In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2006
Regional Report

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For visual impact, I love to mix and match flower and container colors.

Containing Your Garden's Exuberance

Nearly everyone I know collects something. Coins, Mason jars, campaign buttons, cookbooks, you name it and they've got lots of it. I fall into this category, too. I'm a plant collector. Trouble is, by midsummer every single bed and border in my garden is literally spilling over with spectacular plants and there just is no place to put even the smallest new cutting. I've solved the problem by planting my newest acquisitions in containers.

I actually prefer gardening in containers. In a container you can control the soil, vary the watering regime, adjust the amount of sun or shade, group plants for impact -- and ungroup them if the idea doesn't work. Containers filled with vibrant colors can define the space where you live, transform landscaped areas into private garden rooms, or temporarily decorate a space for an outdoor party. If you'd like to try gardening in containers, I'll share a few of my secrets for success.

Select the Right Container
A good container should be large enough to provide adequate space for soil and roots, have sufficient head room for proper watering, have lots of drainage holes, and be attractive without competing with the plants it will hold.

Size and appearance of the container should be in visual proportion to the plants it will hold. A good rule of thumb is to use a container that is at least one-third as high as the plants are tall. Good drainage is extremely important. Roots require air, and if they sit for extended periods of time in wet soil, they'll suffocate. If you find a container you really like but it doesn't have drainage holes, you can plant in plastic pots and place them in the decorative container.

Use the Proper Soil
Experiment with different potting soils until you find one you like, and then use it in all of your containers. Different potting soils can retain different amounts of moisture. I've found that it's easier to water containers filled with the same potting soil, versus containers with a variety of different soils. In fact, I can almost predict when plants need water by knowing how moisture-retentive my potting soil is.

Putting a layer of gravel in the bottom of the container before adding potting soil might seem like a good way to keep soil from washing out of the bottom of the pot, but it can actually hinder drainage by causing water to collect in the bottom of the pot. To keep soil from escaping, place a broken clay piece over each drainage hole before filling the containers.

Select the Right Plant
Be creative when designing your containers. Plants of varying heights and textures will help give your containers character. If you use tall spiking plants, they should be at least as tall as the container itself. For a real dramatic effect, use complementary colors. Purple and yellow are two complementary colors that make a striking combination. Blue and orange are two other complementary colors that work well together.

To keep competition to a minimum, try to avoid mixing slow-growing and vigorous plants in the same container. Growing plants together that have the same light and moisture requirements will simplify their care and ensure good health. After all, growing a plant in a container does not change its basic light or moisture requirements. Sun-loving plants still need to be in full sun, and shade-lovers will still need shade.

Use Simple Maintenance Procedures
The most common problem with container gardens is too little or too much water. Because the volume of soil is relatively small, containers can dry out very quickly, especially on a concrete patio in full sun. Check each pot daily for water. If the pot feels light when lifted, or the soil is dry 1 to 2 inches down, it's time to water. When you do water, water thoroughly by flooding the soil until excess moisture runs out of the drainage holes.

Because containerized plants are watered often, nutrients are leached out of the soil as water drains out of pots, making regular fertilizer applications necessary. I fertilize biweekly with a water-soluble fertilizer. A granular slow-release fertilizer can also be used, which will last anywhere from one to several months, depending on the formula.

Check your containers weekly for signs of disease and insect damage. As flowers fade and die on individual plants, cut them off. Removing spent blooms will encourage more flower production, and will make your container look more attractive.

Rotate the containers from place to place and you'll have a fresh new look no matter where you group them. For even more interest in the garden, swap containers with a gardening buddy and you'll have a whole new garden to enjoy -- for a few weeks, at least!

I love it when I round a corner and encounter a harmonious mix of plants tucked into (and perhaps overflowing) an attractive container. Sometimes it's a quiet and subtle hello; other times it can be a loud and exuberant HELLO! Oftentimes it's the container, itself a piece of art, that catches my eye; and then again it's the plants, as they playfully spill over the sides or dance high above, that lift my heart and make me go WOW! But mostly container gardening excites my sense of possibility, reminding me how with just a few plants, a container and some mixing and matching of color and texture, one can easily create a bountiful -- and beautiful -- miniature garden.


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