When I moved into my home 28 years ago, my backyard was a blank slate. I began digging up parts of the lawn to create flower beds, raised beds and a large vegetable plot. Over the years, some beds have gotten bigger and some have long since been turned back to lawn. I’ve watched the amount of sunlight on my plot change from very sunny, to dappled shade, to deep shade and back again.
As the gardens at my home have changed, so have I. My vision has gotten considerably worse and a bad back, creaky knees and just the aches and pains of getting older have begun to interfere with my gardening endurance. But most every weekend in the summer, you’ll find me toiling around the yard pulling weeds and just enjoying the changes that have occurred over the years. Gardening is just something I won’t give up until it becomes impossible.
To accommodate my physical irritations, I have made concessions on what I do in the garden. Luckily, lots of the perennial beds are now full and lush, hiding out lots of the nasty weed seeds, so not a lot of care is needed. I have turned to doing more gardening in containers. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about using containers and how you might consider dabbling with your green thumb, too.
Number one rule: Containers must have a hole in the bottom for drainage. Containers without holes can collect water which will suffocate the roots of your plants and cause them to die.
Porous versus plastic: Plastic pots are lightweight and hold water longer than a more porous material like terracotta or wood. Use plastic for plants that like moist soil and a more porous container for those that like dryer conditions. For edibles, do not use a treated wood container as they can transmit dangerous chemicals to your plant and then to you.
Make sure you can pick it up! Terracotta, ceramic and other heavy containers, filled with soil, can be extremely heavy. If you choose this type of material, make sure you put it in the place where it will live, then add your soil. For large containers, you can put cans or water bottles in the bottom to take up some space so not as much soil is required.
If you need to move big pots around to catch more or less sunlight, purchase what I call little scooters. These scooters are usually made of wood, mounted on small wheels (with holes for drainage) that the pot can sit on. You can usually pick these up for around $10 at your home improvement store’s garden center.
Large pots vs. small pots: Larger pots make more of a visual statement and don’t require as much water. Smaller pots, on the other hand, will dry out more quickly and may need watering more than once a day.
Soil is a complex blend of organic materials with living organisms. Calling it dirt doesn’t do it justice. So call it by the name it deserves, soil. Every year I purchase large bags of potting soil mix at the garden center. Choices range in price to what’s in the bag. Mixes can contain time released fertilizer, moisture saving pellets, wood chips, peat moss and compost. Whatever fits your budget is fine as long as it is labeled potting or container soil mix. Just don’t be tempted by the $3.00 bag of top soil. This is much too heavy and dense for a container garden.
Smaller pots that have been washed out from last year’s use, get an entirely fresh fill of soil. For larger pots, I don’t change the soil out every year, but do take off the top layer and replace with a layer of fresh mix. The fresh soil will replenish the nutrients consumed by last year’s plants and washed away from frequent watering.
Telling your plants apart can be tricky. Feeling for subtleties like veins in the leaves and stems, discerning textures like fuzzy or smooth and feeling shapes and size, can help you figure out what your favorites are. For more difficult identification problems, some new gardening apps have popped up where you can use your smartphone’s camera. Take a picture of the plant and the app will identify it for you including information for its care. This is a hit or miss venture, but with a good photo you may have some luck. Some apps are very expensive and probably more suited to the naturalist out doing field work, but some are free or low cost. You may have to give up an email address and create a password to get a free trial. Plant Snap and Gardening Answers are ones I have tried with some success using VoiceOver.
Flower pots look best when you practice the Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers technique. You can easily use this method by choosing a tall and eye catching thriller plant placed in the middle of the pot. Then, choose smaller, Fillers surrounding your Thriller plant to make the pot look full and lush. Spiller plants finish off the container by hanging over the edge. Check out this post from Fine Gardening for some suggestions and more guidance.
Don’t be afraid to put more than one veggie plant in a container. This saves on the number of pots and can make an attractive container. You can even use herbs in your flower pots to have an ample supply for cooking. A tomato plant with basil go together nicely. Just remember to choose plants that need similar watering and sunlight requirements. This post from Gardener’s Supply has some great suggestions for container veggie combos with lots of details to help you get started.
Hose nozzles with options for a gentle mist to rain drops to super strong jet sprays, provide all different intensities of water pressure. Problem is, if you can’t see what you’re aiming at, how do you direct your spray? For pots, I usually ditch the nozzle and just use the end of the hose. I put my finger at the edge of the pot, carefully lift up the leaves of the plant and let the water run right into the soil. You can feel when the water comes up to the top of the pot and know when to stop. If you think the plant needs more water, wait for the water to drain through the soil and repeat. I find this method works best for me. Plants generally don’t like their leaves to get wet, so it works for both of us.
One of my go-to resources for all types of gardening is the National Garden Bureau. Every week or so during the growing season I get an email with suggestions for interesting new plants, gardening techniques and ways to attract pollinators. I admit, I’m a geek when it comes to gardening and always find some piece of information I can use. So for those of you who just want to give a container a try this spring, here’s a link to their archives of container gardening posts. I know you’ll find inspiration here!
Don’t miss my Do You Have the Gardening Itch? workshop on Thursday, April 22 at 1:00 pm!
Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense
Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense