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Pocket Beds for Fussy Plants

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistAugust 6, 2009
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Fussy Plants: plants that hate “wet feet,” plants that don’t always overwinter in your zone, plants that grow too slowly to compete with their garden neighbors. Before you give up on a fussy plant, try growing it in its own little pocket bed!

Gardening pictureWhat is a pocket bed? It's something like a cross between a little raised bed and a bottomless planter. If you have a big rock in your yard, it can provide a perfect sheltered spot for a pocket bed. Pocket beds let you provide excellent drainage and ideal soil. The rocks around and behind a pocket bed will shelter your plants from wind weather extremes.

In addition, rocks can provide a warmer micro-climate for the plants in your pocket bed. big cluster of purple verbena blossoms with stone visible behind The rocks act as a "heat sink," absorbing heat from the sun during the day and radiating it back to the plants at night. A plant that's only hardy to zone 7 might flourish in a zone 6 pocket bed. I've got gladiolas in one of my patio pockets, and they've been blooming beautifully there for several years now, with no need to lift them in fall.

Rosemary is a perennial that's often considered fussy. large bushy rosemary behind flat boulderThe tag may say a variety is hardy to 10° below zero, drooping brown tips on rosemary branchesbut that doesn't give the whole picture.  If it warms up enough that the plant starts growing and then turns cold again, the plant gets shocked. The big heat sink provided by the surrounding rocks can make all the difference. I lost rosemary plants routinely until I tried one in a pocket bed. There, the warm/cold cycles of late winter still damaged the tips but didn't kill the whole plant.

We have several boulders around the edge of the back patio. tiny starts of sedum with little green leaves edged in pink and creamThey're just the right size to sit on. I wanted to plant behind them but didn't want a big garden bed. Pocket beds were the solution, and they gave me a place to try plants that were too fussy for other spots. A lavender that had been complaining about wet feet doubled in size when I moved it to a pocket bed. Tiny sedum and thyme starts were easy to tend while they got established. triangular nook between stones planted with tiny leafed creeping thymeMy struggling rosemary grew until it dwarfed the boulder behind its pocket bed.

What if you don't have a big boulder? Try putting a pocket bed against a foundation wall, or at the base of a set of stairs. A complete circle of smaller stones can also make an excellent mini-bed. On a steep hillside, a semicircle of stones on the downhill side of a plant can work wonders. You can backfill behind the stones with a rich soil mix, and the stones will keep the soil from eroding away from the plant.

Here's how to construct your own pocket bed.

bed formed with single row of large stones against large boulderGather some large rocks. You could also buy bricks or "castle rock" concrete pieces, but I love the look of natural stone, and it was free for the taking from the rock pile at a local construction site. Dig out an area next to the rock, removing any sod or weeds. Fit a first layer of rocks along the edge of your new pocket bed, digging a little to get them well seated. I didn't bother putting sand or pea gravel under the rocks, but I did pack a little clay here and there to firm them into place.

bed formed with double row stacked stones against long boulderIf you're using large rocks, say the size of bread loaves, then you may only need a single curved row. Look at the ends of the rocks as you line them up; some will fit together better than others. It's a little like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but precision isn't required. Gaps between the rocks will help with drainage. If you've got an especially big gap, plug it up with a little stone. If you're using smaller rocks, you'll need to stack another layer or two of rocks on top of your base row. Juggle them around a bit to find the best fit, and they'll stay put without mortar. tall pink blooms, creamy groundcover, and gladiolus stalks filling in pocket bedWhen you've built up the rim enough for a bed that's at least 8 inches deep, you're ready for the next step.

With a full sized raised bed, you'd probably double dig and amend the soil inside the bed. Pocket beds are small enough to fill with nice potting mix instead, without breaking the bank. Choose a good soil-less mix so your pocket bed will have excellent drainage. A bottom layer of coarse material like gravel can ensure good drainage even if your soil mix settles a bit. Add compost or time release fertilizer to provide nutrients.  Polymer moisture crystals are a great way to improve water retention without causing soggy soil. blue daisy like blooms on plant growing with thyme against big rock

Now your pocket bed is ready for plants! Think "thriller, filler, and spiller" when choosing plants to fill your new bed. Plan your planting as you would for a container, so your bed becomes a beautiful accent in your landscape. Alpine and rock garden plants will appreciate the excellent drainage. For a plant that needs little water once established, consider sedums, with a variety of species ranging from low growing groundcovers to tall, dramatic cultivars.

If your pocket bed is near a doorway or a seating area, be sure to include some herbs and other fragrant plants to enjoy. Herbs such as lavender and rosemary love growing in pocket beds. Tuck thymes into little nooks where they can cascade over the edge of the bed. Fill in spaces with annual flowers or tender herbs like basil. delicate oval yellow petaled flower against backdrop of big grey boulder I love sitting on my patio rock, enjoying the sweet scents of 'Rose Petal' Thyme and blooming Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata).

Pocket beds provide all the advantages of growing in the ground as well as those of container cultivation. Do you long to grow fussy plants that demand a little more warmth or better drainage than your yard can provide? Pocket beds may be the answer!

Move your mouse over images and links for more information (let the cursor hover for a few seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear).

For more suggestions on landscaping with herbs, see my articles on thyme and basil selections.

For additional information on providing excellent drainage in raised beds, see PalmBob's article on building raised beds for succulents.

Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.


  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Brilliant! the1pony 16 23 Nov 12, 2009 1:44 PM
Great article! Aunt_A 8 37 Sep 10, 2009 4:16 PM
Makes me smile, soive2000 1 3 Aug 23, 2009 5:06 PM
Pocket beds leopoldconnecti 5 13 Aug 12, 2009 2:52 AM
looking for plant that grow LARGE tomato dtumey 1 8 Aug 11, 2009 8:19 PM
Wonderful DianaT 7 30 Aug 10, 2009 6:04 PM
What's that sedum? grrrlgeek 6 28 Aug 8, 2009 7:03 PM
Nice phicks 2 11 Aug 6, 2009 9:39 PM
Love Pocket Beds!!! zhinusmom 1 16 Aug 6, 2009 7:03 PM
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