How to start growing in pots

By Casey Joy Lister


Living in a rental property with landlords who don’t want you digging in the garden? Or maybe instead of a garden you have an apartment with a balcony, or a paved courtyard?

If you think these limitations mean you can’t start growing your own garden…think again! You can absolutely start a beautiful garden on a balcony, in a courtyard or in a rental – you just have to grow it in pots!

Growing a potted garden is a fantastic way to start gardening when you don’t have big garden beds to fill with plants. Even if you do plan to have your own big backyard one day, starting a garden in pots can help you hone your gardening skills while enjoying your own homegrown harvests of herbs, veggies and flowers.


And – fortunately – growing in pots is really easy, provided you know a few fundamentals. Here are 5 tips for successfully growing your own potted garden.


Step 1  Choose the right sized pot for your plants

The easiest mistake to make when starting a potted garden is to choose pots that are just too small for your plants. Small pots lead to root-bound plants – plants that have outgrown their pot, leaving their roots cramped and squished into a confined space. Root-bound plants often don’t get enough nutrients from the soil (there’s just not enough soil to go around) and they can dry out and wilt on hot days.

It can be hard to predict exactly how big a plant is going to grow (or how much space it needs to do its growing) when you’re buying plants as tiny seedlings from garden nurseries. These plants can often end up a lot bigger than you might expect. That’s why it’s a good idea to do a little research before selecting your plants (and your pots). Specifically, find out how deep your plant’s roots will likely grow, and make sure to get a pot that is deep enough for those roots to stretch out comfortably. If in doubt, go for pots that are bigger, rather than smaller.


Step 2 Choose the right kind of glaze for your plants

Different plants suit different kinds of pots depending on how thirsty they get. Thirsty plants that need a lot of water often fare better in glazed pots (especially in summer) as the glaze helps the pot retain more moisture for longer. Unglazed, or terracotta pots, breathe more easily, meaning more moisture can escape from the soil through the pot. In hot weather, these pots are better for plants that don’t mind drying out a little, like succulents and cacti.


Step 3 Check your drainage

Making sure your pots drain well is vital if you want your plants to be healthy. Most plants don’t like to get ‘wet feet’. That is, they don’t like it when there is a pool of water collecting at the bottom of the pot. To avoid this, you can buy pots with pre-drilled drainage holes, or you can drill your own drainage holes into your pots using a masonry drill bit. Another way to improve drainage is to pop your pot on some feet, helping to elevate it a few centimetres off the ground. This allows the water to drain freely out of the base of the pot, reducing the risk that your plants will be left sitting in stagnant water.


Step 4 Perfect your soil

When it comes to growing in pots, it helps to use the best soil you can find. Plants growing in the ground are able to stretch their roots far and wide in search of moisture and nutrients. But plants growing in pots can’t go in search of extra nutrients, so it’s up to you to provide them with everything they need. You can do this by buying good quality potting mixes (which contain slow-release fertilisers and are lighter and more free-draining than typical garden soil). You tend to get what you pay for with potting mixes. Invest in a good quality mix and your plants will thank you.


Step 5 Mulch, mulch, mulch

Most pots are a lot smaller than a typical garden bed, so they tend to dry out much faster in hot weather. You always want to avoid letting your pots get bone dry, as it’s a lot harder to repair soil once it has totally dried out than it is to prevent it from drying out in the first place. Spread 1-2 handfuls of lupin or pea straw mulch on top of your potting mix, around the base of your plant. This will help lock extra moisture into the soil, preventing it from drying out on hot days (remember to water your pots often on hot days too!). If you’re growing a pot of succulents or cacti, you can spread a handful of pea gravel on top of the soil instead of an organic mulch.