Container gardening brightens small spaces

If you take a look around any garden center the week leading up to Mother’s Day, you’ll see lots of flowers and plants flying off the shelves in preparation to be given as gifts to dear old Mom. Roses are a common gift, but so are container plants and hanging baskets.

Container gardening is more popular than ever, thanks in part to recent garden trends and more and more people wanting to garden in small spaces. And container gardening has gone well beyond puny petunias wilting away in plastic pots. Containers can have vibrant selections of colorful and interesting plants, whether they are annuals, perennials, herbs or even fruits and vegetables (of course, you knew that I would have to throw some edibles in there).

First, you should know that there are some special considerations when you plan on gardening in containers. Usually you are putting several different plants (or similar plants of different colors) into one small space. While I know that most gardeners like having the instant gratification of starting off with a nice, full container, it is best to plant smaller plants that will fill in over the season.

I would also suggest that you make sure all the plants in a container have similar light and water requirements, so don’t mix sun and shade plants together.

When it comes to the aesthetics of mixed-plant containers, you’ll want to have plants with different textures and complementary colors for best effect. Containers that are all one color or have only leaves of similar shape can get boring. Mix something with small leaves with something with big leaves or add in something with long, spiky leaves.

It is also a nice idea to mix plants that hang over the edges (think petunias or sweet potato vines) with plants that are more upright. You’ll want plants of different heights for a more appealing look.

Once you have your plants picked out, it’s time to plant them. Here’s where I find a lot of very frustrating misinformation out there. If you are planting in is a small- to medium-size container, say, up to a few gallons, it is not a good idea to add rocks or anything else into the bottom of the pot for drainage. I don’t know where this little tidbit of misinformation started, but I see it all of the time. Adding rocks to the bottom of the pot actually decreases drainage by raising the bottom of the soil profile.

The transition between the soil and the rocks is where excess water that doesn’t drain off immediately hangs out, which means it is higher up in the pot and closer to the roots. When the soil is too moist around the roots, you can get damage to roots through oxygen starvation or through diseases like root rot.

If containers are extremely large, though, you can add things like aluminum cans, plastic bottles or other materials to the bottom to reduce the amount of soil you need.

Don’t think that containers are just for annuals like petunias and geraniums, either. Perennials and bulbs are popping up more and more as container plants. Just remember that it is even more important to match plant requirements whenever the plants are going to live together for several years. I’ve seen containers with hostas, coral bells, tulips and more in them. Succulents like hens-and-chicks are common perennial planter additions.

Food is also making an appearance in planters with more and more regularity mixed in and among the flowers. Why do we have to keep food and flowers separated anyway? Herbs make a great addition to containers. Many have interesting foliage and will even bloom (most have bluish-colored blooms). Just remember that most of them are perennial (like thyme, oregano, sage and rosemary) and some are annual (basil) and some are even biennial (parsley, dill) and live two years.

Leafy greens like lettuce and spinach can also add attractive foliage to containers in a variety of colors and shapes. Another green that deserves space in a container is Swiss chard, which is available in a variety of bright colors.

There are even fruits, such as patio blueberries and even small fruit trees that can live perfectly happy lives in containers.

Remember that creativity is key when you plan what you are growing in containers, and don’t be afraid to mix and match plants in interesting ways.

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