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missed the workshop? container-garden 101

TWO CLASS SESSIONS FULL OF YOU visited one recent May to talk about container gardening, but for those who didn’t take the workshop in person, a recap seemed in order since it’s that time: everything into the pots!

top container tips


THOSE ARE MY WHEELBARROWS of some possible pot subjects, along with some full and empty pots, some tuteurs (metal towers), houseplants just dragged out, and more. It’s what one reader and attendee at the workshop calls the “Dance of a Thousand Plants” right now…wheeling or carrying things you bought or had around, looking for where they go, and scurrying to get them under cover if a cold night interrupts the planning. Some thoughts:

  • What goes in pots? Anything, from a hosta to a conifer to you name it.
  • Where do I shop? Yes, the garden center annual bedding-plant aisles, but also the houseplant and tree and shrub and vegetable and herb departments, plus “shopping” sprees in unlikely places (the supermarket, big-box stores, my driveway gravel or garden beds, where I may find volunteer seedlings or divisions, like a piece of colorful-leaves Heuchera or some creeping Sedum ‘Angelina,’ for example, to plug into my pots as filler).
  • My houseplants, especially old, big containers of fancy-leaf begonias like these, make a great potted statement in the filtered light beneath deciduous trees. Bromeliads are another pot-garden favorite of mine (and an easy houseplant over many years). I just had fun with some of them, creating a sort of centerpiece/terra cotta bowlful.
  • Bulbs, for instance—they can go in pots, too, and the best ones (like Eucomis bicolor, the pineapple lily (top photo), are easy to overwinter dry and dormant; so are tuberous begonias, such as Begonia boliviensis ‘Bonfire’).
  • Speaking of “investment plants,” ones you can stash year to year in the house or cellar or garage then cycle into the garden later, my biggest ones are a group of Japanese maples. (How I overwinter all these, plus non-hardy tropicals, is covered here if you want to plan ahead as you shop this spring.)
  • It all starts with the potting soil—so what is good mix? I prefer a bark-based mix to largely peat-based ones, meaning heavier on the ground bark than peat. Ask at your local nursery about such mixes. Besides using less peat, which is a non-renewable resource, bark-based mixes stand up to large plants better, hold moisture a bit longer, and just have a better texture to my mind. Never put garden soil in pots; too heavy and not well-draining enough.
  • I try not to waste potting soil when I use big containers, adding only what the particular kind of plant really needs.  A shrub might need the whole thing filled…but not violas in my early spring pots! A trick for saving on soil.
  • Pots don’t have to contain soil at all—my favorites might be my two potted water gardens, in fact. How to make one yourself.
  • What about a color palette? Well, you know I like orange (though I’m not growing the petunia in this slideshow again this year; it wasn’t quite durable enough, and took too long between bloom cycles, looking messy much of the time).
  • Foliage is often the “glue” in plantings, and Coleus ‘Spitfire’ is great at connecting things (now if I can only find it at a local garden center this year…). So are a recently acquired group of crotons (variegated, splashy houseplants in the genus Codiaeum) I’m having fun with. Sometimes I plan a whole design around the colors in a single leaf.
  • You can also browse the archive of container-garden ideas here on the website. (That’s our workshop “classroom” below as it looked before the session. Maybe join us next time!)

  1. Barbara says:

    Seeing all of your pots filled to the brim with gorgeous plants, causes me to ‘covet my neighbor’s garden.’ I garden on a postage stamp piece of property and find one of the joys of the internet is living vicariously in Margaret’s garden! What I don’t have room for outside, I can enjoy anytime I visit. Thanks.

  2. Laura says:

    Margaret,
    Thanks for these tips! I am inspired.

    How do you keep your flagstones weed-free? I have a similar patio, and the weeds drive me crazy. Larger ones are easy to get, but there are constant tiny guys popping up. Last year I even dug out a few inches of the dirt between them and put down stone dust, but that was only a temporary fix. The weeds are back!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    You might try pouring either boiling water OR household vinegar(regular, room .temperature) on those weeks, if you don’t have any treasured plants nearby. With both the boiling water and the vinegar, you have to wait about 24 hours or more, depending on outside temperatures, to see resultes. Some weeds will just plain die, some may need pulling. Good luck!! Elizabeth

  4. Stephanie in NS says:

    My problem with pots in the garden and yard is ants! Any pot in contact with the ground becomes an ant hill within a day or two. It’s very annoying because I have lots of vistas from my deck and other views that would be enhanced with a pot overflowing with colour. I keep at it, though, stubborn as I am. Thank you for so much inspiration, Margaret. I so thoroughly enjoy my time browsing your beautiful photos and wonderfully eclectic musings!

    1. margaret says:

      Ants here too, Stephanie, but not so much in the pots as in the cracks between pavers and other warm spots. Interesting. Do they go up the sides of the pot or throught he hole in the bottom? If the latter you can cover it (before putting in soil) with a layer of fiberglass screening (buy a cheap screen-door repair kit, which is like a roll of screening for about $8).

      Hi, Laura. I use a hori-hori or old kitchen bread knife and sort of dig them out regularly, or as another commenter mentioned boiling water will work sometimes, or covering the area with plastic when it’s hot and sunny (will kill other stuff though not just weeds) and vinegar will work on very young and tender things. I usually pull/dig every other week.

  5. sarah from ohio says:

    Love the column! I have a question about container over-wintering. I want to take some lily of the valley plants from one home where they are now in the ground to another. I plan to pot the few I am taking at the end of the summer, but I will have to keep them in the pot over the winter because I will likely move in Dec.

    What will I do with this pot of plants? Water over the winter? Not water? Plant in warmer spring weather? Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry to miss this question, Sarah. They want to go dormant and have a proper winter, and being in a pot above ground may not provide enough insulation to protect them outdoors. Can you possibly plunge/mulch/protect the pot somehow out in the new garden? (By plunge I mean bury it in the soil, which might be frozen I know…) Use as big a pot as possible for more insulation for the roots, and perhaps put it against the wall of the garage covered with a pile of leaves or inside an unheated garage?

  6. Kevin says:

    I’M about to set my houseplants out as well; begonia *Marmaduke* needs a serious trim ; taking up way too much realistate ! But what I really love about plants such as these is the fact that they can perform as container plants outdoors as well as indoors- double the pleasure.Please remember to acclimate your indoor plants to the outside gradually over several days and after all threats.of frost has past.

  7. Deborah Banks says:

    Sunday on the drive to your workshop, I was questioning my sanity in choosing to drive 5 hours (2.5 hours each way) on a perfectly beautiful day in order to spend 2.5 hours in your workshop. Once there I was fine – just seeing your garden for a second time was worth the drive, and the class with you and Bob was great. Thanks again!

  8. I have just found this blog and I am SO GRATEFUL for the straight forward tips and advice. My family and I are new to planting vegetables in our pot based garden, but so far so good. :) I have written our experiences in my blog: http://forevertogetherfamily.blogspot.com/ if you are interested. I am grateful for your tips and for your sharing in your gardening successes and know-how.

    THANK YOU!

    Sincerely,
    Emily Stevenson; Minnesota

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Charlie. Nice of you to say hello, and thank you for the link. Love the crates lined with something (fabric? paper?) and turned into vegetable containers. See you soon, I hope.

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