Indiana University

Skip to:

  1. Search
  2. Breadcrumb Navigation
  3. Content
  4. Browse by Topic
  5. Services & Resources
  6. Additional Resources
  7. Multimedia News

Gardening solutions

Container gardening tips

HIlltop, Planting

Hilltop Garden and Nature Center assistant director Stori Snyder prepares a pot of flowers.

Print-Quality Photo

Container gardening can let green thumbs blossom when space or motivation is limited. Cherry tomatoes draped from hanging baskets, herbs, morning glories and vegetables can spice up those flower pots. Stori Snyder, assistant director of the Hilltop Garden and Nature Center at Indiana University Bloomington, offers some tips on the many ways container gardens can grow. "Even if you do have space for a garden, there's always the possibility of adding a few more pots," Snyder said.

  • Preparing the containers: Containers need holes at the bottom for drainage and some rocks for the plant roots to wrap around. "The roots don't want to have wet feet, so to speak," Snyder said. Containers should be at least one size larger than the purchased pot size.
  • Feeding the soil: More plants can be grown in a small space if the soil has been enriched with manure, compost or humus. Gardeners can buy kits to test the composition of their soil to see if it needs more nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, which are important nutrients for plants. Snyder said it's practically "a given" that soil will need compost or manure after subsequent plantings because plants always remove nitrogen from dirt. One way to improve the soil is to add a scoop of compost in a hole when burying a plant. Feed the plants again at least once during the summer with a sprinkling of compost or compost tea, where a compost powder is mixed with water.
  • Buying local: Gardeners should consider planting native varieties because they handle a region's climate better. Local nurseries and county extension services can offer guidance. Some herbs, such as mints, sage and thyme, are hardier than others and grow back in the spring. "Native varieties won't be as stressed and will require a little less maintenance," Snyder said.
  • Juicy tomatoes: A tomato plant can grow well in a 5-gallon bucket. They come in many varieties, although compact varieties grow better in containers and require less staking. Snyder said cherry and pear tomatoes look delightful in hanging baskets. Tomatoes mature at different rates, so gardeners might want to select varieties that ripen at different times or varieties that are indeterminate, which means they ripen repeatedly until it becomes too cold.
  • Vegetables: Carrots and radishes grow quickly. Snyder said gardeners should consider researching "companion plants," which grow well together because one plant provides the soil with a nutrient the other plant needs and vice versa. Carrots and tomatoes are companion plants, Snyder said, as are roses and garlic. Basil and tomatoes are a dynamic duo with considerable aesthetic appeal. Snyder noted that "they smell fantastic" and the variety of colors is interesting -- yellow tomatoes and purple basil, for example.
  • Now you're cooking: Herbs are good for container gardening because compact herbs, such as rosemary, lavender and thyme, can grow in small spaces. Sage needs a lot of space and should be in a container by itself. Mints, including lemon balm, are invasive and should be planted in the ground or in their own container.
  • Caring for flower bulbs: Bulbs planted in containers should be brought inside after the green leaves die back and the nutrients are stored in the bulb. They should be dried and stored in a cool place until next spring. Spring-blooming bulbs planted in yards should be planted in the fall, while bulbs that bloom in the summer can be planted in the spring.
  • Vines, clematis and morning glories make interesting container plantings and require trellises.
  • Water frequently: The plants will need to be watered daily during much of the summer. Watering during the middle of the day should be avoided, but whether watering in the morning or evening is better is much debated. Watering in the evening will avoid scorching the leaves, while watering in the morning will avoid potential growth of unwanted fungus on damp leaves, said Snyder, who opts for morning waterings.