Maybe the question isn’t “what plants can I grow in pots?” but “what can’t I grow in pots?” Most plants do extraordinarily well in container gardens, as long as the planters are large enough and the proper care is given.
Though it’s impossible to list every single plant that belongs in a container garden, a few of my favorite species include rhubarb, kale, strawberries, mint, creeping thyme, asparagus, Greek oregano, Jerusalem artichokes, and ferns.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to grow mature plants in pots (it’s a little bit different from in-ground gardening) as well as feature my favorite container-friendly perennial plants. For an in-depth exploration of container gardening (and some recycled planter inspiration) check out this post.
How to grow plants in containers
When planning out a container garden, you’ll want to pay attention to the following:
The right size container
You can pot up a plant as it grows, but you’ll save time and money if you go with a bigger pot from the get-go. Most mature plants need at least a one-gallon container to thrive, but larger perennials and shrubs may need three- or five-gallon pots.
North Carolina State Extension has an excellent chart listing various types of vegetables and their coordinating container sizes. You can always plant vegetables into a bigger size container than they require, but don’t confine your veggies to a pot that’s too small or you’ll see stunted growth and reduced harvests.
Larger containers take more soil, but their increased capacity allows the pot to hold more nutrients and gives adequate room for plant roots to grow and breathe. Larger pots don’t dry out as quickly as smaller pots, so you’ll have to water less frequently for your plants to stay hydrated.
Depending on how big your container garden will be, you can choose several individual containers, one or more raised beds, or a combination of several containers. Window boxes and hanging baskets are great ways to add vertical interest to your house or patio, as well as maximize the allotted space you have.
The ideal material
Another critical consideration with container gardening is the container material. Different plants prefer different materials, and depending on your own garden goals, you may elect to use a different material as well.
Terracotta pots are a popular option for container gardens–and rightly so since unglazed clay is very porous. Clay pots actually pull water molecules away from the soil and into the air, where the moisture dissipates. Terracotta’s water-wicking properties make it a great choice for plants like succulents and some perennials that prefer drier conditions.
Clay also insulates plant roots from drastic temperature changes, making terracotta a great choice for year-round gardening. Glazed ceramic pots, while beautiful, aren’t porous like unglazed ones.
Plastic pots are the cheapest option for container gardens, and they have the added benefit of retaining water. Fiberglass is another popular material for planters due to its durability–fiberglass pots won’t crack or break due to freezing temperatures or UV exposure.
Fabric pots, or grow bags, are another great option for most plants and have several advantages over other materials. Fabric pots have excellent drainage, and the material allows plant roots to breathe. Unlike other containers that constrict and even halt root development, plant roots don’t typically become root bound in fabric pots.
Of course, the perfect planter for your container garden can be made up of anything! Just steer clear of any recycled materials that could potentially be contaminated with lead paint or other chemicals. Only plant edibles in containers you know are chemical-free, and save the questionable planters for ornamentals only.
Regardless of what type of material you choose, either buy containers with drainage holes or add your own drainage holes with a drill. If there’s one thing all growers can agree on, it’s that good drainage is essential to healthy plants. If you don’t want your pots to leak, place a tray underneath each pot.
Quality potting soil
Picking the right container is only half the battle–now you’ll want to fill your planter with quality potting soil. You might be tempted to scoop up some garden soil to fill the pot, but don’t!
Unpasteurized garden soils often contain pathogens and weed seeds, and your container-grown plants have slightly different needs than in-ground crops, anyway. You’ll want to fill your planters with a growing medium that drains well and contains adequate nutrition.
There are thousands of different potting soil mixes on the market, and there’s no magic potting mix–just choose the mix that suits your needs. There’s a mix for annual flowers and veggies, and there’s a mix for perennials and shrubs, as well as a mix for succulents and cacti.
If you’re feeling crafty, you can even make your own potting soil from scratch!
Don’t be fooled – container gardens need just as much – if not more – attention than in-ground gardens. Containers tend to dry out faster than surface soil, so you might need to water your garden more often, especially on sunny or windy days.
Container gardens also require regular feeding. Typically, in-ground gardens only require amending the soil once per season. But since containers don’t hold as much soil–and since frequent waterings washes away nutrients more quickly–you’ll need to replenish essential vitamins and nutrients more often.
The University of Colorado recommends incorporating a slow-release fertilizer in the potting mix at the time of planting, supplemented by a water-soluble fertilizer applied weekly or bi-weekly. Whether you choose to feed with granular fertilizer, liquid, or both, go with an organic option when possible and dilute it per the manufacturers’ instructions.
Make it a point to check your container garden every couple of days – water as needed, and keep your pots free of weeds. Weeds compete with plants for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight, so don’t let them have the upper hand.
Keep an eye out for signs of pest damage and disease – both spread quickly in a container garden.
Check out this article for a few ideas on passive irrigation to lighten your chore load.
Your container-grown plants will thank you if you also stay on top of harvesting. The more you pick or cut, the more your plants will produce. Plus, top-heavy plants are more likely to tip over and break, so don’t let heavy fruit accumulate on smaller plants!
Best perennial plants for container gardens
You can grow almost anything in the right container, but the following plants are particularly well-suited to pots, baskets, and boxes. Look for cultivars marked “dwarf,” “compact,” or “bush” for the highest-yielding plants with a still manageable stature.
Forget the horror stories you’ve heard about this leafy perennial vegetable – rhubarb is easy to grow, and the ruby-colored stalks are rich in fiber and antioxidants. Rhubarb tolerates partial shade, meaning that you can tuck the plant into your container garden virtually anywhere, so long as the area gets at least four hours of sunlight.
Not only does rhubarb make an excellent pie filling, but it makes the perfect companion for a number of plants. Gardeners swear by rhubarb’s ability to repel whiteflies and black aphids, protecting certain brassicas and beans from pest damage.
Tuck a few rhubarb seedlings into a larger planter along with herbs like basil or cole veggies like turnips and cabbage.
Kale is known for being a superfood rich in nutrients and antioxidants, but this hardy vegetable is good for so much more. Although kale is usually grown as an annual, the pant is technically a biennial that will survive two seasons.
Kale is sensitive to heat, so strategically plant your kale in an area of the garden that gets some protection from the harsh midday sun. Some types of kale are ornamental, although we think the varieties types are just as beautiful. Either option is a great choice for a container garden!
Any container garden would be remiss not to include strawberries. These easy-to-grow perennials will send out new runners every year, so planting strawberries in pots helps contain their spread. Many gardeners love to grow strawberries in hanging baskets, letting the glossy foliage and shiny berries cascade down.
Strawberries are generally one of three types: June-bearing, day-neutral, and everbearing. Check out this list of my favorite everbearing varieties.
For such delicate-looking flowers, pansies (or violas) are incredibly winter hardy–down to USDA zone 6–but can be grown as annuals in northern regions. Even if you don’t overwinter your pansies, the plants readily reseed so you’re almost guaranteed to have a new crop each season.
Not only are pansies adorable, but they’re edible too! Add those colorful pansy faces to garden fresh salads or to garnish a sweet cocktail. Unfortunately, deer find pansies tasty too–all the more reason to keep the plants close in your patio flower garden.
Mint is an easy and useful addition to any container garden, but tread lightly–most varieties of mint have a tendency to spread. It’s why many gardeners prefer to grow mint in containers, to better control their spread.
Mint, whether lemon balm, spearmint, or apple mint, is an easy plant to grow, and a generous one to harvest. Dry the leaves and crush them to make your very own loose-leaf tea.
6. Creeping thyme
This low-growing perennial is edible just like the culinary varieties, but most folks grow creeping thyme as an aromatic groundcover. Cold hardy down to USDA zone 4, creeping thyme is an excellent choice for year-round container gardening–just make sure you plant creeping thyme in a large enough planter to accommodate its robust root system.
Per the name, creeping thyme is prone to spread – so either keep the plant pruned back or give it room to cascade over the edge of the pot onto the ground. The fragrant purple flowers are deer-resistant but very enticing to bumblebees!
Though severely underrated, asparagus is one of the easiest vegetables to grow – the slender green stalks take off like weeds once established. Once you plant asparagus somewhere, it’s hard to not grow asparagus in that same bed ever again, which is why so many gardeners prefer to cultivate the perennial vegetable in containers.
If you start with asparagus seeds, don’t harvest the shoots until year two or three, or the asparagus won’t come back. Your patience will be rewarded tenfold, as you can expect asparagus to keep producing for about twenty years with the proper maintenance.
Alternatively, you can purchase asparagus crowns or dig up asparagus rootstock from a friend’s established asparagus patch.
For a list of my favorite asparagus varieties (some of them hardy down to zone 3!) check out this article.
8. Greek oregano
Another perennial herb that’s winter-hardy down to zone 5, Greek oregano is worthy of your container garden whether or not you love to cook. The sweet-smelling flowers draw pollinators and beneficial insects to your container garden, and the petite gray-green leaves make an excellent bouquet filler.
Oregano is useful in a number of recipes, from Mexican dishes to Mediterranean cuisine. Plus, oregano is incredibly easy to care for–just prune the plant back occasionally, and you’ll have tender leaves to harvest for years to come!
9. Jerusalem artichokes
Not a true artichoke, Jerusalem artichokes–also called sunchokes – are a member of the sunflower family native to North America. The plant produces tuberous roots that resemble potatoes but have the texture and taste of a water chestnut.
Sunchokes are vigorous growers, so plant them in pots to contain the spread. You can even dig a hole and sink the containers in the ground if you want the appearance of in-ground crops. The ground also provides a little extra insulation, keeping the tubers from freezing through the winter months.
Want a foliage plant that isn’t a hosta? Try growing the humble fern.
Ferns are a very diverse species, with a variety to suit every soil type and climate. The perennial plant is native to many areas of the world, so cultivating ferns in containers is remarkably easy.
Many growers use ferns to add greenery to the shadiest corners of their gardens, but certain varieties–like ostrich ferns–are actual edible! Only harvest and cook the young shoots if you’re sure you have an edible variety, but sautéed fiddleheads make a tasty and nutritious dish sure to impress your dinner guests.
With the right care, most perennial plants will thrive in a container garden. Whether you have acres of arable land or only a patio to grow on, container gardening is worth the effort. Give it a try, and you’re sure to be impressed by how happy and productive your potted plants will be.
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Greene, L., and C. Wilson. “Container Gardens – 7.238 – Extension.” CSU Extension, https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/container-gardens-7-238/. Accessed 26 October 2022.
Moore, Kathleen A., and Lucy K. Bradley. “18. Plants Grown in Containers | NC State Extension Publications.” NC State Extension Publications, 1 February 2022, https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/18-plants-grown-in-containers. Accessed 26 October 2022
About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.