Container Gardening: Big Results In Small Spaces

Impatients thrive in this container garden

by J.B. McGowan

If your home or your schedule can't accommodate a large garden, container gardening may be for you.

Pots are portable so you can rearrange them as often as you do your furniture. Container gardens are perfect for renters whose own roots are not firmly planted. Those who live in colder climes can grow tender plants all summer and winter them inside. And, for some of us, it's just plain fun.

There's a wide selection of plants and containers from which to choose, and choosing may be the toughest part.

Here are some suggestions for selecting what's best for you.

First, consider your site(s)

  • How much sun, shade or wind will each container have?
  • Is the site hot, sunny and dry -- or humid, cool and shady?
  • How long is your growing season, from last frost to first?
  • What are the minimum and maximum temperatures? Remember, driveways and buildings may intensify light and heat. Proximity to water will moderate temperatures.

Second, seek inspiration

  • Visit a garden center, farmer's market, or botanical garden, with no intention to buy - yet. Take photos, notes -- or both.
  • Check out gardening magazines or some of the dozens of gardening web sites.
  • Note what you like about an arrangement. Is it the color combination? The contrast in the foliage types? Does the fragrance of the flowers or the texture of the leaves delight you?

Third, choose a look

  • Do you want a simple, serene statement such as a bay tree or fuschia standard?
  • Do you prefer a lush tropical blend of bold bright flowers and variegated leaves?
  • Do you like the packed, abundant cottage garden look?
  • If you're a plant collector, this is a chance to arrange groupings of your favorite potted plants in several key locations.

Fourth, use care in selecting containers

  • Containers can be nearly anything -- from rusted teapots to marble urns.
  • Clay pots are beautiful and terrific for plants with roots that prefer not to be continually damp. But if your container will be where it's hot and dry, be prepared to water at least once, if not twice, a day. Even in central coastal Maine, I put clay pots in partial shade or partially submerge them in the ground.
  • Plastic pots with attached drainage dishes are inexpensive and practical, but sometimes aesthetically less pleasing. Try setting your plastic pots inside larger decorative containers for the advantages of both.
  • After being on the market a few years, the foam resin and other composite planters have improved. They are getting better looking and more affordable, and are durable and lightweight.
  • If you're planning to periodically rearrange your containers, keep in mind the combined weight of the pot, soil, plant and water. Consider setting your large containers on wheels.

Fifth, know the plants' growth habits and horticultural requirements.

  • Read the tags attached to the plants or inserted in the soil.
  • Don't by shy about asking the nursery sales staff. If they can't advise you about the plants they sell, buy from a business that can.
  • Does the plant grow tall or wide? Does it flower all summer or have one big blooming period? Does it prefer sun or shade, need good drainage or soggy feet? Is it a heavy feeder requiring regular fertilizer? Is it an aggressive root grower that will fill the pot, or a slow spreader that plays well with other plants?
  • Use a good quality potting soil. That doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive soil. But you'll need a growing medium that drains well, yet retains enough moisture so the water doesn't run straight through.

Sixth, take advantage of watering technology.

  • By mid-season, most containers will need daily watering. If your containers dry out faster than you can water them, polymer crystals added to your potting soil might help. Be sure to follow the directions carefully or these crystals may keep some plants too damp around the roots.
  • Consider using containers that have water reservoirs if you are likely to be away for days at a time. Set up a drip irrigation system on a timer if your containers are in grouped together.

Lastly, enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Have fun, get creative, and you'll learn and enjoy all season long. And if your containers don't look quite as you planned?there's always next year.

J. B. McGowan is an avid gardener whose midcoast Maine perennial gardens have been featured in local publications and on house and garden tours.

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