Versatile Containers For You

One of the most versatile and easy ways to grow bushels of colorful annual flowers is in containers. The fast-growing popularity of “color bowls” is proof positive that Americans like container growing, whether they do it themselves or have someone else prepare it for them.

If It Will Hold Soil, It is a Container

While many people think primarily of terra cotta, plastic pots, glazed pots, or half-barrels as likely containers for plants, just about any “container” is a possible prospect. Car tires, old shoes, coffee pots, raw bags of growing mix, and just about anything imaginable can be used to grow plants. If whimsical is your style, don’t be afraid to try it. The basics remain the same.

The Benefits

Container growing offers many benefits, not the least of which is that you can put a “garden” just about anywhere. Cement balconies on a highrise building can become urban gardens, or splashes of color can be put on a backyard deck or patio. And, providing the containers are not too heavy, potted plants can be moved and rearranged whenever the need or mood arises.

Without a doubt, container gardens will require less weeding than in-ground counterparts, making them ideal for busy people who love gardening but have limited time. However, watering has to be watched more closely. Containers in hot sun can dry out quickly, and even a gentle summer breeze will wick moisture from plants. Be prepared to water daily or even twice daily during long, hot, dry spells.

Start with a Plan

Where would you like to put your containers and what would you like to grow? If an area receives full sun most of the day, you can choose from a wide selection of sun-loving flowers. If the area receives limited sun, choose plants that tolerate less light, and shady areas, of course, call for shade-loving plants. With containers, one of the advantages is that you can move them to keep them in the sun, if you have the time.

Once you know where you want to grow, choosing WHAT to grow is the next big step. No matter what you grow, plan out each container or grouping of containers, making notes of what you would like where. For appealing groupings, include plants of different heights, colors and textures, keeping in mind that plants taller than one and one-half times the height of the container may look unbalanced.

For maximum interest and to create depth, plan groupings of three to five different sized containers – for example, one or two large pots with plants reaching about 2 or 3 feet tall, one with 18-inch plants, and two with 12-inch or smaller plants. When grouped, these plants will give a three-dimensional look to your mini-garden.

One common mistake made with container gardens is choosing the wrong combination of plants. Don’t mix shade-loving plants with sun-loving plants in the same container or in the same grouping. Shade-plants will not perform as well in full sun, and full-sun plants will not perform their best in limited light. Even if mixed and put in partial sun and partial shade, neither type will give its best show. Stick to one type in a container and in a grouping.

You can also create a garden that you can vary quickly by planting masses of one color and variety in separate containers, and then grouping and re-grouping them as you like; one pot of a trailing flower, or one of a mass flower such as marigolds, as illustrated.

Container Basics

Choose a container deep enough for the root systems of the plants you will be growing, and one that will hold ample soil for both support and water retention. A good container will have a drainage hole at the bottom. Before adding soil, put some gravel or pieces of broken pots over the hole to prevent the soil from washing out with each watering. Good drainage can prevent soggy soil that limits a plant’s uptake of needed oxygen. Overwatering is more of a problem with plants grown in the shade than with plants grown in full sun. If you want to use a decorative container that doesn’t have a drainage hole, consider placing a pot in a pot. Put a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the decorative pot to hold the flowering pot off the bottom.

Use a good, sterile, porous potting medium for filling your containers. Mixing a time-release fertilizer into the medium can help feed the plants as they grow.

There are three ways to grow plants for your containers. You can sow seed directly into the container to start them. If you do this, follow the germinating instructions on the seed packet, and be prepared to thin out the plants when they are young. You can also start from seed using a starter kit, and then transplant the seedlings to the containers when they are ready. Or, you can purchase started bedding plants at your local garden center or nursery and plant those in the containers.

How many plants per container? If you provide enough soil and water you can space plants closer together than usual recommendations. In a larger pot, you could plant nine to 12 transplants of flowers, depending on how spreading they are. Be careful not to overplant, or when the plants mature they will overpower and overshadow one another and look too crowded.

Designing a Container Garden

Color, texture and flower form are the basic elements in designing a container garden. With color today, anything goes. Gone are the days when pink and scarlet clashed – today you can combine any colors you want in a pot or in a grouping.

Texture is often best brought out by including foliage plants such as leather-leaved ferns, or asparagus sprengeri with its long lacy fronds. Let trailing plants spill over the edges of the containers to soften and de-formalize plantings. Some perennial ground covers offer interesting textures, and can be dug up and replanted in the garden in fall when the annuals have died back.

Flower forms can be grouped into three basic shapes. Line forms like salvia spendens or snapdragons are tall and spiky. Mass forms such as daisies, petunias or marigolds have many small or large flowers. Focus forms such as African marigolds, or a spectacular geranium plant, are characterized by large or distinctive flowers.

One example of combining these forms would be a large container of red salvia (upright form and tall), pale blue petunias (round, masses of flowers, medium height), and white alyssum (small, lacy flowers, low and trailing). Or use tall blue lavender for height, and white petunias and red creeping phlox for color.

Plant individual pots of one type (all salvia, for example, or combine one or two types in a larger pot (salvia and sprengeri), depending on the look you want for your grouping. The idea is to combine color, texture and varying heights in a grouping of containers.

Container Garden Care

Keep your containers well watered, and watch for any wilting when the wind blows. If no fertilizer was incorporated with the growing mix, be sure to fertilize plants so that they keep growing smartly. Weed as necessary.

Container growing isn’t that much different than growing plants in a garden plot, but can offer more versatility and a lot less weeding work.