Creating Easy, Beautiful Container Gardens
Somehow, a porch or patio just doesn't seem complete without some potted plants. And why not? Container gardens can highlight these areas of your home, as well as allow you to grow a variety of plants in a small area. You can play with color combinations, try out plants that you're considering for your permanent landscape, or just pick what looks pretty and enjoy it. While you can buy pre-planted containers at almost every garden center, it is satisfying (and fun!) to select plants and put them together into a container garden all by yourself. Think it's too complicated, that you don't have the "eye" for it? No way! I'll show you how to create beautiful container gardens, and I'll point you to some of my favorite resources on container gardening.
There are four things you need to consider for your container garden:
The most important thing about your container is that it must have drainage so your plants don't drown (not the look we're going for!) Whatever you decide to use, make sure it has at least one decent size drainage hole in the bottom. If you have a container that you really want to use, but it has no drainage, you can usually drill through it. Just select a drill bit for whatever the material is, whether it is wood, metal, ceramic, whatever. If you're really intimidated about drilling through your vessel, you can put a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the pot. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn't really offer drainage as much as it allows your plants roots to stay above water. If you use this method, you would do well to water slowly and frequently. You will want to keep the top few inches of soil moist, but not have a ton of water running through and sitting in the bottom of your pot. In the end, it's easier to just drill the hole, don't you think?
Now the fun part about containers: they come in almost every shape, size, color, and material you can imagine. At almost any budget, you can find containers. And don't just consider yourself limited to "flower pots." Think about buckets, watering cans, old kitchen vessels, coffee cans...whatever makes you happy. Rebecca Cole's book "Potted Gardens" is wonderful for inspiration for unique containers. One of her potted gardens consists of a line of Tonka dump trucks lined up, their beds planted with flowers. A bit off the wall, and not for everyone, but you can't look at it and not smile. Have fun with your container selection.
Any good commercial potting mix will work well for your container garden. It should be light, preferably with some perlite or vermiculite mixed in. Don't use garden soil or topsoil for this, as that will be way too heavy and stay too wet. Many commercial mixes also have polymer crystals to keep your pots evenly moist, or slow release fertilizer mixed in. Of course, you can also buy these amendments separately and mix them in yourself.
Here is the really fun part of container gardening. This is where you get to go to the nursery, or go through the catalogs, and just go nuts. The fun thing about containers is that, unlike in your permanent landscape, you can use plants that you would normally never consider, or consider putting together. Tropical plants are great in containers, and lend an exotic look to a traditional suburban landscape. Grasses, vines, and, of course, flowers, can all be combined in pots to give you a complete micro-landscape on your porch.
There are two schools of thought on designing your pots. The first is to find a bunch of different plants and combine them in a container. Using this method, you want to pay special attention to the color, texture, and sizes of the plants you select, making sure that the colors complement each other and that the sizes and textures offer contrast and interest. A basic recipe is to have something upright (spike, grasses, flax) something for the main body of your container (flowers, such as petunias, geraniums, or impatiens) and something that will trail over the edge of the pot (ivy, sweet potato vine). This will give you a good, solid container garden. As you get more adventurous, however, you can combine more and more different plants in a pot. If you are interested in this method, check out Fine Gardening's "Gardening in Containers", P. Allen Smith's "Container Gardens", and "Contain Yourself" by Kerstin Oullet.
The second method, and the one I prefer, is to plant a mass of one type of plant per pot, and to group a bunch of these planted pots together. For example, on my porch right now I have a pot of coleus, a pot of purple petunias, a pot of salvia, and a pot of "Pardon Me" daylilies (sure, you can use perennials. If you want to keep them, just plant them into the garden in the fall.) I selected pots of varying sizes so that I have color at several different heights, and used overturned pots to raise shorter pots up off of the ground. I used terra cotta pots because I love them, and they go well with the cottagey look of my house. This is my favorite method for two reasons. Number one, it is easy. And number two, you get to truly appreciate a plant when you have it planted en masse. To some of you, this may seem boring. I can assure you it's not. For inspiration using this method, take a look at Sidney Eddison's "Gardens to Go" and Cole's "Potted Gardens."
The biggest thing with containers is that they tend to dry out very fast, depending on the type of container you use, and whether they are in sun or shade. They can sometimes need to be watered two to three times per day on the very hottest days. Fertilize your pots once a week with a diluted fish emulsion or other water-soluble fertilizer. Other than that, just keep them deadheaded to promote tons of bloom.
So those are the things you need to think about for successful container gardening. If you don't already have containers, or even if you don't consider yourself much of a gardener, give them a try. The thing I like best about container gardening, besides the beauty it offers my home, is that it gives me the chance to just "putter" around outside. I can give them a little water, pluck a few spent blossoms, maybe move a couple of pots around, and I've done some gardening in a few short minutes. I find that I do this "puttering" when I need a break from my kids or my writing. After just a few minutes with my plants, I feel relaxed again.
So here's to container gardens. May they bring you beauty, fun, and peace, all in one pot! ITGO
Potted Gardens: A Fresh Approach to Container Gardening by Rebecca Cole, 1997
P. Allen Smith's Container Gardens: 60 Container Recipes to Accent Your Garden by P. Allen Smith, 2005
Gardens to Go: Creating and Designing a Container Garden by Sydney Eddison, 2005
Gardens in Containers: Creative Ideas from America's Best Gardeners from the editors of Fine Gardening magazine, 2002
Contain Yourself: 101 Fresh Ideas for Fantastic Container Gardens by Kerstin P. Oullet, 2003