Create a Movable Garden
Container gardening has grown far beyond the predictable red geraniums in pots. Here are innovative ideas for combining shrubs, ferns, herbs, perennials and more.
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I get so excited over growing ornamentals outdoors and in containers that I wonder sometimes if it should be legal. Most of the gardeners I know can't resist growing at least a few plants in pots. Some use decorative containers spilling over with lush combinations of annuals to add bold splashes of color to their perennial borders in summer, while others, landless apartment dwellers — a condition I remember too well — are forced to do all their gardening in pots.
Whether you garden in Florida or New York, container or pot, gardening is an easy way to add instant color and architectural interest to your life. It also affords those afflicted with plant lust more space to try their new favorite perennials, annuals, trees shrubs, bulbs, roses, herbs, vegetables and vines. I have even seen a child's small plastic pool used to create a water garden for a collection of elegant Japanese iris (Iris ensata, also called I. kaempferi).
One of the advantages of gardening in pots is that you can easily monitor and adjust the soil type as well as the water and fertilizer. Whereas a large garden might require truckloads of organic amendments and hours of backbreaking work to improve the soil, with pots you can easily tailor the soil mix to suit the needs of individual plants.
Pot gardening also provides more freedom to experiment, combing plants such as tropicals and exotics that you might not want to allocate space to in your landscape. A single boxwood in a decorative urn can add formality and structure to your garden. With the exception of very large or heavy pots, containers can be moved to brighten up a dark corner or add a dramatic flair.
On the top of my list of summer must-have plants is the exotic-looking black-face taro, also called black elephant's-ear (Colocasia antiquorun 'Illustris'). Although it is frost tender, I'll enjoy it all summer and overwinter the tubers in a cool, dry place.
For containers, I prefer clay or concrete pots. Prices range from very inexpensive to outrageous. Some of the better-quality terra-cotta (clay) pots are less likely to crack with temperature fluctuations, but the best material for growing things outside year-round is probably concrete. Visually I find terra-cotta and concrete the most appealing, and their porous nature makes it easy to control soil moisture. If you want to give new pots an aged look, try blending some buttermilk, moss and soil in a bucket, and rubbing the mixture on with a rag. Your new pot will have an instant "antique" look. Plastic is also an option, but remember to adjust your watering accordingly.
Try to choose pots that have drainage holes. But if they're lacking in a pot you can't do without, carefully drill holes so that roots don't rot.
The container's size should be determined by what you want to grow. Small decorative pots may be pretty, but most are not practical as their contents dry out faster than you can water them. A half whiskey barrel is an ideal and inexpensive container for small trees and shrubs such as butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). Shrubs and trees will probably require transplanting to larger containers every couple of years unless you control their size by regularly pruning the roots and the top growth.
A nurseryman friend of mine has a saying that applies to all types of gardening: "Don't say we can't grow it — just say we don't know yet what it needs." Keep this in mind when you select plants to grow in pots. Annuals are popular favorites and with good reason. Inexpensive and easy to care for, many provide color from late spring until frost (depending on what zone you live in).
Remember, though — location, location, location! When it comes to light requirements, the same rules apply equally whether plants are growing in the ground or in containers. I learned this the hard way. A few years ago, I decided to grow some heirloom tomatoes in clay pots. I made sure the pots were large enough and added plenty of organic matter to the soil. As the summer progressed, I realized that although the plants grew like Topsy, most of the tomatoes would never ripen. They simply didn't get enough direct sunlight (they needed at least four to six hours).
I had much greater success with my various coleus combinations. Although they produced no flowers to speak of, the range of colorful foliage was dazzling. My autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora (zones 5-8), has been growing happily in the same terra-cotta pot for more than two years. I reserve the sunniest spots for my herbs. Some, such as chives, grow practically year-round, whereas others, such as basil, are summer annuals that produce well into the fall if we're lucky enough to escape an early frost. I love to harvest fresh herbs and always have a few pots of different types growing outside my back door.
Gardeners ask master gardener Paul James about reusing potting soil, the best time to water container plants, and more.