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The Portable (Container) Garden
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

June 12, 2005

Container gardening is wonderful! Long before I can plant annuals out in our gardens, I’m busy in our little greenhouse making up ‘instant gardens’. Gleefully, I select a variety of flowering and foliage plants, usually annuals, and pot them in interesting planters, ranging from old wooden fruit baskets to clay strawberry jars to exciting new metal containers. One day I’ll check these planters and decide it’s time to move them outdoors to the steps, to the deck, to areas needing a burst of colour, and we’ll have extra floral display while the spring perennials die down and the later perennials and planted-out annuals are coming into their own.

Container gardening can be anything from an artistic bonsai planting to a brilliant collection of spring bulbs, from a few small cacti planted together for indoor enjoyment to showstopping containers on patios, decks and windowsills. Container gardening is popular because it is portable, changeable, and limited only by available space and your imagination.

A burst of annuals flowering in planters can provide spot colour in a part of the garden where bulbs are dying down and perennials haven’t yet reached the flowering stage. Zone-tender plants such as some herbs, small shrubs, and exotic bulbs can be potted up in containers, left to flourish outside through the summer, and moved indoors before cold weather strikes. Many vegetables and herbs make good container plantings, ideal for those who have no yard to garden in or who are limited in their mobility and who still want a few fresh tomatoes or basil for their tables.

While almost anything can be used as a plant container, from an old work boot to a hollowed out tree stump to an elegant pottery urn, careful planning can help bring the best success with your planting. Terra-cotta planters look terrific, but can be heavy, are breakable, and must be emptied out or moved indoors for winter. In addition, terra-cotta pots breathe unless they are glazed, and will require more watering than containers made from non porous materials. Dark coloured pots absorb more heat than lighter shades, and can again require more watering. Some people like to plant into ordinary green plastic containers and then put these into another container, such as a wooden box, galvanized washbasin, or coal scuttle. Whatever you decide to use, be prepared to drill drainage holes in the bottom if there are none. Overwatering can be as disastrous as underwatering to a container of plants, the roots of which will suffocate without adequate drainage. If you have very large containers and don’t want them to be overly heavy, you can fill the bottom of the container with smaller, upside down pots and then add potting medium on top. You’ll still have plenty of room for the growing roots of plants but won’t break your back if you need to move the planter to different locales.

Just as preparing your garden soil is important for a good garden, the most important secret to success in container plantings is to use a good quality potting mix. Most container gardening enthusiasts don’t recommend digging soil from the garden to use for your potted plants. It’s better to use a prepared, sterile medium designed for container gardening, especially for hanging baskets where weight can be an issue. Potting mixes sold commercially contain a good deal of peat, which is lightweight, as opposed to actual soil. Some of these mixes come with slow-release organic or chemical fertilizers included, or with moisture retaining polymers which help reduce watering needs. You can also buy the products separately and add them to the mix before planting.

A rule of thumb is that a container planting should have at least eight inches of soil to support multiple plants. Mulching the soil after you complete planting helps to reduce watering needs and keeps roots cool.

If you don’t purchase potting medium with fertilizer included, you’ll need to feed your plantings regularly in order to keep them looking good. Fertilizing them every two weeks with a mild organic fertilizer is a good method, but don’t fertilize if the planter is at all dried out. Water the container first, and allow the plants to recuperate from water stress, before fertilizing, so as not to burn the roots of your plants.

The main secret to success with container gardening is to plant carefully and water regularly. This can mean watering at least once a day, preferably in the early morning, and when plants are somewhat shaded, not in direct sun. The larger the pot, the less frequently you’ll need to water, and grouping a number of pots together can help to keep them from drying out quickly. However, overwatering can kill your container grown plants just as effectively as underwatering. No matter what you choose to use for a pot, make sure it has drainage holes in its bottom.

What you plant in your containers depend on where you plan to put them. Is the site sunny and hot, or cool and shady? Many herbs thrive in hot conditions, providing that they have adequate water and good drainage. Rock garden plants such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ also thrive in container plantings in sunny areas, as do most vegetables and countless annuals. A shadier, cooler location invites plantings of annuals that prefer less heat, including the lovely trailing and upright forms of lobelia, salad greens, foliage beauties such as any of the many dazzling varieties of coleus. The joy of container gardening is the portability; you can move pots around to suit yourself, and if a planting isn’t getting enough light you can move it for a few days to a sunnier location.

It’s a good idea to put perennials in one planting, and single season plants in another. Annuals tend to grow very quickly and can easily overwhelm slower growing plants like perennials. Additionally, when the outdoor growing season is finished, you can bring the perennial containers indoors or let them go dormant in a cool location such as a cellar or other nonfreezing site.

Don’t forget the option of growing upwards. Hanging baskets filled with a mixture of regular upright varieties and accented with vining, trailing or climbing plants make an eye-catching display. Plus if space is a premium, you’ll gain more planting area by going vertical. As with other containers, there are exciting planters available on the market, from the wire or mesh baskets which are lined with coir fibre or moss and then planted, to using an actual wicker or wooden basket. Certainly there are more options than the tired white or green plastic hangers we’ve seen around for years. Try such trailers or climbers as nasturtiums, sweet potato vine, pole beans, dwarf varieties of morning glories, and unusual ivies such as Rhodochiton (purple bell vine) or thunbergia (Black eyed Susan Vine).

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