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A Container Garden

container garden, simple flower planterThis is so easy! Everyone can have a fabulous garden, the type that people comment on when they’re visiting your home. “Wow! What a stunning place you have, and your plants are gorgeous!” Yes, you can have that reaction, even if you live in a small apartment.

It doesn’t take a lot of master gardening skills. One of the dirty (just because it involves soil) little secrets of the landscape professionals is infill. When something dies, fill in the empty space with a new plant. So if your garden has some losses, it is not a catastrophe. Just try to learn a little about why a plant died, and try to avoid the same mistake again.

Container gardens are great! They provide all the fun without most of the hassles experienced with in-the-ground gardening. You never get bored with a container garden, because the display gets changed out every few months for something completely new. In fact, the botanical gardens you delight in visiting are treated a lot like a container garden—a really big container garden. The displays are renewed every season. You can duplicate that at home.

The reason container gardening is so reliably successful is the soil medium is completely in your control. You don’t have to deal with heavy clay or nematodes or bad drainage. All you have to do is buy a bag of potting soil. It helps to amend the potting soil, but it is still far better than the challenges of typical, ordinary ground dirt. I like to mix in a lot of well-composted cow manure, which is a naturally mild fertilizer, but you can buy expensive soil mixes that include slow-release fertilizers and water-holding granules. The expense is relative, though. You only need a little to fill your containers, and the added convenience, especially if you are starting a new job and still going to school, is a definite plus.

If you buy the cheaper potting soil mix, it will not contain any fertilizer, which is the food for your plants. You can still go with this basic mix, but your plants will resent the lack of generosity and grow a lot less vigorously in revenge. There are a lot of cheap fertilizers out there. They usually have names like 10-10-10 or 13-13-13.  Buy the expensive slow-release fertilizer instead. Again, the cost is relative, since you only need a little to fill your containers. The cheaper fertilizers leach out of the soil after the first watering. Your plants only get a brief sip of nourishment before it washes away into the watering tray below the pot and dries to a crusty white, out of reach of the roots. The expensive, slow-release fertilizers are pellets that degrade slowly over 4 to 6 months. You can see them in mixes as round, yellow pellets.

Another thing you can add to cheap potting soil is additional texture. You can add lightness with perlite and drainage with some kind of tiny stone or grit particles. This is not essential, but professional mixes usually include these little bits, which you can see as white Styrofoam-like pellets or actual grey gravel.

The very expensive mixes add water-absorbing gels. These are clear chunks of Jell-O-like space matter that shrink or swell, depending on how much water they have absorbed. They are not usually available as a retail product, since the tendency would be to mix them into soil in large chunks that would grow too large and ooze out of the top of the soil as they expand with moisture. The manufacturers of the water-saving mixes have figured a way to incorporate them homogeneously as small particles into their mixes.  These jelly pieces absorb and hold water and then shrink as the water is released slowly into the surrounding dry soil. Since over-watering is the biggest cause of death in container plants, you don’t have to add this unless you are dedicated to prudence in your watering routine.

Mixing container soil is a messy business.  Plan on it. Buy a tarp first.

You need to buy a container, too. You may be able to discover a found object to use as a container. Pinterest probably has lots of ideas for you. The classic has always been an old bathtub, but usually only something adorable like a claw-foot antique. The point is you need something to hold your garden. For success, the container needs to be big and have drainage holes. The container has to be really big! The second biggest cause of death in container plants is using small containers. Plants need room for roots to expand, and they need an ample amount of soil to carry nutrients to the roots. Here’s the weird thing…it is almost impossible to find a sufficiently-large container in a retail store. Professional landscape companies purchase huge containers through wholesale-only sources. Keep your eye out for nice, big containers that sometimes show up at Home Depot or Lowes garden departments. If they are the wrong color, you can always paint them.

container gardening, planters

Containers often come in terra cotta. It is a wonderful, inexpensive material, but don’t invest in large containers of it unless you are willing to bring them in for the winter. Terra cotta absorbs moisture and will split during strong cold snaps, even if they are empty. They are beautiful and classic, though. Decide if you think moving a large, two-ton container twice a year into your home is okay. If not, go with something that is frost-hardy for outdoors.

Make sure the drainage holes work. They won’t if you place your container on the ground and get a good seal, so you might want some decorative feet (or just some small tiles) to lift the pot slightly above ground. Place the container where water can drain, or put it above a giant saucer of some kind to keep the ground dry.

Now, for the fun part! Go out and buy all the plants you see that you like. Hold them next to each other to see if they create good combinations. Buy enough to fill your planter. Don’t limit yourself to a single plant type. Mix in different colors and textures. Try to include some spikey plants, some dripping plants, and some mounding shapes. Have a good time with this. You’ll become an expert on all the plants you incorporate into your container. You’re a garden designer!

To find out more about professional landscape design, you can purchase The Advanced Guide to Landscapes; Designing Successful Landscapes, a new eBook that will be available soon.

Your First Landscape