Gardening in Containers

Planting in containers can be a complement to planting in the ground, and it has multiple appeals:

  • alternative to garden space that’s limited (or lacking entirely);
  • opportunity for creative combinations of pots and plants;
  • supports either long-term or seasonal displays;
  • freedom to hide pots with plants after blooming;
  • design strategies for paved areas, like decks and patios;
  • ideal use of wide stairways; and
  • invites large and dramatic arrangements;

Container gardeners soon develop their personal likes and dislikes, but if this approach is new to you, here are ideas to consider.

Plan plants and pots as complements: One method is to choose a container that you like, and then find a plant that would work well with it. The reverse strategy can work too, but there are more plants than pots, so it’s easiest to find the right plant for a given pot. Find complementary colors, textures, and sizes. (One rule of thumb: the plant ‘s mature height should be about twice the height of the container.)

Think big pots: For a striking presentation, select large pots. A collection of one-gallon plastic nursery pots will minimize cost, but will also minimize impact. Smallish decorative containers, even when individually attractive, still under-sell the horticulture. Big pots produce big results, and provide more root room and hold more moisture between watering sessions.

Think multiple pots: Just like planting in the ground, mass effects can be pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the soul. A substantial array of containers can present an eye-catching display. Three is better than two, and, given lots of available space, fifteen is better than twelve. Multiple-pot displays could emphasize annuals or perennials, and can be particularly effective with bulbs.

Plan the overall look:  It’s too easy to accumulate both plants and pots one at a time, which leads to a confusing conglomeration. Such groupings reflect piecemeal landscaping, which is all too popular and ultimately minimizes bang for the buck. The first step in planning for multiple pots emphasizes the overall effect, even when limited time and resources requires building the display over weeks or even months. The plan should encompass the style of the containers. They need not all be the same, but they should work together. A Talavera planter probably will look out of place among several terra cotta pots. The plan also should also consider blossom color combinations, e.g., complementary, analogous, triadic, etc. Search the Internet for “color harmonies.”

Plan individual containers: An important difference exists between a floral arrangement, and a container that plays a role in a larger display. When planning a standalone display, the “thriller, filler, spiller” design works fine. When planning for a big, dramatic effect, however, plant each container with one type of plant in one color. And fill the containers: for example, a 12-inch wide pot can accommodate up to 30 bulbs. A more timid installation will look, well, timid.

Consider the passage of time: When building a display of seasonal plants, keep their bloom period in mind. When blooms have faded, move the containers out of sight and bring in different, ready to bloom containers. An intermediate approach involves installing layers of bulbs with successive bloom periods. This requires some planning, but the extended display can be gratifying.

Large-scale container planting takes some research. If you are considering a display of bulbs, right now is the time to order bulbs to be planted in the fall, for spring blooms. One good online resource is Brent & Becky’s Bulbs. I’ve had the pleasure of having dinner with Brent and Becky Heath, so I’m partial, but there are other very good online bulb nurseries, some of which offer wholesale prices for container gardening on a larger scale.

For design inspiration, search the Internet for “bulbs in containers,” and select “images.”

Do you have a suitable space for container gardening?

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