The Fun Of Container Gardening

In today's world of hectic modern living, limited space in urban environments and multiple demands on our time, container gardens offer us a world of possibilities. A friend who works long hours and lives in an urban town house, has asked me to help her spruce up her lovely but empty raised patio. As a beginner, she is looking for low-maintenance plants. Her beloved dog, Spike, is a bit of a nibbler so she also wants to find plantings that will be nontoxic. While most of the patio is shaded, the front section, where we will be placing the containers, gets up to seven hours of sun per day. Our goal is to create containers that look great year-round.

Choosing the Right Container

Containers come in all shapes, materials and sizes and vary in price. It is easy to spend a small fortune on containers if you don't know where to buy them. Try Target, Kmart and Home Depot and also look for end-of-the-season sales in July, August and September. Since my friend wanted year-round outdoor containers, we decided to avoid ceramic, cement or terra cotta, which tend to crack in freezing weather. Thus we chose a product called Garden Lite, a type of Styrofoam that weighs almost nothing and looks exactly like stone, ceramic or terra cotta, but at a fraction of the price.

Not all containers come with drainage holes. If you plan to use them outside, you must make holes in the bottom so that the water can drain out. Take a hammer and large nail, and punch the nail through the bottom of the containers, creating holes the size of a penny.

Choosing the Right Plants

For the containers, we have chosen a beautiful and unusual array of perennials and annuals. Tall lettuces grace the rectangular planters surrounded by sun-tolerant coleus, lamb's ears and Sedum sieboldi. For splashes of color, we included New Guinea impatiens, Melampodium "Showstar" and Celosia in castle yellow. The round planters feature dwarf spruces skirted with pineapple mint.

It is important to consider how much sunlight your containers will be getting and to select plants that will thrive in that environment. Pick plants that are compatible with one another, meaning that they look good together, rather than randomly choosing plants that you like. Arrange the plants with height in mind. If you are using a round container, place a taller plant in the middle, a ring of slightly shorter plantings around it and, if space permits, low-growing vines or small plants. Pack them in! Don't worry about crowding the plants; they will be very happy huddled together.

Planting and Soil

When you first bring your plants home from the nursery, place them in the shade for a few days and water them daily. Pinch off any dead leaves or blooms to discourage pests. Purchase a potting soil that is already filled with fertilizer, such as Pro-Mix or Sunshine Mix. To encourage better drainage, place gravel, small stones or even Styrofoam packing peanuts on the bottom two-thirds of the container. Fill the rest of it with potting soil, leaving 3 or 4 inches unfilled at the top. Then squeeze in as many of your plants as you can!

After Care

Containers in full sun need to be watered daily and containers in less sun can go every other day. Fertilize your plants every time that you water. Pinch or cut off dead blooms and leaves, they will attract pests and discourage growth. If pests do invade your containers, first try to remove them by watering them hard. If that doesn't work, try drowning them in horticultural oil, which you can purchase at any nursery. If that doesn't work, try insecticide soap.

With a little ingenuity and nurturance, you can create garden containers that are as unique and beautiful as they were in ancient times. Put your energy into choosing unusual perennials and unexpected combinations. Don't be limited by symmetrical arrangements, and feel free to be as creative as the space allows. Take chances and try new cultivars, there are so many to choose from. And most important, enjoy yourself!

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