It’s Spring, and the collective energy is embracing hope and freshness. If you’d like to add more of this vibe to your living space, you don’t need a full yard to start a garden of your own – starting a container garden is possible in nearly every living area. It’s been proven across so many studies that green spaces, plants, and the natural world have an incredibly positive effect on our mindset and mental health. House plants have indeed become ubiquitous in our homes, and we’ve seen the impact there too.
On a personal note, last year, as the pandemic struck, I lost both my full-time job and freelance work. The following week I started two trays of seeds on my desk in what was my office. Since we started seeds quite late, we had a long season until harvesting. But caring for those plants gave us something to do, something to talk about aside from the terror of the virus, and a space to reflect on our collective reckoning with racial injustice. It gave my husband and me something to work on together, a shared goal that kept us working together even when we were both stressed and on edge. I developed closer relationships with my mother, and new and old friends who were growing flowers or vegetables too. Just having one positive, hopeful thing to talk about, to connect about, kept my head above water. My husband Edward is a firefighter/EMT, and I won’t ever forget him coming home from a shift mid-summer with all the overwhelm from what he had seen and him going out to the patio to water the plants and recover.
Growing vegetables gave us a sense of security when we were scared, and growing flowers gave us hope for eventual relief. We saw the resilience of those green shoots that survived the sun and the heat and even our occasional neglect and believed that we could survive and find a way to grow too.
I had hoped to write this a bit earlier in the Spring, but to be honest, I’ve been struggling this year even more than last. Continued isolation, the “covid anniversary” of the start of the pandemic, and another birthday without friends and family were all tough in a way that I did not expect. There are other more personal cancellations, setbacks, and frustrations, too, of course. My usual sunny outlook has been missing, and I’ve found it tough to see all the goodness around me and be as grateful as I know I should be.
Edward finally convinced me to get started on our garden again just this past week, and I am very glad that he did. We do have a much more scaled-back approach than our attempts from last year. All the same, I felt an immediate shift deep in my heart when we replanted the garden.
In the hope that I can help even one person to take the leap into gardening, I’m sharing my tips for getting started below, as well as some of the lessons we’ve learned through failure in previous seasons. In each section, you’ll see options for making environmentally conscious choices and for making this a cheap hobby as well.
The first thing you’re looking for is, of course a sunny spot. Very luckily for us, in Summer 2019, my husband Edward had built a beautiful tall fence/wall around our patio. The new fence elevated the space and gave us a sense of privacy as well. There is the feeling of being in an enclosed courtyard when you’re on our patio, and I love that there are no neighboring windows that look directly onto our space.
If you don’t have a patio, you might have some steps, a window you can add a window box outside of, or some pots inside. A little balcony lends itself very well to a combination of pots and hanging planters. If you can have a more private space and include a place to sit and a surface to set a drink, all the better. Give the area a good sweep and scrub to get it ready, and consider if you need to paint or make any changes before planting.
Money & Earth Saving: This part shouldn’t cost anything as you can use the space you already have! If you have a concrete patio like we do, many cities offer benefits for removing them to help protect rivers & streams. Philadelphia’s Raincheck program offers up to $2,000 to replace your back patio with a permeable surface.
As you prepare your space, take note of how sunlight travels through your planting space. While our patio is on the north side of our house, its north and west walls get full hot Summer sun. The concrete floor and walls make it a scorching, dry space. The east and south walls get indirect, filtered light from the sun bouncing off surfaces and windows.
As you consider where you’ll add your containers, keep in mind that no matter how much you want to place a specific plant in a particular spot, it will be happiest in whatever location caters to its preferences. We tried to grow Cathedral Bells (Cobaea scandens f. alba) vine last year along the hottest corner of our patio – they barely clung to life until the temperatures dipped, and then we had a few late blooms. Had we planted them in a cooler corner, we could have enjoyed them for much longer. Having a sense of this before you start looking at plants will help you select only the plants that will thrive.
Money & Earth Saving: Sunlight is abundant and free! Choosing plants well acclimated to your lighting conditions will lessen water use.
The most important element for choosing your containers is ensuring they have adequate drainage. One of the biggest mistakes I have made has been to think that I could use a plant pot without drainage holes and that if I added lots of rocks/pebbles in the bottom, it would give me enough drainage. One rainstorm killed all of my herbs and marigold seedlings last year that completely filled their pots with water. Let’s say I truly, finally learned my lesson after cleaning out every single one of those pots.
The containers should be large enough to accommodate the fully-grown plant (if you’re growing from seed) or roughly double the size of a young plant. Always check the plant info for how much space they will need in a container. If you decide to plant perennials, be sure to check what care they will need over winter – if they’ll need to be blanketed or stored indoors. We have a Japanese Maple tree growing in a pot that happily winters outside in its pot and grows back each year.
Money & Earth Saving: Reuse containers from food, look at thrift stores and check your local Buy Nothing Group. If you want to reuse containers of any kind, be sure to add drainage holes if they need them and a layer of gravel/rocks to protect your plants from drowning.
Plant selection is, of course, the most fun and exciting part for most of us! But I also insist you should not rush that plant selection if you want to start on the right foot. The challenge with planting in containers is inherent – containers lose moisture and nutrition much more quickly. After trying out more delicate and thirsty plants, I’ve learned to instead focus on plants that will be happy in a hot & dry environment. Mediterranean plants are particularly well suited to growing in our hot, sunny climate, in pots that will inevitably dry out from time to time. On our south-facing front steps, we’ve planted only English Lavender in the boxes on the railings, which will happily bake in the hot summer sun.
If you’d like your plants to live longer than one growing season, consider looking for perennials that are hardy in your zone. Finding out your planting zone only takes a few steps:
- Look up your Planting Zone using this tool from the USDA. Where I live in Philadelphia is zone 7b.
- Choose plants rated for cold hardiness in your zone by looking at the tag or doing a quick google. The hardiness information will generally be a range (i.e., “Hardy in zones 3-8), and as long as your zone number is in that range, you should have success with keeping your plant alive.
As you plant, spacing is essential. Last year, we really packed the plants into our “mini-raised container beds” – and they suffered a bit due to poor air circulation and competing for nutrition with each other. This year, we are focusing on one plant or two per container.
Money & Earth Saving: You can purchase seeds for a few dollars, small plants for under $20, and medium to large plants for $30+. Joining groups on Facebook like a Plant Exchange or Buy Nothing is an excellent way of sharing seeds and plants (and knowledge!) with your neighbors too. Choosing native plants or “nativized” plants supports pollinators and wildlife.
Again, your plant selection will determine what type of soil you should purchase. Some plants need very rich, wet soil, while other plants like drier, grittier soil. You can buy pre-mixed potting soil, which includes perlite or grit, to add drainage. Or you can buy garden soil/compost and add grit yourself in the form of perlite, some sand, and gravel. We get “garden soil” over at Lowe’s, and mix in perlite for drainage and to keep the weight of our containers down. The bottom of each pot gets a gravel layer, then we add in our potting soil (1 part perlite to 3 parts soil, generally).
Money & Earth Saving: I believe that the soil is the one place that your should not skimp. Avoid reusing soil from old pots if you can, as they may have little to no nutrition remaining and could have fungus or pests hiding in the soil, ready to attack your new plants. A large bag of soil costs around $7.50 here in Philadelphia. Choose Peat Free Compost if you can find it to avoid the negative environmental impacts of peat production. If you are only doing a few pots, you can share the cost with a friend who also wants to start a garden. Ensuring your soil has not been treated with pesticides or herbicides avoids releasing those chemicals into waterways. We have chosen garden without using any pesticides or herbicides, weeding as needed and using other methods to deter pests (including companion planting, encouraging predators, and alternative solutions like Castille soap sprays).
On our patio, the summer sun just bakes our plants. We learned that we needed to water every day over the summer, and we used rich soil with a good layer of mulch on the top. We usually watered in the evenings, although this year, I’m going to water in the morning to prevent the fungus/mushrooms we had growing in our containers from them being wet overnight. It’s better to avoid watering in the middle of the day when more water will evaporate out of your containers before the plant can fully take a good drink.
Money & Earth Saving: Adding a rain barrel to your space, if you have the room, can allow you to divert rainwater, save on your water bill, and is a more sustainable choice. Raincheck offers free rain barrels to residents of Philadelphia.
Containers lose soil nutrition quite quickly as it drains out the bottom of the container with the water. We have slow-release Miracle Grow pellets in each of the containers and supplement them with a weekly liquid seaweed feed. Always read labels to ensure your fertilizer choice works for your plants, paying special attention if you plan to grow any food. We certainly made the mistake of not consistently feeding our container plants last year, and I’m hoping that adding this to our routine will give these plants an extra boost.
Money & Earth Saving: Household food items, like eggshells, spent coffee grinds, and banana peels can help improve soil quality. If your containers are large enough, you can give this a try. Should pests take over, it’s best to try an at-home compost situation or switch to a liquid/pellet feed instead.
If you’d like to start your own garden, of any scale or budget, begin with my favorite gardening advice I’ve heard from nearly every seasoned gardener – “It’s all an experiment.” Everything in gardening comes with trial and error, as working with nature includes dancing through the journey with other living things. Enjoy the process, the lessons learned (failures), and the wins (cut flowers and yummy harvests). But most of all, enjoy the presence it gives you when you direct your attention and care into your garden.