In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
June, 2011
Regional Report

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Annual red verbena lives about a month in my garden soil but goes on and on in containers.

Container Gardening

The more I garden, the more I love container growing. That is because potted plants of every sort will keep on growing regardless of what the weather decides to do.

Why Pots Make Sense
The overall trend in the past decade has been towards warmer weather by several degrees and we've seen more extreme conditions of wet and dry than past records report. The past two summers have been wetter than average at times and much drier in other spells. Unless you have great garden soil, it is likely you have seen some losses due to these extremes.

Container gardening offers a greater degree of control over growing conditions. From soil and fertilizer to watering practices and weed control, pots done right are easier to manage than most garden beds. You choose the pots for utility and decor. With a few exceptions, very small pots need more water than large ones and so need more of your time. If you mix your own potting soil, the plants are more easily grouped for watering. If you doubt this notion or want a plant to signal when conditions are getting dry in an area, leave one 4-inch potted annual in the pot and soil it came in. Put it with a collection of containers you planted and watch how fast it wilts.

Container gardening brings the garden up close, like putting a big flowering maple on a pedestal by the kitchen window to watch the hummingbirds hit it. You can elevate pots to suit your comfort zone, too, and avoid back and knee stress from stooping. If you recycle pots and make your own compost, container gardening can be a much gentler way to garden, on you and on the big blue marble we call home.

Good Combinations
The sheer movability of containers means you can grow them where you think their plants will do best. Unlike planting in garden beds, if your first instinct for a growing site does not work, it is a simple matter to move the pots. When you plant in pots or group a bunch of them together, it is wise to think of their needs to reduce the time needed to care for them. Most plants can be classified in one of four ways. They need mostly sun and primarily wet or dry conditions or they need a place that is shadier and leans toward wet or dry.

Unless you are growing vegetables, most so-called sun-loving plants can live well in less than full sun and will need slightly less water there. While some shade plants will be sunburned by any direct sun, many of them can adapt to dappled sun without needing much more water. Arranging in groups is simple to do and redo if needed to create an effective, regular routine of care. Such subtleties in garden planning for your particular property and taste can only be achieved in containers without constant re-landscaping at great effort and expense. You can combine seasonal plants into pots and move them front and center at their peaks. Let that container of pittosporum shrub sit quietly in the corner until time to drape on the holiday lights and make it a focal point.

Pushing Zone Limits
You may have guessed by now that a handtruck can be a smart investment for container gardeners who like big pots and want to grow big plants in them. That is true, but it is not always necessary to move plants indoors if you want to overwinter them outside their zone. For example, gardeners in the Tropics may want to grow rhododendrons or peonies but know their chances are about as good as those of a gardener on the Coast seeing shower orchids (Congea) in bloom without taking a road trip. In containers, you can grow those out-of-zone plants to their best and then shelter them when needed. Those rhodies and peonies can go into a shady space or under a sheet of shade cloth after they bloom. Keep the air cool with a fan or nearby sprinkler set on a timer to operate a few minutes each hour in brutal weather. Watering the plants is separate from this simple cooling technique, but the plants will need slightly less water in their holding area.

In the same vein, tropical plants that bloom in winter and spring can be moved indoors or to a greenhouse when temperatures threaten the plants or their buds. If tropical plants do not bloom until late spring or summer, it is possible to store their containers in a protected place outside over the winter on our Coasts. Surround those pots with hay bales and store them in the garage or shed, or under the porch of raised houses. These strategies may sound like work to some, but those who love such plants, like me, find them easy to employ and far less expensive than replacing favorite plants each year.


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