When you think of container gardens, what comes to mind? Red geraniums in a window box? A hanging pot filled with colorful petunias? How about pots of herbs on the window sill? How about a huge pot overflowing with varied textures, colors, and shapes? When it comes to container gardens, that geranium is only the beginning.
The easiest way to add flowers to your deck or patio is to simply buy an already-planted container and haul it home. Garden centers are already offering pots of tulips and pansies, with much more to come. But if you want something out of the ordinary, you have to do it yourself. Here’s how.
Do you start with the plants or the container? I find it more practical to choose my container first. How big will it be? What shape? What color? Here in dry Colorado, glazed or plastic pots hold moisture better than unglazed terracotta. Make sure there’s a drainage hole. Do you need a saucer to protect your pavement or deck underneath?
To a large extent, the container you pick will influence the plants you add. Look at these examples. A classic amphora calls for Mediterranean plants such as rosemary and palms, while these turquoise dishes evoke the desert and complement the cacti and succulents they hold. Decide if your plants will be growing in full sun, or part to full shade. Obviously, large plants need large pot, and remember that the small plants you purchase now will grow.
Which plants are best? Don’t limit yourself to the traditional annuals and herbs. How about a small shrub, or even a tree? I’ve seen gorgeous pots filled with grasses, perennials, annuals, and vegetables—all crammed together into a startling but successful display.
If you’re able to move your planting into a sheltered spot for the winter, your options multiply. Figs and pomegranates (right) do very well in containers. So does dwarf citrus.
Since container gardens bring us up close to the plants, be extra aware of color, texture, and other artful considerations. Pick a color scheme, perhaps one that coordinates with your patio furniture or house color. Remember the color wheel. You can choose to harmonize, such as with silvers, purples, and pinks, or add vibrant contrast. Lime green and magenta will certainly make an impact on your senses. Flowers aren’t the only source of color—many plants have leaves in shades of red, gold, silver, or chartreuse.
Mix grasses with plants having rounded foliage, or those with many tiny leaves. Include foliage that invites touch—soft and fuzzy leaves are irresistible, especially to children.
Once you have your plant palette decided upon, it’s time to get to work. Fill your pot with good quality potting mix or top soil. I prefer potting mix brands based on Canadian peat moss (a renewable resource). You can place a small piece of screen, coffee filter, or pot shard over the drainage hole to keep the soil from washing out. Then fill the pot with damp mix, leaving room for the soil around the transplants.
Do not, however, use rocks or gravel “for drainage.” They add weight, take up room, and actually make the drainage worse. (Read this article if you don’t believe me.) I’ve seen suggestions about adding packing peanuts (the kind that don’t dissolve in water!) to take up space in oversized containers. I don’t do that since I dump my degraded potting mix into my veggie garden and I don’t want to be picking out Styrofoam.
If you are putting your container on a drip system, consider running the emitter hose up the drainage hole to the top of the pot. That way it won’t show. (On the other hand, you can’t haul the pot under cover if hail threatens.)
Gently firm the planting mix, leaving it fluffy enough to hold air and water. Now place your transplants. Place upright plants in the center or toward the back, then surround them with shrubs. Let vines cascade over the edge. Ignore the traditional spacing rules, and cram, cram, cram. You want your pot to overflow!
Now you just need to keep the potting mix appropriately damp, feed occasionally, and enjoy your fabulous containers!