King Louis XIV grew orange trees in the wooden boxes known as Versailles planters, but you don’t have to be rich, regal, or powdered to enjoy the luxury of growing plants in pots.
From the smallest city balconies to spacious suburban backyards, containers and the plants they contain can transform any outdoor area and delight the garden from summer to autumn.
The container garden can be left out at will or elegantly discreetly designed, and the creative fun lies in combining the pot or planter with the desired plant effect. The options are wide, and visiting the terraces of public gardens is a source of inspiration.
Why containersWhether you’re growing annuals, tropical plants, herbs, or something else, there are plenty of good reasons to turn to containers. Plants grown in pots extend the presence of the landscape and the garden to the inner courtyards, terraces and sidewalks directly around the house. You can create sculptural focal points where needed and add color and texture to otherwise empty areas.
Container planting also attracts butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators, and usually revitalizes the outdoor living space at a time when other areas of the garden have declined after spring.
For those in urban spaces, the container may be the only way to bring showy plants, including herbs and vegetables, into your world. (If your outdoor piece is an elevated balcony, make sure the containers are secured and stay within weight limits.)
After all, the right container in size and shape can exude a sculptural quality that gives a room an aura of elegance.
Container typesPots and planters come in many materials and shapes, but some principles apply to all of them. First, the bigger the container, the less stress there is on the plants as the soil moisture and temperatures are more uniform. Second, unless you are growing pond plants, the container needs to drain. And resist the urge to put a saucer under a saucepan; This leads to wet soil and root rot.
Larger pots are more difficult to handle and more expensive than smaller ones, but a single large pot or a group of, say, three has a presence that a jumble of small pots lacks.
If you’re putting more than one plant in a pot, use a container that is at least 19 inches in diameter, said Margaret Atwell, who makes the patio containers at the US Botanic Garden.
Mass-produced terracotta pots are affordable and pretty enough. Plastic versions hold moisture longer, but you may feel like the world has enough plastic already. Glazed clay pots can complement a color scheme if you keep it in mind.
Other materials abound. Some containers and planters are made of wood – the half whiskey barrel is the obvious example – and others are made of concrete or reconstructed stone. Some of the most stylish containers are made from a resin blend and resemble stone, lead, or other natural materials.
The Victorians liked their cast iron urns and pots, but beware of metal containers. In hot regions like the Mid-Atlantic, a metal container, especially a dark one, in a sunny location can get too warm and cook the plants. One way to mitigate this is to line the container with bladder plastic. Another would be to place it in a more shady place and plant it accordingly.
Another factor to consider is narrow necks. If the opening is smaller than the rest of the container, the root growth will make it difficult to remove the plants in autumn.
Mass marketers and independent garden centers are convenient sources of supply for containers, and of course the Internet is a limitless trading center. (It can be difficult to get the dimensions of a pot from an online picture, however.) You can spend hundreds of dollars – or even more than a thousand – on high-end containers, but with caution, they can last for many years.
Do not use soil from the garden in pots; it is too dense and saturated, which leads to root rot. Potting mixes typically contain peat moss; Limestone to buffer the acidity of the peat moss; Humus; and pearlite. Harvesting sphagnum peat moss from bogs has become an environmental problem and peat-free mixes are available. Or you can make your own mix of ready-made, sifted compost, sharp sand, and some garden clay. Some gardeners add fine pine bark mulch and chicken grits.
The amount of potting soil required grows exponentially with pot size, and larger pots can easily gobble up whole sacks. Since seasonal plants don’t require particularly deep soil, you can save the cost of potting soil by filling the bottom third or half of a large container with something else. Pieces of plastic foam that are used to ship televisions and the like can be used (but not foam peanuts, which are tedious to pull out when emptying the pot). Atwell uses wood chips as a bottom filler. I like to use pea gravel that is covered with filter fabric that prevents soil from being washed through. This makes the pots heavy (and safe) so do the ground work after you’ve placed the pot where you want it to be.
Leave an inch between the bottom line and the edge of the container for more efficient watering.
All six of our summer shrubs and perennials – elephant ear, coleus, lantana, calamint, rudbeckia and echinacea – have a place in the container garden.
If you go for annual and tropical plants, the formula of thriller, filler, and spiller still applies – that is, an upright plant (thriller), a plant that falls over the lip (spiller), and something that does the rest occupied (filler). .
Atwell recommends going to a nursery and searching the full range of plants as candidates for the container combination. “Look at everything, even the houseplants, even the vegetables and herbs, and look for things with interesting leaves, colors, patterns and textures,” she said. “It could even be a shrub.” Some of the most attractive and permanent container plantings don’t rely too heavily on floral ornaments.
Jennifer Williams of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden said that she often has a color palette in mind when putting combinations together, and she limits the foliage and flowers to four or five colors. One theme could be lemons and limes, another silver and gold.
It helps to first know the lighting conditions at your container location. Partial shade gives the plants a break from the full afternoon sun (and reduces the need for watering).
With constant shade, the bloom will fall off, so only go for the foliage effect with plants like ferns (hard or delicate), asparagus ferns, caladias, philodendrons, and coleus, to name a few. Think about color, Atwell said, don’t forget that there can be a combination in shades of green, including lime green.
Herbs are an obvious choice for containers, as most people like hot summers on the dry side. You will feel happier in free-emptying containers than in garden beds and still need regular watering.
With care, many vegetables grow happily in containers and are surprisingly attractive. Some of my favorites are Swiss chard, parsley, green and bush tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant (along with nasturtiums). In the spring and fall, you can add a variety of cool season leafy vegetables, including mustard greens, lettuce, chervil, coriander, arugula, and kale. Such vegetables can also be incorporated into traditional combinations.