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Container Gardening: The How, What and Where

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowFebruary 5, 2013
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In a world of limited time and space, container gardens seem to make more and more sense. Containers allow you to enjoy growing plants in places that might be thought of as impossible or unthinkable in which to plant. Iíll take you through the steps from choosing containers, soil mixes and everything else you need to know about planting a successful container garden.

Gardening picture

The popularity of container gardening has exploded. Plants in containers are showing up everywhere. From the front porches of bungalows to the rooftops of urban high-rises to the streets of Main Street U.S.A., plants in pots can be found.

Containers can change the entire look of a landscape. Even when there is ample room to garden in the ground, well-placed containers within the garden can provide easy-to-achieve seasonal changes as well as bold statements.

With appropriate containers and proper handling, anything that can be grown in the ground can be grown in a container.

  • An advantage of container gardening is its portability and suitability for many lifestyles.
  • Container gardens allow creative expression in small spaces.
  • Container gardens are excellent for beginners as well as advanced gardeners.
  • Consider container gardens for vegetables, herbs, and concentrations of flower color and fragrance in small spaces.
Appropriate Containers

Containers are available in many sizes, shapes, and materials. All containers, whether clay, wood, plastic, or ceramic, should have an adequate number of holes in the bottom for proper drainage. Additional holes should be drilled or punched in containers that do not drain quickly after each watering. Setting the container on a solid surface, such as a cement or patio floor, reduces drainage. Raising the container one or two inches off the floor by setting it on blocks of wood will solve this problem.

The container's size will be determined by the plant selected. Generally, most plants grown in the soil can be grown in containers as long as ample space is provided for them to develop roots. Shallow-rooted crops like lettuce, peppers, radishes, herbs, and most annuals need a container at least 6 inches in diameter with an 8-inch soil depth. Bushel baskets, half barrels, wooden tubs, or large pressed paper containers are ideal for growing tomatoes, squash, pole beans, cucumbers, and deep-rooted perennials.

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                        Be Creative

    Check Estate Sales andFlea Markets
                    for Containers

Consider whether your pots will be moved during the growing season. When water is added to soil in an already heavy container, the weight may be too much to lift easily. Plan ahead when planting large containers and add container dollies with wheels. Keep in mind that thtall plants require a heavier container to avoid tipping over from imbalance or offering too much wind resistance.

Planting Media

Soil Mixes

Potting soil should be free of disease organisms, insects, and weed seeds. It should be porous yet hold water and nutrients with a slightly acidic pH. Do not use native soil, even if you can pasteurize it. Most native soils have a high percentage of clay particles that easily compact reducing the oxygen that is available to the roots. Potting soil may contain pasteurized soil, sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and composted manure. Never reuse the same potting soil from the previous growing season because it may contain disease organisms.

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Soilless Mixes
Soilless mixes contain many of the same ingredients as potting soil, but are two to three times lighter because they don't contain heavy soil. Common ingredients include peat moss and/or ground bark to hold water and nutrients; vermiculite for water retention; and perlite to loosen the mix and allow for air movement. You can add up to 10 percent of the volume with clean, coarse sand to add weight for top-heavy plants. Personally I like to add my own compost to soilless mixes. I find this helps to retain moisture.  I use a ratio of 3:1 soilless mix to compost.


Environmental Factors

Light and temperature are key factors to successfully growing and maintaining plants whether they are in the ground or in containers. Containers offer the advantage of being portable. As the seasons, temperature and light conditions change; you can move your containers to maintain the desired conditions for peak performance. It is important to know the preferred conditions for the plants you grow, whether they are patio tomatoes that need long sunny days or big leaf hostas that can sunburn in bright light. If relocating containers is not a possibility, or a desired option, then changing the plants to match the temperature and light conditions can be a successful strategy.


Watering

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Because containerized plants have a very limited soil volume, proper watering and fertilizing are critical in maintaining an attractive pot throughout the growing season.

Plastic containers do not dry out as quickly as clay, especially unglazed clay pots. Even plastic containers may require daily or twice daily watering as plants grow larger. Do not allow containers to dry completely or fine roots will die. Also, if allowed to dry excessively, the potting media will shrink away from the side of the container and will be harder to re-wet.

The use of water-holding polymers or gels, mixed with the soil before planting, can increase the amount of water held and may extend the time between watering. There are also new self-watering pot systems that may potentially reduce watering maintenance.

Most municipal water systems are excellent and cause few problems. However, water from wells is often high in salts or carbonates which will cause some problems. One way to prevent excessive salt buildup is to water completely where 10 percent of what is added drains out the bottom. Salt build-up is damaging to plants causing burned leaf edges, stunted growth, and fewer blooms.

If saucers are used to catch drained water, empty them to prevent salt buildup. This can be done easily with a kitchen baster; however, dedicate one to the garden and don't reuse it in the kitchen.

Water is often used to carry soluble fertilizers to the roots of container plants. Fertilizers are forms of salts, so salt management is important because of the need to fertilize container plants regularly.


Fertilizers

To provide the right amount of fertilizer, mix controlled-release fertilizer granules into the soil mix at planting. The large number of plants often grown in containers places extra demands on the fertilizer supplied by timed-release products. Under most conditions, the fertilizer supplied by these products is generally insufficient to carry container plants through the growing season. Use fully soluble fertilizer products added to the irrigation water to supplement or replace timed-release products.

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Diluted soluble fertilizers may be used with every watering, or at full strength on a weekly or every two-week basis, depending on the type of plants being grown. Follow product directions for concentrations and timing.

My personal favorite fertilization program for my containers is to use Osmocote Plus at planting time. This is a 15-9-12 analysis, time release granular product which is supposed to feed up to 6 months. I follow up with Peters 20-20-20 water soluble every 10 days to two weeks.


Choosing Plants

1. Choose plants appropriate for the size of your container.

2. Match plants that have similar growing requirements: light, temperature, water, and nutrition (fertilizer) and growth rate.

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      Don't be afraid to use perennials 
                   in containers

Colors:

Flowers are not the only choices for color. Many foliage plants have very colorful leaves and stems.

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         Use Foilage Plants

Bloom Time:

Depending on your objectives for your container, you can choose plants that bloom simultaneously or at different times so that you almost have something blooming.

Textures:

How does the plant look overall? Are the leaves and stems hard or soft, wispy, spiky, hairy, shiny?

Growth Habit:

How does the plant grow? Are the leaves and stems spreading, upright, weeping, trailing, climbing, or clumping?

A procedure recommended by the folks at Proven Winners helps with designing spectacular container plantings: thriller, filler and spiller.

THRILLER: The focal point plant. It is usually the tallest, the brightest color, and the one that really stands out. There should only be one focal point.

FILLER: These are smaller plants that fill in the bare space below and around the focal point plant. They can be colorful or flowering but they should complement the focal point. You can choose one filler or use several, depending on the size of your container.

SPILLER: These are trailing plants that spill over the sides of the container. They add more interest and variety to your container. Ivy is a popular choice but there are many others.

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     Filler, Thriller and Spiller

Let your imagination run wild when designing a container planting. Your basement or garage probably holds many potential containers; pots, pans, wooden boxes or crates, are just some items to look at. Look at flea markets, estate sales etc.

The main idea is to have FUN!

Plants photos from Proven Winners with permission


  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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Discussion about this article:
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potagers Reynardine 1 20 Feb 11, 2013 7:09 AM
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