By Diana Lawrence
Extension Master Gardener
University of Vermont
The idea of container gardening never occurred to me until I purchased my first home. I ran out to the local garden center and did what everyone else did. I bought a clay pot, put some soil in it, and stuck in a "spike," some vinca vine, and a few impatiens.
I threw some water on it once every few days and felt like a homeowner. Then at the end of the season, I dumped everything out and left the clay pot outside. Of course, it crumbled in the freeze-thaw cycle of winter. Then we moved to Vermont. That's where I got serious about container gardening.
What's the appeal of going potted? Let me count the ways.
First off, container gardening allows you to garden in a small area with or without earth. You may have a nice big deck, a yawning porch, or a tiny apartment balcony. Whatever space you're faced with, no matter if it's shady or sunny, there's room for a pot or two (or ten). Trees, shrubs, flowers, bulbs, ornamental grasses, herbs, vegetables--if it grows, you can grow it in a pot.
Gardening in containers also offers instant gratification, and let's face it, what gardener hasn't picked up a flat of gorgeous little annuals because they were in full bloom, full size, and just waiting to perk up that boring bit of the bed? You buy the plants, you put them in the pot, and they look beautiful right away and keep getting better.
Pots also enable experimentation. You can try out new plants, annual or perennial, and see if you like how they look in your backyard. You can move pots around to add color or interest to areas that need it, or foliage to a part of the garden that looks bare.
Think that gorgeous 'Karl Forester' feather reed grass might look great in the corner of your sunny garden? Put it in a pot and see. If it still makes you sigh at the end of the season, just take it out and plant it there.
The other element of container gardening that I find inviting is the creativity it inspires. I don't stop at annuals. I combine perennials and annuals, plants that are all silver, plants that are all foliage and offer no flowers, the same plant in different colors, or plants with wonderful fragrance. Some years I'll take a flower and put some of it in every pot I have. Other years I'll make every container a "specimen." I also use fall-blooming plants to keep the color going through the first frost.
And although I always stick to pots, you can plant your combinations in any kind of container, as long as it drains well and won't fall apart when it's wet. At a local nursery I frequent, someone with a low boredom threshold has potted up old golf bags, suitcases, handbags, boots, and baby prams--even the seat of a chair.
When I put up a pot, I use potting soil, which drains easily (I have reused potting soil several years in a row, since it is a growing medium, and not a major source of nutrients). I mix the bottom half of the soil with polymer crystals, which help retain water, and slow-release fertilizer capsules.
I don't bother putting either one of these elements near the surface of the soil, since it's the roots that need the food and water. A friend of mine showed me how to rip up a plastic plant six-pack and place the sections upside down at the bottom of the pot to prevent the mix from running out and clogging the drainage hole, and this works like a charm.
I sometimes buy my plants with a plan in mind, but most often I just head for the greenhouse and play around with combinations of plants when I get there. It can be frustrating (and limiting) to hunt for a specific plant and not be able to find it. Remember, when it comes to pots, the more plants the merrier.
Unlike perennials in the garden, you don't start out with small plants and wait for growth over several seasons. In my container gardens, it's standing room only. Look for plants with striking foliage, cascading growth habits, and unusual textures. Flowers fade, but a great looking artemesia holds its own all summer.
I choose large containers because they need less frequent watering, and because I think a lot of small pots can look cluttered. I also like to use large perennials and ornamental grasses (I put these into the garden in the fall), and they don't fit in smaller pots. Whatever size you choose, remember that container gardens are hardly maintenance free.
They dry out quickly in warm weather and should be watered until the
water runs out the bottom of the pot. You should also fertilize your containers
once a week all summer long (this includes hanging baskets). Now, aside
from all these wonderful elements, here comes the best part about container
gardening: no weeding!