10 Tips for the Best Container Garden on the Block

Small succulents enjoy their own space in little galvanized pails.
Small succulents enjoy their own space in little galvanized pails.
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Whether you have acres of land or a small balcony in the city, container gardens can be a beautiful and practical way to enliven your outdoor spaces. Potted plants have many benefits. They allow you to introduce much more plant variety to your area than in-ground options allow. It's easy to replace what's in the container with new growth for an entirely new look. Plus, pots can be placed at waist level on a step or table; having them at a height easy for you to reach allows you to avoid uncomfortably crouching and bending as you would to care for in-ground plants.

Container gardens offer great ways to resolve problems. For instance, you can use them to keep fresh herbs conveniently near your kitchen door for easy access when cooking. Or, you can grow fruit trees or vegetables in them if you have a small yard that doesn't allow for garden plots.

Use potted plants to line walkways or walls, cluster them together in families or nestle individual ones among in-ground foliage to create interest in your yard. However you incorporate them in your landscape design, here are 10 tips for growing a knockout container garden.


Pick Practical Planters

Simple terra-cotta pots are affordable and lend a Southwest vibe to your container garden.
Simple terra-cotta pots are affordable and lend a Southwest vibe to your container garden.
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The containers in your garden can be made of terra-cotta, wood, metal or cement, all of which have benefits and drawbacks. All should have a drainage hole. Cement pots are fairly heavy, frost-proof, inexpensive and breathe well -- but they're susceptible to breakage. Wooden containers, on the other hand, share the same pluses but are at risk of rotting on the bottom due to accumulated water. The latter example illustrates a good point: It's important to factor in your geographic location when selecting pots. For instance, rainy, damp places may not be well-suited for wooden containers that can easily rot.

Potted gardens certainly can be just as eye-catching as they are practical. You can conceivably use pots to grow an entire produce section of a grocery store. By assigning each plant its own container, you can better provide for their individual demands, as some will prefer more water or sun than others.

Pot design can make caring for your plants easier. Take for example a strawberry pot, which has varied outcroppings all over it, making it ideal for growing strawberries and herbs. Choose your planter wisely, and your plants will not only stay healthy longer, but you will expend less effort to keep them that way.


Add Interest with Innovative Containers

Informal settings will accept almost any kind of container, as long as it holds soil and water. Whether you have a cozy patio or acres of land, you can create playful accents in your environment using innovative containers. Try filling an old pair of work boots with dirt to create a new home for your favorite colorful annual. You can do the same with a claw-foot bathtub, tires, a toilet, wheelbarrow, chimney pots, scrap metal containers and much more. Items of sentimental value are particularly fitting; not only do they serve a practical purpose, but they evoke fond memories every time you see them. However, if you live in a neighborhood or community that's governed by a homeowner's association, check the rules about lawn décor before planting a garden of tulips in an antique commode. A container that innovative might be better reserved for the back yard.


Hang Your Baskets

Hanging baskets of ferns and flowers cascade from balconies in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Hanging baskets of ferns and flowers cascade from balconies in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
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One benefit of hanging baskets is that they're temporary. Replace their foliage seasonally or year to year, playing with new color schemes or looks for your home. Hanging baskets need to be fed, watered or deadheaded almost daily, so hang them in spots you can conveniently access. They can be hung many ways; a common method is from a bracket on a fence or wall.

When creating your own hanging basket, it's best to choose bushy, upright plants for the middle and trailing or creeping varieties to fill in gaps and spill over the sides. A combination of flowering and foliage plants works well.

To create a traditional hanging basket, cover the bottom of the container with black plastic to prevent water and soil loss. Layer the plastic with a few scoops of potting soil. Tuck sphagnum moss under the edge of the plastic to disguise it, then build up the sides with a thick layer of damp moss, packing it tightly. Add enough soil for the first level of plants. Carefully place rooted cuttings through the basket's sides so that the necks are just inside the basket, and cover rootballs with soil. Continue planting until you're done, then water.


Arrange Containers Aesthetically

Flowers, plants and edibles are inherently attractive; however, there are simple things you can do to showcase them in a way that helps them look their best. Experiment with pairing flowers and vegetables in the same pot. Cabbage potted with bright marigolds and edible nasturtium flowers is one example of how flowers can accentuate a vegetable's aesthetic. By introducing complementary plants in the same pot, you can help each plant live up to its ornamental potential. Consider eggplant planted with Italian parsley. In this combination, the bushy herb surrounds the base of the eggplant, hiding the bare, unsightly stalk.

Another way to increase the beauty of your outdoor area using potted plants is to arrange the containers in ways pleasing to the eye. Try placing half a dozen of the same plant in a linear fashion along a pathway or stairs for an orderly, formal look. Or arrange different potted plants in a cluster so that those with taller foliage sit behind shorter ones. Use them to block unsightly views into neighbors' yards or alleys, or simply to establish a pretty focal point in your outdoor area.


Keep Plants and Containers in Proportion

Proportion is a pretty simple concept: Little plants belong in little containers.
Proportion is a pretty simple concept: Little plants belong in little containers.
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It's important to select either the right pot for your plant or the right plant for your pot. Take into consideration the size of plant and how big it will grow. If it's an annual, you must only consider its growing potential for one season. Perennials, however, have much more time to spread their roots and are more likely to outgrow their surroundings. Regardless of which kind you have, follow its specific planting instructions. As a rule of thumb, the height of a plant should equal the depth of the container. Small pots tend to look best with simple plant designs in basic colors.

Choosing the right plant also means matching its look to its container. Informal pots like handmade terra-cotta containers or wooden barrels tend to look best with equally unassuming plants, such as wildflowers. In contrast, a manicured shrub inside an elegant urn-shaped pot would present a consistent formal aesthetic.


Give Bulbs Special Attention

It's best to plant bulbs in containers if they require different conditions or better drainage than that of the open garden. Only bulbs that bloom in the same season and require the same conditions should go in the same pot. Most popular spring bulbs are suitable for containers.

Here's what you'll need: bulbs, gritty sand, soil-based potting mix and a clay pot with a drainage hole in the bottom. First, cover the bottom hole with a piece of broken pottery and create a layer of sand approximately 1 1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) thick in the bottom of the pot to help with drainage. Cover the sand with about 1 1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) of potting mixture without compacting it. Press as many bulbs as you want into the soil, making sure they don't touch each other or the sides of the container. Cover the bulbs with more potting mix so that only the tops barely show. If you'd like to introduce another bulb type to the pot, layer them in between and over the top of bulbs in the first layer. Fill the pot with potting mix within one inch of the rim. Place the pot onto pot feet (a stand) to promote drainage, then water it.


Integrate Herbs

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Herbs are excellent plants for container gardens. Favorites include sage, parsley, mint, basil and rosemary. Herbs justify their place in the garden in a variety of ways. They're often used for cooking, medicinal purposes or aromatic foliage. Herbs also can be used to repel pests or protect other plants beside them. That said, some herbs proliferate quickly and can be quite invasive. These types should be contained in a pot away from winds that can scatter their seedlings. Flue liners and other containers without a bottom work well for planting, as an herb's roots can easily grow into the earth while still staying contained. Just settle the container into the ground, fill it two-thirds full of garden soil (not potting mixture). Plunk in the plant, water, then top off with soil about 2 inches (5 centimeters) from the rim.


Use Good Soil and Proper Watering Techniques

Different plants prefer different types of soil, but in general, a good potting soil mix should be just fine for most plants. Sometimes, the top layer of soil in a pot becomes crusted over and hard, and this makes it difficult for the plant to drink in water. To prevent this from happening, use a fork or stick to loosen the top layer of soil. To minimize the amount of water evaporating from the tiny holes you poke, cover the pot's upper surface with cut-to-size coconut matting, which is water-permeable.

You can water most of your plants from your tap or hose. However, if you have particularly hard water, this may pose a problem for lime-sensitive plants, such as rhododendrons or camellias. Due to hard water's higher levels of lime, these plants may experience stunted growth, drop buds or flowers, or have their leaves turn yellow. Check with your local water company to learn the degree of water hardness in your area. Ways to cope with this problem include watering with rainwater, applying an acidic fertilizer when feeding plants or using a water-softening agent dissolved in a watering can. Water the roots, not the plant itself. Also, morning or evenings are the best times to water, as to prevent evaporation during the hottest times of day.


Plan for Inclement Weather

These lively annuals thrive in the summer Norwegian sun. Come winter, however, they'll need to be protected against icy cold temperatures and snow.
These lively annuals thrive in the summer Norwegian sun. Come winter, however, they'll need to be protected against icy cold temperatures and snow.
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The greatest danger winter poses for plants is prolonged freezing of the rootball. During colder months, keep potted plants particularly at risk of frostbite nestled against a wall close to the house, clustered together. This should help keep them warm. Protect the container in any number of ways: wrap it in burlap or bubble-wrap, place the pot on top of a thick sheet of styrofoam or apply an over-pot of coconut fiber. The top layer of soil can be insulated using leaves, evergreen branches or coconut matting. If your area experiences subfreezing temperatures, the exposed part of the plant should also be covered with burlap, agricultural fabric, jute wrappings or reed matting. Water plants occasionally as long as temperatures are above freezing, and shade evergreens from late-winter sun.


Decorate with Ornaments

Containers make it easy for you to vary the plants you showcase by the season. But there are other ways to liven up your yard besides changing up the plants themselves. Try placing objects among your potted plants, such as bird feeders, bird houses, stone figurines or metal treasures. And remember, pots don't always have to stand upright. A grassy clearing or foxglove field may be a perfect spot to lay a handful of large textured urns on their side. Tufts of grass and blossoms surrounding the containers can give the scene a mysterious or Old World ambiance. Even cracked pots can add interest to a landscape if arranged in context with the setting. The only limit to what's possible is your imagination.


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  • "Complete Container Gardening." Whitecap Books, Ltd. 1997.
  • Ganderton, Deb. Peronsal interview conducted by Echo Surina. Oct. 28, 2009.
  • Mayer, Joachim. "Container Plants for Beginners." Barron's Educational Series, Inc. 2002.
  • Schultz, Warren and Carol Spier. "Garden Details: Accents, Ornaments, and Finishing Touches for the Garden." Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc. 1998.