I have to admit to being something of a late arrival to the container-gardening fan club. When I look back at pictures of my previous garden, I’m surprised at how few pots I had–well, except for the hundreds of potted seedlings I raised in my little backyard nursery. I mean the usual sort of container plantings: one or more decorative pots meant to add a touch of color where in-ground planting isn’t practical, such as next to a door or on a patio. I guess it’s because I was still fresh my studies of soil science and thought of pots and potting soil only as a propagation tool–a poor second to the experience of digging and planting in “real” soil.
If I’d stayed there longer, maybe I’d have finally turned to containers once I’d cultivated all of the available open ground. But then it was time to move here, and with 4 acres of available space, digging was still my top priority, and my “containers” referred to the dozens of black-plastic-potted plants sitting around, waiting for permanent homes. Gradually, though, I started picking up more decorative pots here and there, and I began to realize that I’d long missed out on the many practical benefits of gardening in containers. By the time I took on the challenge of planning and planting many dozens of potted combinations for Container Theme Gardens—my most recently released collaboration with photographer Rob Cardillo–I was thoroughly hooked on the ease and versatility of this sort of above-ground gardening, and I wish I’d caught on much sooner. If I ever have to start over in a new place, you can bet that I’ll be taking along as many of my containers as I can (along with my must-keep plants, of course).
When I hear from folks who have been drawn to the idea of gardening but simply don’t know where to start, I can’t help but encourage them to go the container-planting route too. I’d never discourage them from eventually trying in-ground gardening, of course, but containers are just so much easier. Though it’s tempting to scoff at the idea of “instant” gardens, beginners deserve to enjoy a beautiful return on their efforts too, even if their efforts involve only buying a few pots, a bag or two of growing mix, and a variety of pretty plants that catch their eye.
Give them a year or two of success with their containers, and once they’re firmly hooked on the pleasures of gardening, maybe they’ll be ready to face some of the harder work and larger investment of filling their yard with traditional beds and borders. Or, maybe they’ll stick with what has already worked for them and go on to expand their collection of containers. Either way, what matters is that they’re enjoying the process of planning and planting and experiencing the seasonal changes of gardening in the great outdoors; whether they go the traditional route or do all of their gardening above the ground is beside the point.
Well, maybe it is a bit unfair that folks who focus on containers get to miss out on many of the expensive and disappointing mistakes that traditional gardeners have to deal with. Remember that often-repeated bit of gardening wisdom that says to wait a year or two after moving to a new place before you start digging, so you can watch the sun and shade patterns, do soil tests, and give serious thought to how you want your yard to look for years to come? It’s excellent advice, but really, who does that? We dig and plant and then learn from our mistakes when we find out that we put plants in the wrong place, or bought too few or too many, or put hours into digging a bed where we really should have put a path instead. When I think of the hundreds (or, ok, probably thousands) of plants I’ve killed over the last 30 years, I can’t help but wish I’d have been a little less eager to get them in the ground as quickly as possible.
And gee–what about all of those new perennials and shrubs you splurge on at the garden center in spring, then either let sit around and get potbound or plant and lose due to forgetting to water or crowding from companions? Imagine if you had instead moved them into decorative pots, where they’d add color and seasonal interest through the summer while growing freely thanks to regular watering and ample room for root development.
Be honest, fellow gardeners, and tell me that you’ve never planted anything in the ground that you later desperately wished you hadn’t?
Granted, creepers are very determined, so growing them in a container isn’t a guarantee they’ll never escape: They can sneak out of drainage holes or over the rim of the pot if left unsupervised. Still, it’s much easier to keep them out of trouble if you grow them in a container instead of letting them loose in the ground.
Let’s not even dwell on the many critter problems we deal with in our gardens. I’ve given up on growing soybeans in the ground here, for instance, because the wild rabbits will go over, under, and even through fences to get to them. In a large container, though, the plants are safe, and I am finally able to collect seed to keep several special strains going.
It’s tough to trick determined deer, of course, but if you desperately want to grow an ornamental or edible plant that typically gets devoured in the garden, you might be able to succeed if you keep it in a pot close to your house or up on a raised deck, where it’s out of easy reach. Containers that keep plants elevated can also help to reduce damage on plants that are typically slug candy, such as hostas and tender salad greens.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve learned the hard way to grow ornamental sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) vines in containers to ensure that the voles don’t demolish them just as they’re reaching their peak lushness.
Speaking of potatoes…why bother struggling with growing root vegetables in compacted, clayey, or rocky soil when it’s so easy to succeed with them in containers? Both regular and sweet potatoes make good-looking additions to above-ground edible gardens, in large decorative pots or even ordinary grow bags.
Even relatively shallow containers can work for a crop of radishes or short-rooted carrots.
These days, I rarely grow arugula or lettuces in the ground, because they get splashed with soil and are a bother to wash, or else I end up gathering the hay or other mulch with the leaves when I clip the greens. Growing small batches of arugula and other greens in containers has been a great solution.
This way, the leaves stay cleaner and harvesting is easy. Plus, I can move the container to a spot with morning sun and afternoon shade to keep the crop from getting stressed by strong sun during the hottest part of the summer.
Containers are terrific for growing herbs, too. I find myself snipping culinary and tea herbs far more often when they’re in pots close to the house, rather than having to slip on shoes and trek out to the garden to gather them.
Even if you don’t pick them, growing herbs in raised pots and planters makes it easy to ruffle their leaves and release their scents as you pass by. Containers are excellent homes for fragrant flowers, too, because they lift them up closer to nose level: a big help if their scents are delicate, or if stooping or kneeling isn’t as easy as it used to be.
It’s always good advice to stick with plants that are well suited to your yard’s growing conditions, but it can be hard to resist trying those that need more ample moisture, better drainage, or a different pH than your soil can supply without extra work in your part. In a container, it’s not a big deal to match the growing medium to the plant, and it’s possible to keep the pot close to an outdoor faucet for frequent watering or set it in a sheltered spot to protect it from excess rain.
And how about those frost-tender plants, which can so easily get damaged by cold at the very start or end of the growing season? When you keep tender perennials in movable pots, it’s not a problem to bring them indoors or move them to a sheltered spot for temporary protection.
Even relatively hardy annuals can appreciate a sheltered spot when an unexpected hard frost hits.
If you keep dahlias, cannas, oxalis, and other tender bulbs in pots, overwintering is easy: Simply bring them inside, pot and all, and leave them in a frost-free place until it’s time to repot in spring.
In a large garden, it makes sense to focus on big plants, but it’s nice to have a special spot for tiny treasures too, so they don’t get forgotten about or smothered by more vigorous companions.
On the subject of companions…one of my favorite things about containers is the options they provide for creating and fine-tuning combinations. If you feel like indulging in a specific color theme or want to experiment with an unusual pairing, you can do it without committing to digging or reworking a whole bed. That was one of my favorite parts of working on Container Theme Gardens, in fact: what a terrific excuse for indulging in all kinds of experimental pairings! They didn’t all work out, of course, but it was easy enough to swap out one or more plants in a large container combo or, in a few cases, try a completely different grouping the following year.
In the course of growing several dozen containers two years in a row, I found it much easier to maintain the larger combination planters, but I still appreciate the versatility of grouping plants growing in individual containers. The smaller pots need more careful watering, and they’re much more prone to damage in windy spots, of course, but from a design standpoint, they offer a lot more options. You can set some of the pots on bricks or other risers to vary the heights of the individual plants, for instance, and if one plant doesn’t look attractive or healthy, or if you want to make a changs for seasonal interest, it’s a simple matter to replace it with another one. For the best of both worlds, group some larger containers with some individual pots and you can create the effect of an entire garden in a small space.
Oh my, all this thinking about the many benefits of containers has me longing to get growing right now, though the remnants of last week’s snow piles say otherwise. If you too are thinking about trying something different in your containers this year, maybe you’d enjoy flipping through Container Theme Gardens for some ideas. It’s available through independent booksellers (you can find a source that’s close to you through IndieBound), as well as online booksellers such as Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon (which, by the way, has chosen it as one of its Editors’ Picks for Best Books for January 2016; hooray!).