Turn your attempts at container gardening into flourishing successes with tips, tricks, and secrets from an expert.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated June 01, 2019
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Container gardening is a great alternative to in-ground gardening for so many reasons, not least because it requires less time and money. Still, filling a planter with flourishing plants straight from the garden center is easy, but successfully maintaining those plants is a whole different story. And actually crafting a container garden that’s completely photo-worthy with #nofilter? Forget about it.

Luckily, some plant pros have the art of container gardening down pat, and they’re willing to share their secrets—and tell us what might be making your container garden less than photogenic.

Kerry Ann McLean, an associate greengoods buyer at garden shop Terrain, is a self-described jungle gardener with years of container gardening experience. Here, she shares six things you may be doing wrong with your container garden, plus how to fix them to create your dream garden.

You’re Forgetting to Fertilize It

Watering your container garden leaches out nutrients, and the soil has no way of renewing itself. To make sure the soil has plenty of nutrients for your plants to absorb, you’ll want to start with nutrient-rich potting soil, and then consistently fertilize your container garden to replenish it.

Change out the soil every time you restart your container garden or add fresh soil whenever you add a new plant. Choose an organic, nutrient-packed potting soil, like Miracle-Gro Performance Organics Container Mix. And to restore the nutrients lost over time and with waterings and rain, feed your garden with Miracle-Gro Performance Organics Plant Nutrition. Simply add this plant food to your watering can once per week to help your garden flourish.

Excerpted from Terrain by Greg Lehmkuhl (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photography: Terrain

You’re Not Adding (or Removing) Plants

If, after initially planting in your container garden, you never touch it again (except for watering it), your container garden will never look the way you want it to.

Instead, consider adding more plants over time—or pull plants that aren’t working out of it, McLean recommends. Just because you planted something a month ago doesn’t mean you have to keep it, especially if you’ve realized you don’t actually like it all that much. One of many good things about container gardens is that they’re full of separate plants, which are easy to pull out. Once the plant is out, putting something in its place is simple.

You’re Giving Up Too Soon

Don’t give up on your container gardening dreams the moment a plant wilts or at your first realization that you don’t love the way it looks. McLean considers a full season—about three months—the benchmark for giving a container garden a good shot.

You’re Not Using Foliage Plants

While a container garden with a single flowering stalk in it is, technically, a container garden, it may not be the wild, lively look you’re going for. Consider adding foliage plants—ferns, grasses, or large-leafed plants—to keep your container garden looking healthy, even after any flowering plants have lost their blooms.

You’re Not Top-Dressing Your Container Gardens

Even if you’re sure about your plant selection, it will take some time for everything to grow in and fill out. A little of what McLean calls top dressing can help make your container garden look finished, even during not-so-pretty growing phases.

“I think putting grit on the top of the soil really is great,” McLean says. She suggests using grit, mulch, pebbles, or even pine cones—whatever small addition you can find will help the container look finished and prevent water from splashing out.

You’re Not Watering Your Garden Consistently

Inconsistently watering your container garden—say, forgetting to water it for two weeks then trying to make up for your plant parent neglect with lots and lots of water—can lead to root rot. This can kill your plants, especially if your container doesn’t have drainage holes at the bottom and moisture is able to build up.

Drainage rocks or another absorbent material can help wick away extra moisture, protecting your plants’ roots, but a watering routine—especially if it includes regular fertilization, too—will do wonders for your container garden, even if it’s full of drought-resistant plants.

Courtesy of Terrain

Container gardening ideas and tips - Terrain book cover

Terrain’s team of green thumbs—including McLean—is behind the gorgeous plants and plant accessories you’ve likely spotted in Anthropologie and around the internet, and the garden resource recently launched its first book, Terrain: Ideas and Inspiration for Decorating the Home and Garden ($35; shopterrain.com).