Designing a Container Garden
For Growing Food

Container gardens in any setting can be simply fabulous, and designing a container garden for your own needs can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.

People with small gardens or limited space tend to favour container gardens for good reason.

There are some big advantages and a few flaws that you do need to know about before you start.

The advantages are that you get a great deal of control over your growing conditions. For starters, you get full control over the all-important soil you are using. Personally I like the idea of using something called "Mel's Mix" - a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. The mix is borrowed from the square foot gardening method and will last in your pots for years provided you use it correctly. Then you have control over the temperature conditions. If for example, you get an unexpected frost, with containers you have the option to move them to a more sheltered spot or even indoors to avoid damage.You also tend to have fewer problems from pests and disease, and when they do strike, you are able to isolate them more efficiently.

There are two main disadvantages to container gardening, firstly watering. Containers tend to dry out quickly, especially in full sun, something to take into consideration when designing a container garden. The other main disadvantage can be a lack of nutrients, so regular and balanced feeding is often required to get good results. Personally, I have also found container gardening to be a lot messier than conventional gardening. Filling containers with compost and soil is an untidy business, and spilled compost gets everywhere, so when designing a container garden, make sure you give yourself a dedicated area to prepare your containers.

You can grow virtually anything in containers, flowers, vegetables, even trees! But as this is a website all about growing food in small spaces, I will stick to container vegetable garden layout design ideas.

Basic Rules of Designing a Container Garden
Designing a container garden for growing food in a small space requires only a few simple rules.

  • Sunshine
    First and foremost, your main designing factor needs to be the sun. Without at least 6-8 hours of sun during the peak growing season, your food-growing efforts will be in vain. There really is no getting past the fact that growing food requires sunshine. Your design should be orientated to make the best use of the available 'sunny' areas in your garden.

  • Growing Space Arrangements
    Make sure that the types of plants you intend to grow have the right space to grow as they mature. For example, if you intend to grow runner beans, will there be enough space for the vines to grow? Can you create a structure for them to climb up vertically? do you have pots large enough to support vertical canes? or is there a structure in the area you intend to grow them that you can train them up?If you intend to grow marrow or zucchinis, will you have enough space to let it sprawl along the ground, or will you be able to build a vertical structure to support it growing vertically?

  • Shadows
    If, like me you are limited in the space you have available, you will probably have structures that will support vertical growing. If you do, when designing a container garden, make sure that your vertical structures once full of plants will not cast shadows over your less tall plants, as it could severely hamper their growth. Arranging your structures in such a way that they provide partial shade for your partial shade loving plants could however be an advantage, and help in the creation of a slightly symbiotic design.

  • Container size
    Obviously, your containers need to be suitable for the type of plants you are growing. It's no good having a tiny 5 inch diameter pot in which to grow a beef tomato plant or a lemon tree, so careful choice of container size is important if you want your plants to flourish. Cramped roots will usually mean a poor and unhappy plant.

  • Access
    Make sure when designing a container garden, you factor in sufficient access for watering and tending your plants. Take into consideration the fact that your plants will become bushy and much bigger than just the sum of the empty containers. Don't forget to include somewhere for you to enjoy your garden. Normally, I like to be able to sit out in the garden and enjoy the warm weather. Even whilst doing this experiment of seeing how much food I can grow in my tiny patio garden, I have still allowed for some sitting space in the form of a couple of benches.

  • Airspace
    If you really want to push out the boundaries and get the most from your space, consider airspace gardening! This is a little idea I had when designing my own patio garden. Is there airspace above your garden that you can take advantage of?

    My idea was to secure a thin, but strong rope between two solid structures such as the house and a strong wall, and then suspend a series of polythene bag-style planters at intervals along the length of the rope. Then, just like an old fashioned washing line, I would use a wooden prop to hoist the rope up into the air. The prop would be used to lower the plants for watering.

    Unfortunately, this idea is just a theory and I haven't yet put it to the test.

    Finally, let your imagination run free! Designing a container garden should be a fun and imaginative exercise. Besides providing us with food and clean air, gardens are there to bring us joy. If you don't enjoy this task, then you're either doing something wrong, or gardening is not for you. Go and try golf instead! :o)

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