Container Gardening 101
“The last fling of winter is over … The earth, the soil itself, has a dreaming quality about it. It is warm
now to the touch; it has come alive; it hides secrets that in a moment, in a little while, it will tell.”
– Donald Culross Peattie
Container gardening is truly my favorite style of creating art with nature. I find the possibilities endless and the instant gratification most rewarding. This is creativity in its purest form, an opportunity to think outside of the box. Potted plants can provide a splash of color, warm a barren deck, light up a dark space, and welcome a front entry.
I recently attended the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale and was inspired by the different plant palette. There were numerous cultivars of Bromeliads, Dracaenas, and Orchids on display. Plants that we consider houseplants would make wonderful outdoor container additions. Sedums and other succulents continue to be quite popular. I love their varied textures and ease of care. I am anxious to incorporate some of these fresh ideas into some potted creations.
Placing plants in containers is a great way to introduce kids to gardening. It’s fun to allow their imaginations to take over after learning some of the basics.
Potted plants are living creations that can adorn our living spaces both inside and out. They make wonderful gifts, bringing smiles and greenery to our lives.
Container Gardening 101
1. Wow, do I ever love shopping for containers. I have always had an appreciation for old, Italian terra cotta pots. I also love using those wire baskets in any shape and style. So what do I look for when choosing a suitable container? It must have a drainage hole. If not, then either drill a hole using a masonry bit or you can place the plant in a liner and then put inside your container with crushed stone in the bottom for drainage. Another idea is to use found objects. Tree stumps, shells, feeding troughs, baskets, and watering cans, are all possibilities for containers. Let’s allow our imaginations to run wild and really think out of the box.
2. Place some clay shards or pebbles in the bottom to help drainage and to keep the dirt from washing through.
3. I recommend using a good quality soil mix. Fafard and Monrovia make excellent soil mixes. I also like to add some compost which adds nutrients and reduces water needs. Composted chicken manure and mushroom compost are my favorites. Moisten the dirt before planting. This allows the soil to settle. Please leave space at the top of your pot, 1-2”, for mulch and ease of watering.
4. Mycorrhiza is a natural fungus that provides plants with increased water and nutrient absorption and also protection against certain diseases. The product cannot be exposed to sunlight; therefore adding it to your potting soil as you plant is the proper time. Plants thrive with this additive.
5. I like to set the plants in the pot and rearrange until I get the desired effect. This is the really fun part. I really pack the plants in, preferring the full, instant look. When planting, keep the soil level the same. Plants can rot if the dirt or mulch touches their stems.
6. Mulching our containers not only is aesthetically pretty but it provides organic matter, preserves water, cools plants in the summer and warms them in the winter, and keeps the dirt from splashing up. I prefer the small pine bark mulch or moss.
7. It is a good idea to raise your pot off the ground. This allows good air circulation, reduces ant infestations, and keeps your deck from rotting and staining. Trivets, plant stands and pot feet are attractive options.
8. Okay, now we get down to the maintenance. Watering, deadheading, (removing spent flowers), pruning and fertilizing are the basic needs of plants. Out of all of these, watering I find is the number one reason for plants not thriving or surviving.
Frequently Asked Questions about Container Gardening:
How much do I water?
The amount of sunlight, the size of the pot, the type of plant, and the season greatly influences the water needs of plants. When buying your plants it is helpful to inquire about the water needs of each plant and only group plants in a container with similar water needs. When watering, water until you see the water coming out of the bottom of the pot. During the summer, daily watering is often needed depending on the amount of sun exposure.
What vegetables can I plant in pots?
I have had great success with lettuce, bush beans, peppers, radishes, tomatoes (plum, roma, cherry and grape). Herbs also work great, rosemary by far being the easiest. When planting edibles, please use only organic soils and fertilizers and add compost which creates better tasting vegetables.
What plants can I use at my front door?
Front entrances generally are dry and shady. I like to use houseplants such as Dracaenas, Cast Iron, Pothos, Crotons, Spider plants, and Sansevieria in these locations. Leave them in their plastic liners and set inside the container. This way they can easily be pulled out and placed inside during occasional freezing weather.
I have shade and deer. What can I plant?
Begonias, coleus, and torenia will provide color. Also think in terms of texture and leaf color. Ferns are a great choice mixed with Huecheras and Vinca Vine.
What evergreen plants make good container plants?
My favorite here is boxwood. This plant is so versatile in sun or shade and handles quite a bit of neglect. Podocarpus and Ligustrum are my next favorites followed by Palms.
How often do I need to fertilize and what kind should I use?
Liquid soluble products do add a quick fix to plants, but their high salt content can lead to dehydration and possibly burn them. This method will need to be reapplied every few weeks. I prefer to use organic slow release fertilizers. They have the added benefit of supplying more than just the primary nutrients. A couple of applications during the growing season should suffice.
My plants are covered in white snow like insects. What are they?
Two of the most common pests are scale and white fly. Both suck the juices out of the plants leaves and will leave them yellowed and mottled. Control for both is the same. Insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils can be applied when temperatures are below eighty degrees. These insects love to hang out on the undersides of leaves, so spraying here is needed for effective management.
What are some ideas for low maintenance containers?
For sunny locations, Ixora and Lantana are easy flower options. Setcreasea and Crotons are both excellent choices for foliage color. Ornamental grasses are another great idea and not often utilized. Plants for the shade would include Foxtail Fern, Cast Iron Plant, Dragonwing Begonia and Ti Plants. Vinca Vine and Wire Vine are both trailers that will thrive with minimal care.
Can you plant bulbs in containers?
Yes and what a wonderful idea. Bulbs can be placed beneath the surface of the soil, just an inch or two, in any pot. Try placing daffodils or paperwhites in a pot with violas and alyssum for a winter display. Caladium corms are very easy to grow this way and the assortment is much larger. Freesias are incredibly fragrant when grown from a bulb.