Buying Gardening Containers on the Cheap! Practical Gardening

Succulents container garden

“Succulents Container Garden” by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.

It’s nearly the end of summer and seasonal clearance sales are everywhere. This is a great time to pick up that oversized container that you’ve wanted for the deck or drive. You can still plant it for fall color, or seasonally decorate it when the growing season ends.

Your selection may be limited this time of year, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

Dark-colored containers, such as black or dark green, heat up in the sun and transfer this to the roots of your plants, causing heat stress. Not many plants can take those kinds of temperatures on their roots. Try to buy containers that are lighter in color if your dark-colored pot will not be located in shade.

Another way to keep roots cool is placing a pot within a pot. Purchase an inexpensive plastic pot that will fit inside with about an inch clearance around the insides of the container. Place a piece of Styrofoam or stacked bricks in the bottom for the pot to set on; be sure the top of the pot is level with the lip of the container.

This is also a good time to buy big bags of potting mix for your container. There is a misconception about putting junk in the bottom half of a container to save money on potting mixes. Research has shown that this is not a good idea. You will want a consistent mix all the way to the bottom to allow for proper root development and drainage. If you use stones, broken pots, or packing peanuts in the bottom, the roots will grow through the potting mix into this material that has large air space. Air spaces like these are bad for roots and inhibit proper water and nutrient uptake, further stressing plants. So fill your container completely with potting mix, or use a shallower plastic pot placed inside a larger container.

Remember, never use garden soil or compost to fill a container! Soil needs what I call Earth-works, to keep it healthy. These are the microorganisms, worms and bugs that live in the soil. When you put garden soil into a container these organisms die, and the soil turns into a hard compacted mess. Plants can’t thrive in compacted soil.

It’s become an unfortunate fad to combine potting mix with soil and compost to save money. I discourage this. The manufacturers of good potting mixes have researched the water holding capacity and drainage of their mixes so as to be optimal for supporting healthy plants. Adding compost and soil to the mix only hinders what is best for growing.

Make the initial investment in a good potting mix to fill your container or interior pot. There is no need to empty the mix from the container at the end of the season. After the plants have been removed, you will only need a small bag to replace the top portion come next spring.

Purchasing a container this time of year not only saves you money, but will give you a place for displaying holiday decorations. After you have removed the plants at the end of the season, place a three or four inch thick piece of Styrofoam on top of the potting mix, secure with bamboo stakes, and cover with a layer of sphagnum moss. Add branches for hanging decorations, or boughs for winter interest.

Now, print this post and save it for next spring!


Copyright 2015 Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB.
Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl OSB. All rights reserved.



About Author

Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB lives an eremitic life and is the author of Cultivating God’s Garden through Lent, A Garden of Visible Prayer: Creating a Personal Sacred Space One Step at a Time, 2nd Edition, and A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac. A freelance writer with a Benedictine spirituality, Margaret has a master’s degree in communications and is a Certified Greenhouse Grower, Advanced Master Gardener, liturgical garden consultant, and workshop/retreat leader.


  1. Margaret – great and as always very helpful. Do you consider clay (terra cotta) pots to be “dark”? Also, any hints for knowing when to water container plants? I have some succulents that I fear I am overwatering. Is there a “sweet spot” for knowing when they need water? Or should I just pick a routine (like once per week?)

    Thanks! I LOVE your columns.

    • These answer pertain to outdoor container plants:

      Terra cotta is not usually considered dark, but keep in mind the grey color scale to evaluate clay pots. A BW snap shot will clue you into the dark/light value of the pot. Black absorbs more heat than white.

      When it comes to watering container plants, its pretty regional and depends on container color, size and materials composition, plant varieties and quantities, full sun or partial, and temperatures. Check the plant’s tag when selecting for a container being sure they are all matched to the same water/light conditions. I find for smaller containers if the top inch of soil is dry, water. Larger containers, dry back no more than 2″…the plants have a deeper root set.

      A good rule of thumb–in the Midwest where I live–for succulents/cacti to let the soil dry back hard for two days and then water. It can be anywhere from three days to a week depending on temperatures.

      Hope this helps!

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