Container Gardens & Potted Plants

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If you don’t want to plant a whole garden, or don’t have the space to plant a garden, but still want to plant something, consider container gardening. You can simply choose your container size, choose your plant(s), then plant either indoors or outside. This way, you can enjoy the connection with nature in a smaller way, from the comfort of your home or patio. I believe that even connecting with a small part of nature helps us connect with the whole. Just note that if you take nature out of the interconnected whole, you have to simulate the parts.

Plants in the natural world enjoy a circular relationship with sun and soil. Part of their growth and development even comes from the dropping and decomposition of their leaves (and other organic materials) for nutrients. If we want to host them outside of this environment, we must tend to their needs.

Containers for planting can be simple, like a basic terra cotta pot, or creative, like old coffee cans, barrels, crates, corks, wine bottles, bicycles, sculptures…anything that will hold dirt and water and has a drainage hole. Containers can stand alone, be arranged in groups, stacked on sturdy shelves, or hung from a trellis or structure. Imagination is our only limitation.

Tall plants, like tomatoes, can be held upright with a stake or support of some kind.  Plants that vine or send out tendrils will cling to a trellis, another plant, or whatever is nearby.

When planting in a pot or container, make sure you’re using good dirt that’s full of nutrients and drains well. You can find this commercially available at gardening stores. Try mixing some compost for extra nutrition if you’d like. When placing everything into the pot, some people like to add gravel to the bottom to ensure better drainage. Whatever you do, just remember to leave a couple of inches open at the top of your container so that you can add water without overflowing it.

The next step is to be aware of the intimate relationship plants have with light. Find the right amount of light for your specific plant. Some are sun lovers, which should be out in full view of the sun, while others are shadow seekers that like to stay cool down below. When we’re placing potted plants, we have to look at how much light falls in the area where the plant will be placed, and decide if that will be the right amount of sunlight for the plant’s needs. If you aren’t sure, you can check the tag on the plant.

Watch for these signs to see whether or plant is getting the right amount of light:

  • Not enough light –
    Your plant’s growth will be spindly, with long spaces between leaves. New leaves will be smaller than older ones, and lower leaves will turn yellow and fall off. The plant’s growth will slow down or stop, and flowering plants will bloom poorly or not at all. Leafy green plants may turn a solid light green. New shoots might look like they are trying to reach out toward the available light.
  • Too much light –
    Your plant will tell you that it’s getting too much light with brown scorched patches and leaves, leaves that look faded or washed out and also wilted. The leaves will dry up and fall off.

So now, pick some plants. If you are going decorative, look for colors and shapes you like. Mix tall with short. Consider varieties that will spill over the sides. If you like herbs, create a little herb garden and have it handy to flavor your favorite dish. Or you can mix herbs with grasses and something that will spill over the sides of the pot. Take some time to arrange the plants before sinking them into the soil. See what looks good to you. When actually planting, handle with care, loosen the root ball of the plant if it is tangled up and gently place it in the loosely packed soil. Water thoroughly, letting excess water drain out the bottom of the container.

If you are a salad type of person, you could pretty much grow your own salad on your back porch. Tomatoes and lettuce do very well in container pots. Try planting lettuce in a ring around a central cherry tomato plant held upright on a stake. Another combination could be mint (good in lemonade, salad, or flavored water), rosemary or thyme with lettuce and a sweet potato vine, which is hardy, colorful and spills over the edges very nicely. Consider purple basil with marigolds, which are considered companion plants that do well together. Basil goes well with tomatoes. Sounds like the beginning of pizza or pasta sauce to me!

Don’t forget to water your plants regularly, though. You don’t want to get all excited about pretty flowers, salad or pasta sauce then see everything die because you either forgot to water, or watered too much. Watering plants properly makes all the difference to the health of your plants. While most people worry about under-watering plants, many potted plants are killed from over watering. Here are some tips for watering plants in containers:

  • Water fully.
    Wait until you see the water running out of the holes in the bottom of the container. The roots may be down near the bottom of the pot and they need a drink.
  • Make sure it’s time.
    Even if the top of the soil looks dry, put your finger in to the second knuckle. Still dry? Time to water. When you get to know your plants, you will have a better understanding of their needs. Some like it a little wet, some like it dry. Some gardeners feel it’s best to water in the morning, not so good in the midday heat, and evening watering can lead to water remaining on leaves, resulting in mildew. Just do the best you can. One good rule is to water the soil, not the leaves. The plant will soak up the water and take care of delivering it upstairs.
  • Don’t necessarily rely on rainfall.
    Sometimes leaves and flowers send the water off the sides of the pot, and the roots don’t get enough! If the soil gets too dry it won’t absorb water well when you do water it.

Most importantly, check on your plants often! Container plants are more vulnerable than plants in the ground, and more dependent upon our care.