Container Gardens – For Flowers & Veggies

Container gardens have become wildly popular in recent years, and for good reasons.  They’re colorful, adaptable, attractive, provide the opportunity to grow vegetables as well as flowers and are great for accommodating people with disabilities or just need a little greater ease in movement.

In addition to the above benefits, containers are great for small and large spaces alike.  They can be used on patios, balconies, front porches and even those odd places in the landscape where nothing else seems to grow.  A pop of color, even if it’s just green vegetables, is welcome no matter where it is.

There are 3 “must do’s” or “must haves” when it comes to containers.  First, the soil.  It must be well drained, but also retain enough moisture to keep the plants well hydrated.  The way this is accomplished is to use a mix of ingredients – vermiculite or perlite for drainage and Canadian/sphagnum peat moss or compost for holding capacity.  A 50/50 mix works well.  Next, the pot used needs to have one large or several small drainage holes to allow excess moisture to move below the plant roots and out of the container.  The last must is to group plants according to their sun/shade and water requirements.  A grouping of plants that mixes sun and shade plants or drier and moister soil is sure to fail.  Be sure to read the plant care tags thoroughly for this information.

There are quite a few more “shoulds” and “coulds” than musts.  The first should is the design.  The classic “thriller, spiller and filler” is a great formula to use for first time flower container growers or if you’re design challenged.  This involves using a really striking plant in the center of the pot, a trailing plant to grow over and down the side and then some muted plants to grow in-between. Considering both leaf size and bloom size is also a good idea, but not an absolute must.

For both flowers and vegetables, it’s helpful to follow the care tag instructions on spacing.  The common tendency is to plants too closely, which doesn’t allow them to grow to full size.  After planting, the pot should have empty pockets in it; this will lessen the competition and increase the air flow between plants which discourages foliar diseases. 

Another should is to fertilize, a little more frequently than when growing in ground beds because container soils have less capacity to hold nutrients than traditional gardens. A good approach is to fertilize a little more frequently and lightly than in ground beds. Drip trays can be used to prevent damage to concrete and wooden patios.

A couple more shoulds – fill the container with soil mix all the way to the bottom.  Sure, it’s more expensive than adding soft drink cans or bricks to take up the space, but fuller pots allow for greater root growth and lessen the tendency for the bottom roots to stay wet due to a perched water table.  Using fresh soil each year is a should as it leads to fewer root rot problems.  Again, buying new soil each year adds cost; a compromise would be to use half new and half recycled soil and fluff it up to retain aeration in the pot.

Finally, a few coulds to allow the grower to be creative.  Instead of a 365 degree round container design, many spaces call for a one-sided planter, especially ones that are to be placed flush with a building, house or retaining wall.  Another is to mix annuals with tropicals such as houseplants; grow the combination together for the year, toss out the annuals at the end of the season and overwinter the tropicals.  Planting to attract hummingbirds can be a fun project; use deep throated flower such as cuphea, salvia, petunia, lobelia and fuchsia. 

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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