Spring is here and the gardening bug hits everyone hard. We all want something colorful to brighten up our living space. Containers are a great way to do this because just about everyone has room for a couple. It doesn't matter if you have a large piece of property or are an apartment dweller, finding a spot for a container or two is something we are all capable of. Planning a container garden takes a little thought, however most of the preparations rely on good common sense.
Choosing your containers
Choose your containers wisely. Just because you can pick up a container when it is empty, doesn't mean that that it can be easily moved once it is full of soil and plants. If moving the container after it is planted is necessary, remember to choose the size and potential weight carefully. Container gardens need drainage, so a pot that does not have a couple of holes in the bottom makes a poor choice because the roots of your plants could rot from too much water. The only way to remedy this is to place a few inches of gravel in the bottom of your decorative pot and plant a smaller container with drainage holes that you can slip inside the prettier one. The excess water will drain from the smaller container into the gravel area, keeping the roots of your plants healthy and not waterlogged. Many gardeners choose decorative resin containers because they look impressive, are relatively inexpensive and are lightweight enough to move easily. Glazed ceramic containers are gorgeous, more pricey and are quite heavy, however they make a fabulous statement if you have the budget and space to show them off. Terracotta containers are timeless, having served generations of gardeners for many years. I have some that belonged to my grandmother that I'm quite proud of. They are budget-friendly and come in a wide range of sizes. Plastic containers are the most inexpensive and come in a multitude of sizes and colors. They are lightweight and easy to move, however most have a limited lifespan because the UV rays of the sun deteriorates the plastic. Below are a couple of my antique pots and a couple of my modern, resin containers planted with wax begonias, impatiens and Persian shield. Right now, things look a bit underplanted, however the Persian shield will top out at about three feet and the impatiens will from a dense mound about a foot tall and a bit wider.
Potting soil is important
Once you have selected your containers, it is time to choose the soil or potting mix. There are a number of different kinds and your choice will depend on what kinds of plants you want to use. The biggest no-no is simply using soil from your yard. Chances are it contains a significant amount of clay and this will pack and compress in the container with alternating water and sun to create a solid brick that plants will find it hard to survive in. For most annuals and perennials, a good quality, commercial potting mix with water maintenance crystals added is a good choice. I tend to mix a bag of composted manure in with this too. It provides some nutrition without over feeding and the flowers seem to thrive. If you are planting cacti or desert type plants, mix some vermiculite or cactus soil mix in the potting soil instead. This will drain faster for those plants that prefer those conditions. Cheaper is not better in this instance. You get what you pay for and bargain basement potting mix often lacks much that container plants need to thrive.
Choose your plants wisely
The fun part is choosing the plants for your containers, however this requires some thought and planning too. Are your containers sitting in mostly sunny conditions or mostly shaded? Choose plants that thrive in the light conditions where your containers are placed. Sun-loving plants include salvias, lantanas, marigolds, most herbs, petunias, zinnias, sweet potato vines, amaranth, cockscomb, pentas and many others. Shade loving plants are impatiens, begonias, coleus (although there are a few sun-loving varieties, so check labels) caladiums, persian shield, many ferns. I love the combination of coleus and caladiums and they work great on my east facing front porch. The header image is my summertime entryway. If you are making a mixed variety container, make sure that all of the plants enjoy the same conditions. Annual plants bloom all summer, set seed and die. Perennial plants often bloom for a few weeks and then rely on their foliage as a point of interest. If you mix annuals and perennials, remember that the annuals will need to be replaced each season, so I would advise choosing either all annuals or all perennials for mixed containers. The pretty tags that are stuck in each pot are not just to show the color of the blooms. Tags contain sunlight and water requirements along with estimated mature size and cold hardiness.
Planting your containers
Planting your containers is the final step and the most fun. I like to cover the drainage holes in my containers with coffee filters. This keeps the soil from washing out the bottoms and on to my porch. Some people swear by adding a layer of rock or gravel to the bottom to encourage good drainage, but I don't find it necessary. Fill the containers with your potting mix to between four and six inches from the rim and play with the arrangement of your plants. Remember that transplants are much smaller than the mature plants, so give them some growing room. Read the labels to see sun requirements and estimated heights and spreads. This will give you a good idea how full to fill your containers. Color selection is where your individual tastes show. Some people like pastels, others prefer different shades of the same color and others like brights. This year, I chose purple with a complimentary splash of orange. Any way you do it, the best suggestion is not to try to mix things up too much. Something taller for the main interest, a trailing plant to spill over the edge and a plant that contrasts for a bit of a visual punch is a good recipe to follow. Once you have the plants arranged the way you want them, remove them from their nursery containers and tease the rootballs a bit with your fingernails to loosen the roots a bit. Replace back in the container and fill in the rest of the way with the potting mix until it is an inch or so below the bottom of the rim. This gives water a place to go without running over the edge.
Containers add much to your outdoor spaces
Whatever plants you choose, containers a wonderful way to garden. You can express your individuality and decorate your outdoor space as you would indoors. If you are still unsure about planting your own containers, many nurseries and even big box stores sell pre-planted pots with a wide range of growing things. Just remember that container plants tend to need more water than their counterparts in the ground. The potting mix tends to dry faster because the pots are warmer than the ground. I water my sunny spot containers every day and the ones on my front porch every other day, so they do require a bit more attention than in-ground gardens, but the extra care is worth it with the display they make.