Tips for Container Gardens

Whether you live in an urban apartment with a tiny balcony or an expansive house with a giant deck, container gardens will brighten and color your outdoor spaces. Compact and portable, these gardens inspire creativity and experimentation with color and texture combinations. An enormous variety of plants and vessels can be converted into a blossoming explosion of color and aroma if you prepare and nurture your mini-garden carefully. With just a few guidelines and an inventive imagination, you can savor this enjoyable and practical method of gardening.

Rules of (Green) Thumb

Before starting a container garden, it’s crucial to evaluate your materials and conditions. If you’re using pots or window boxes, be sure they have proper drainage. Most plastic pots available at garden centers already have drainage holes, but terra cotta, stone, metal or porcelain containers often do not. Unusual containers, like watering cans, coffee cans, old boots or a used stereo, aren’t designed with neat water outlets either. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these distinctive and entertaining containers; you just need to prepare them before planting. Line the bottoms of these containers with rocks, gravel or chunks of plastic foam and you’ll have sufficient drainage to store the excess water from the soil mix. Although this is an effective solution, you must take care not to drown the plants, since the water still can’t easily exit the container.

With hanging baskets, which can beautifully adorn a porch or pergola, and pots with good drainage, other water-related issues arise, namely drying out. Containers, especially baskets, dry out quicker than beds and borders and therefore must be watered regularly. Baskets look lovely when lined with sphagnum moss, which provides a softened, natural effect. But it doesn’t retain water for very long, and the constant air circulation around the basket means evaporation proceeds even quicker than normal. This problem is easily solved with just a little loving care and a commitment to frequently check on and water your containers, especially if your area lacks rain or is suffering a dry spell.

Once you’ve selected your containers and made sure they have the necessary drainage, it’s time to choose a soil mix. Standard potting soil is sufficient for most pots, and some specialized formulas are available for certain types of plants, such as an acidic mix for rhododendrons. For baskets, look for a peat-based mix, which is lightweight and therefore exerts less pressure on the basket’s support. After the plants have established themselves, fertilize them regularly with your choice of plant food. Slow-release granules are helpful because they only need to be applied rarely and sparingly. For a purely organic alternative, try fish emulsion: its initial odor is unpleasant, but that fades very quickly and your results will be spectacular, all without chemicals!

Finally, before planting your blooming beauties in the containers, consider your combinations carefully. Group plants together than thrive in similar conditions. Don’t plant sun-loving marigolds in the same pot as begonias, which require shade, or half your container is doomed to struggle, or at worst, fail completely. If you grow annuals and perennials in the same pot, consider the formers’ blooming times to enjoy a continuous show of color. Reading the tags found with plants at nurseries or garden centers is a simple yet effective way to compare characteristics and find compatible choices. To inspire your creativity, here are some beautiful and vibrant plants that will flourish in most parts of the country. These ideas are just a sampling of the perpetual artistry and imagination possible with container gardening.

Plants for Sun/Partial Sun

Sunny patios and porches are perfect spots for containers. A wide variety of annuals love full to partial sun, and they will brighten and enliven outdoor spaces all summer long. But don’t count out perennials: chrysanthemums, coneflowers, lavender and many others make beautiful additions to containers, especially when their blooming time is used to complement fading annuals.

The common geranium, or pelargonium, thrives in containers, and the assortment of available colors makes this a popular choice for any style of container. Petunias are another favorite; their delicate, Victrola-shaped blooms are enhanced by cheerful dianthus and trailing verbena. Nasturtiums, which also twist and trail, look lovely in hanging baskets and stand out in splashy reds and oranges. For a cool-colored look, try purple salvia and blue lobelia with silvery-white Dusty Miller. The icy foliage of the latter brings out the depth of the other two. Replace the saliva with red petunias, and you have a patriotic red, white and blue container perfect for 4th of July celebrations.

Plants for Shade/Partial Shade

If you’re concerned you can’t spice up that shady corner of your deck or balcony, fear not, for plenty of shade-loving flowers are available. Fuchsia and bleeding heart both have a lovely drooping habit, where the petals seem to drip from the stems, providing a distinctive look to containers, especially baskets. Impatiens and begonias, which are both available in a rainbow of colors, are shade standards that thrive in pots, window boxes and baskets. Lush green ferns compliment almost any flower by providing a deep background against which vivid petals pop and appear bolder. Don’t be discouraged by a lack of light in your outdoor spaces; accentuate them with gorgeous shade lovers in colorful painted pots, distinguished urns or witty, unusual containers.

Contain Yourself

In short, container gardening can solve all types of planting problems. If you live in a city and don’t have a yard, containers allow you to satisfy your gardening urge and decorate your outdoor space with beautiful flowers. They add excitement, fragrance and color to patios and porches, decks and walkways. Containers provide a specific space for experimentation with new or unusual plants, and if you feel driven to grow something that isn’t frost-hardy in your area, containers’ portability means you can bring tender tropicals indoors for the winter. For beginners and seasoned gardeners alike, containers foster creativity and capture the splendor of gardening.

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