots – use container at least 40cm deep to grow good straight roots, or choose shorter stump rooted varieties for more shallow containers. Scatter seeds thinly in a good multipurpose compost and thin to 5cm spacings.
- Potatoes – take up a bit more space than other veg so possibly forget about these if you’re tight on space. Use a pot, bag, sack or purpose-made potato planter at least 30cm deep and add a layer of multipurpose compost about 15cm deep. Place 3 chitted (sprouted) seed potatoes on top of the compost and cover with another 10cm of the planter compost mix. Once plants have produced about 15cm of leaf growth, fill the container with another 10cm of compost, partially burying the new stems and leaves. Repeat until compost is 5cm from top of the potato planter. If using ordinary multipurpose compost, feed the potatoes with a high phosphorous feed after about 6 weeks of growing.
- Chillies – can be grown on a sunny windowsill. Choose compact, small-fruited varieties and early ripeners. Fill 10cm pots with compost then place 4 seeds on the surface of the compost. Sprinkle light covering of compost over the top. Cover with a clear plastic bag held in place with an elastic band to create a mini greenhouse. Remove the plastic bag as soon as seedlings appear.
- Spinach – plant in 6-12 inch containers, sowing seeds one inch apart. Keep indoors then transplant them outside after 3 weeks
- Spring onions – add compost to within about an inch from the top of the container, lightly scatter some seed over the surface then cover with half and inch of compost and keep moist
- 35 of the best container gardening blogs
- Creative displays - container gardening for small spaces
- Plants for containers