To Each Their Own Pot!

A few years ago, Urbainculteurs offered training in urban gardening that spanned the entire season. From the design of the vegetable garden to the closing at the end of the season, five full days were devoted to this learning. I participated in the creation of this course and I also gave most of the training with a colleague. The courses were given in the premises of Cégep Limoilou, on the Limoilou campus. What was great is that this college hides a little-known treasure, a green roof!

The Green Roof Before
Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

In 2017, we modified this roof to create a community garden as well as a demonstration garden to support the theory transmitted during training. It was a big project! In this “demonstration” garden, we tried a host of techniques, supports and materials that can be used in urban agriculture. A beautiful playground to explore the possibilities. What attracted the most attention and raised the most questions was definitely our collection of pots. Urban agriculture is often synonymous with above-ground production. We dived into the world of pots head first, they were everywhere!

The Green Roof After, Community Garden
Credit : Les Urbaincutleurs
The Green Roof After, Demonstration Garden
Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

A stunning offer

The almost unlimited supply of pots in garden centers seems to intimidate the consumer. We are often asked what is the best choice, the best material and above all, which purchase offers the best durability. Some want to make their own containers, some seek the most aesthetic choice. We are far from having tried everything on the market, but our experience is certainly worth sharing in this post. Let’s go!

Concepts to keep in mind

I often say that anything can become a pot. We see it on the web, a garden in a pair of jeans, a teapot, a bottle of soft drink, a bath. I will never tell you not to try these ideas, you have to have fun if you garden. However, keep in mind that these tests must be done without prerogative of performance and durability. The pictures of these “non-standard” gardens are taken at a specific moment, when everything is fresh and beautiful. A bit later, it is possible that the conditions will deteriorate, both for the object that has become a pot and for the plant that grows there. Use your critical sense when hunting for inspiration. I would be very curious to see in what state is the pair of jeans after one season!

In any case, no matter what you choose as a pot, there are two important concepts to remember, I will come back to them constantly: volume and drainage. The more soil your pot can hold, the larger the plants you can put in it. Choose pots that are proportional to the size of your vegetable plants. If your pot drains well, you will avoid asphyxia of the roots and especially that your pot becomes mud (I created in spite of myself several pots of mud, I guarantee you that nothing grows!).

Demonstration Garden
Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

Plastic pot

Let’s start with the pot that probably exists in the greatest variety of shapes and sizes, colors and even textures: the plastic pot! I’ve even seen one with a built-in lamp to light up the evening. We can say that the possibilities are almost endless. As the choice is very large, so is the range of qualities. As a general rule, the more robust and durable the pot, the higher its price will be. It’s up to you to see according to your budget. A plastic pot does not breathe. Make sure there are holes for drainage. By the way, have you ever bought a cache-pot thinking it was a pot? If that’s the case or your pot doesn’t have drainage, get out your tools for a day and use the drill. Make several holes under the pot and you’re done. I have already tried with a nail and a hammer, it also works.

Like any plastic material, this type of pot loses elasticity over the years and becomes fragile. It may end up cracking. But if the quality is good, you can garden several seasons.

Plastic pots

Self-watering pot

Often made of plastic material, the self-watering pot is made with a double bottom where a water reserve is hidden. Due to its composition, it also comes in a wide variety of colors and formats. There are several mechanisms, but the principle remains the same. Ensure contact between the water and the soil in order to irrigate the plant gradually, by capillarity. It allows you to skip watering or leave for a few days, but it is not magic.

I learned this the hard way with the self-watering pots in the demonstration garden. I almost killed all the plants! Let’s say that I had “a little” overestimated the power of rain. If the rain is not enough to fill the reserve or if your pot is placed in a covered place, it is your responsibility to fill it. Keep that in mind if you’re thinking about making this purchase. You will have to deal with the vagaries of the weather.

Conversely, you must ensure that your plant does not become a swamp. Indeed, each pot with a water reserve must have a hole for the “overflow”. It drains excess water during heavy downpours. This hole is not always drilled, in the perspective that the gardener would like to use it indoors. Always check before filling the reserve.

This type of pot is a little more expensive to buy. Also, it is not recommended for plants that like drought. If you take the time to fully understand how it works, it can be very useful.

Know that you can create your own self-watering pot. There are several models with plans provided on the web.

Self-watering Pots in the Demonstration Garden
Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

Fabric pot

How not to talk about the famous geotextile pot! I don’t even know how many I’ve installed over the years, I know it by heart. Its main characteristics: it exists in a wide variety of formats, it is light (without soil, anyway), it allows water and air to pass through, it is completely permeable. It can spend the winter outside without any problem and its longevity is estimated at between 7 to 10 years (I confirm!).

Some formats have handles, while others do not. Having moved a large quantity of pots, I guarantee you that it is easier to do so with the handles. So, if you think it would be possible for your layout to change, opt for a pot with handles or in a reasonable size (if you move it with someone else, for example).

Several brands exist, but be careful when buying. First, the thicker the geotextile, the less air and water it will let through. Also, some brands use a geotextile treated against UV rays. This allows a better longevity of the materials, a significant quality for the durability of your purchase.

The look of this pot is not always unanimous. Let’s say that it does not offer the same aesthetics as a terracotta pot. The big challenge around this pot remains the management of irrigation. Depending on the size you have chosen, it can dry faster than another pot. During your first season, you will probably have to learn how to dose your irrigation correctly. I say this, but water management is often the biggest challenge for any new gardener.

A friend made her planters with geotextile bought in bulk at the hardware store. She was able to do exactly what she wanted. After two seasons, everything seems in good condition. Long live her creation!

Fabric Pots on a Roof
Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

Terracotta pot

Ah! the terracotta pot, I find it so elegant! Think of a format and there it is. You can even buy the small matching plate to put under the pot, a real charm.

When I think of a layout with terracotta pots, I think of the Mediterranean, I see rosemary and thyme everywhere. The variability of formats makes its use very versatile, in addition to being affordable and widely available. His style is sober and timeless, we can’t be mistaken. On the drainage side, this type of pot is ideal since it is pierced at the bottom. Also, as the material is permeable, it allows a certain circulation of air and water. I have often seen these pots painted with different colorful patterns, why not express your artistic flair!

On the other hand, who says terracotta says possibility of breakage. You can break the pot while moving. As it is permeable to water, it is possible that it breaks due to freezing and thawing in winter. We suggest sheltering it for the cold season. For my part, I hate moving my pots, it requires additional space in addition to being a hastle. In town, this can be a disadvantage since space is often an issue. Also, it can become very heavy when filled. Avoid if you are gardening on a roof. But otherwise, I think every vegetable garden should have its terracotta pot.

Terracotta Pot

An endless list

I could continue this article over and over again, the offer is so big! Before buying a pot, take the time to analyze its characteristics and see if it meets your needs. With a little thought, it’s easy to discern the pros and cons of each type of pot. And above all, as I mentioned from the beginning, the key lies mainly in volume and good drainage! To each their own pot.

Credit : Les Urbainculteurs

Marie-Andrée is the urban farm manager and a trainer at Urbainculteurs, where she has been working since 2015. She plans and supervises the production of Jardins du bassin Louise, an urban vegetable farm with a social and educational vocation. Outstanding at teaching, she also co-hosts the podcast Mâche-patate and is one of the main trainers of the Urbainculteurs online training course. Les Urbainculteurs is a non-profit organization, based in Quebec since 2009. Their mission: to develop and promote a productive, accessible and responsible urban agriculture for the benefit of organizations and individuals, in order to increase food security, improve our living environments and promote an ecological transition.

7 comments on “To Each Their Own Pot!

  1. It’s fun to picture all these pots and gardens in my imagination! Pluses and minuses are useful too!

  2. We too love terra cotta and to avoid them breaking in winter (we live in Montreal), turn them over with plant still inside. A quick clean up in spring, some compost and the perennials have thrived for years. Thank you for the great article.

  3. We tried pots for a few years, but it’s so darn hot in Texas that we can’t keep the plants alive in any kind of pot, so we are back to in ground gardens built up with 12 inch concrete blocks.

  4. Christine Lemieux

    I love the rooftop garden. Thanks for a great article!

  5. WOW! I have used the pro plastic nursey pots for years & the five gallon bucket, as well as food grade 30 gallon & 55 gallon plastic drums cut in half. I bought ceramic pots on sale every years when they were slow moving.
    However most of my gardening has been in field, in rows, because I have too much room & the equipment to plant it. I do have some double dug old school Rodale raised beds. Yes I dug everyone myself, I have a few standard in ground wide beds, also..
    I do not need a raised bed, I have room in acres, good loamy sand well drained soil, compost piles
    & pollinator, both wild & near by honeybees. It gets below freezing here in S.C.USA, about 35 to40 days a year in zone 8a & winter is about three months a year here.
    Good news for you Canadians is that my garden will be under water before most of you ever see sea water near your house. That only if the governments of the world are even guessing in the right direction. Again I am old school, I do not trust big organization that tell you one thing & do something different, like buy a beach house for millions of dollars while crying the the sea is raising. So I will garden until one of us dies, me or my garden.
    Now I am going to compost my soap box. Love the article by the way.

    • Mary L Discuillo

      Wow. I apprec global warming issues prob more than the average Joe but can we keep this to a gardening blog?

  6. Christina Marchant

    Thank you for an informative and entertaining summary!

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