I have come to believe that the career of a gardener should begin and end the same way: with containers. My grandmother taught me this early on when I first expressed interest in her garden. I was just a little boy when she gave me a small terra cotta container as an introduction to the world of gardening.
I had complete autonomy over my container, and also complete responsibility. I learned how and when to water my plants, how to nurture them and the joy of seeing my beautiful creation thrive. (A far cry from the jar filled with beans and cotton that I did as a project in second grade.)
As my experience and confidence grew, so did my containers. I earned my own little section of my grandmother’s garden. I was so thrilled and proud, and I credit her, not only with encouraging my passion for gardening, but also for showing me the benefits of container gardening in particular.
Today, I set up bold new container creations in little spaces on my property to produce a big impact. I love to incorporate herbs with perennials in one container: I can use the herbs in my summer cooking, and, come fall, I find a home in the garden for the perennials. The unexpected mix gives the container both a purpose and benefits. I feel that containers should be something made personally — not by an employee of a garden center. Sure, you can purchase pre-made hanging baskets and pop them into a container and call it a day, but what fun is that?
Most people new to container gardening get hooked easily and quickly acquire many containers. For those with limited space, container gardening can add color, texture and life to areas that might otherwise be overlooked. I love to be bold and scatter a number of pot-planted hostas in the shady area under my pergola to add height, interest and drama. If I’m going to take the time to plant something in a container, I only want to do it once, so I favor perennials over annuals. Hydrangeas, ferns and hostas are a few of my favorites — it’s unusual to see them planted together, and they make a stunning display.
Select your containers with two things in mind — the weather and the look you’re trying to achieve. In Connecticut, stone planters or concrete containers stand up to the changing weather year-round, whereas terra cotta pots can take a beating and crack under cold conditions. I’ve learned this the hard way. If you want to use terra cotta, store them emptied in the garage or shed for the winter.
Consider using non-traditional containers, too. In my efforts to be more Earth-friendly, I’ve been trying to reuse household items in creative new ways. An old galvanized bucket with a couple of holes drilled in the bottom has become a home for my Montauk daisies. There are no limits to what you can use to hold beautiful plants. Think outside the (flower) box, have fun and be creative.
Here are some tips and ideas for a successful container garden:
“¢ Containers must be watered every day, preferably in the early morning or early evening; both, if it’s extremely hot.
“¢ Water by hand rather than with a sprinkler. Not only are you more certain to give each container a good, healthy soaking, it’s the perfect time to enjoy the benefits of your hard work. I love to spend time in the garden after a long day of work. Whether I’m dead-heading flowers or discovering what’s new, this is my time to relax and bond with nature. If you think of it that way, you’ll find that it is a rewarding task rather than a chore.
“¢ If watering is not your thing, consider succulents, as they grow well in tiny patches of soil and can withstand dry conditions, poor soil, cold winters and owner negligence. This water-retaining species is an ideal rock garden container plant and is definitely a little jewel in the garden. “Hens-and-chicks” do equally well in a container, as they spread easily and, over time, will travel quite a distance from their original location.
“¢ Keep in mind, however, that well-drained soil will give you the best results. There’s no need to fill large containers with so much soil or rocks that you can’t move them. Fill large pots halfway with empty water bottles — the ones you would otherwise have to recycle. This will provide you with plenty of drainage and you will be able to reposition your filled containers with ease.
“¢ Don’t limit containers to the outdoors. Bring the joy inside by filling small pots with herbs for your kitchen window or by putting a fabulous houseplant in an old urn on a pedestal or table. Remember to use a good potting soil from your local garden center rather than any old dirt from outside. Even if you can get it free from the garden, you never want to invite outdoor bugs inside your home. Leave that to your pet.
“¢ Grow your own food. Several years ago when I started my side garden, I decided that I’d grow fresh tomatoes and lettuce in the herb garden. That came to a rather abrupt end when a woodchuck discovered my plan. From then on I decided to shop the local farmers’ market instead of growing my own. Mr. Woodchuck got no more free meals from me! But for many people, nothing beats enjoying a harvest of tomatoes that were homegrown on the back porch. Children especially enjoy the process of nurturing vegetable plants — and it may even entice them to eat them, too. On my porch, I keep various herb planters near the back door so I can snip what I need when cooking.
Container gardening is a wonderful entree into the adventure of gardening. It’s like taking a back road so you can slow down and take in the beauty of the landscape up close. I mentioned that containers are a way for gardeners to not only begin but end, too: for those looking to downsize the maintenance of a large yard or who have moved into a condo or smaller quarters and still want to enjoy nature, it’s a great option for adding beautiful foliage and flowers to nooks and crannies.
But there’s no need to wait for downsizing to enjoy the upside of container plantings. It will be hard to contain your creativity once you know there are no rules to this fine gardening form.
And there you have it.