Good things that come in small packages do not always confine themselves to ring boxes. Small garden packages can contain some very good things, too. A bright spot of unexpected color in a yard or a little taste of fresh vegetables and herbs can liven a landscape and bring a bit of delight to the owners.
A large container of flowers, herbs or vegetables can produce much more than one might imagine and expanding one container to several can create a focal point that draws attention.
Container gardens have a history that extends back centuries. Certainly the Egyptians, Babylonians and others used extensive container gardens. Romans were fond of terracotta or clay pots as containers. Palatial estates of Europe displayed their glory with elaborate containers of plantings that festooned their parkland grounds. It became a part of the order and the nobles and high-ranking clergy soon learned where the fine line was. They were wise not to outshine the royalty if they wanted to keep their positions, property and even their heads. Fortunately, today’s interest in making container gardens is for everyone.
There are hundreds of good reasons to place plants in containers. Beauty or focal interest within a garden is one of them. A container can lift plants above the rest of a display to provide not only a beautiful focal point, but also depth and variety to a garden. That life also places plants at a level where they are easy to reach and work with.
Where perennial weeds or unfavorable soils spoil gardening efforts, containers can be set up to provide just the right conditions for growing plants while the weeds are controlled and soil improved. Just be certain the containers are large enough to hold plenty of growing media so they do not dry out too quickly.
They also provide a place for a little garden in limited space. Not everyone has or wants a large yard, but with containers a patio, porch or balcony can provide some beauty and good eating. Best of all containers are portable.
Plant them early in the season indoors and move them outside as the weather allows. As soil in a pot is more susceptible to frost damage than ground soil, move them indoors during cold nights or the winter season.
Nearly any container from an old pair of shoes to a whisky barrel can be adapted to grow plants. However, lightweight, durable pots available at garden centers make the process much easier. They are usually frost proof, less likely to break while being handled, and, best of all, moving them does not mean several visits to the chiropractor.
If you have heavy concrete or cast iron planters, consider getting a lightweight, light-colored plastic pot to fit inside it. Such containers get hot and the light color and the layer of air between the pot and the planter will help protect the roots from being steamed.
Large pots, even filled with potting soil, can be heavy. In my own flower beds in situations where I am using very large pots, I have filled the bottom third of the pot with large chunks of broken Styrofoam. There is still adequate soil for root growth and allows for plenty of drainage. Pots and the planters that sometimes hold them should be well drained so that the plants will not stand in water and be sturdy enough to withstand the weather. Holes are best placed in the sides of the pot near the bottom for drainage. When drainage holes are in the bottom of a pot, set it on blocks to hold it above the soil or pavement so it will drain adequately. Cover the holes with a broken pot fragment or bundle of wire to keep soil from compacting over the drainage holes and allow water to drain from the pot. Flat mesh may allow soil compaction.
Pots made from wood slats are well drained, sturdy and attractive. Redwood and cedar are rot resistant, but other kinds of wood should be treated with copper napthenate to preserve them.
Whenever plants are grown in a confined space, it is particularly important to use lightweight artificial soils or “soilless” mixes. Regular garden soil will not do well. These mixes are usually peat-moss based and are lightweight with excellent water and air space. They are also sterile, meaning they are free of harmful insects, weeds and diseases.
A good homemade potting mix is composed of one part sterile sand or perlite, one part clean, sterile, loamy soil, and one part peat moss or other organic matter. Dampen soil before putting it into the pot as dry soils can be difficult to moisten.
Start with new pots or prepare used ones by scrubbing to disinfect and to remove lime and insect eggs. Soak porous pots thoroughly before filling so they won’t absorb water from the potting soil. Allow an inch between the top of the container and the top of the soil for watering.
Water-holding polymers are included in some kinds of growing media. Use them in hanging baskets because they do not hold as much soil and the plants get very large. Polymers make the planters more durable and they do not dry out as quickly.
Select flowers, herbs or vegetable varieties suited to patio gardening. Certain plants like corn are not well suited to this type of gardening, but large vining plants like standard tomatoes and cucumbers can be staked up successfully in five-gallon containers. Patio varieties that have a smaller growth habit are perfect for container gardening.
There are some wonderful new plant varieties to mix with old favorites that will make showy containers for any growing area. Many newer varieties flower better and longer than older ones. Many new varieties trail over the edges of pots with masses of blooms in an array of colors.
For display containers, plant taller varieties in the center and surround them with lower-growing varieties and some that trail over the edge around the outside. Choose the plants according to the planter’s expected location. Shade-loving plants can be combined for places that will be shaded while sun loving plants can be placed in bright sunny locations.
Place plants closer together in containers than in the garden.
For kitchen gardens, the rules are similar. Plant seeds closer together than normal and mix small plants. Keep the kitchen supplied for the whole season by planting a few seeds of each kind and replacing them as they are depleted through the summer. However, larger plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and squashes may need an entire pot to themselves. Dwarf cantaloupe or watermelon plants are natural for container gardens.
Suitable container vegetables include carrots, staked pole or snap bean, standard or bush cucumbers, eggplant, kohlrabi, leaf or head lettuce, onions, radishes, summer squash, Swiss chard and tomatoes.
Plants should receive at least six hours of sunshine per day. Choose a location shielded against wind which may dry leaves out faster than the roots can supply moisture.
Container soil dries out much more quickly than garden soil, so check often for moisture and add water when the soil surface feels dry to a depth of half an inch. In very hot, dry weather, it may be necessary to water as much as twice a day. Water thoroughly enough that water seeps through drain holes, and slowly enough to avoid washing soil away from the roots. Morning water is most effective to reduce the danger of disease on wet leaves.
Fertilizer is washed away by proper watering, so a complete soluble fertilizer should be added with the water every week. Dry fertilizers are likely to burn plants. Slow release fertilizers such as Osmocote may be mixed with the soil to nourish plants for longer periods. Pale green or yellow leaves indicate a need for more frequent fertilizer application.
Manure or composts help keep soil mixes light and fertile, but don’t substitute completely for fertilizer.
Fortunately, weeds are not a major problem in container gardens. They do take up fertilizer and shade plants. Remove them when they do appear.
Put an inch of sawdust, fine wood chips or similar mulch on top of the soil as an attractive way to hold in moisture, cool the soil, control weeds, keep soil from crusting and preventing hanging fruits from rotting.
Support tall and vine vegetables with poles, strings or wire cylinders to increase yields and save space. Provide easy support by placing containers near a fence and training them to the fence.
Small gardens are not just the answer in Lilliput. Container gardens can also provide the answer to limited space and an itchy green thumb.