Growing Plants in Containers


TheGardenLady received this question from Yoonsin Park:

I live in a condo with a small patio.  Due to that I can only have container plants.  I don’t want to get larger & larger containers as the plant grows.  I just want to get one container and the plant to retain itself in it.  What is the best way to do that?

Container growing is one of the hottest methods of having an outdoor garden. There are a profusion of books on the subject. lists 1514 books on container growing. One authority on the subject is Sydney Eddison whom TheGardenLady had the good fortune to hear lecture and see the slide show of her container garden.  Read this article by Eddison.

This summer at the Perennial Plant Conference at Swarthmore College I had the pleasure of hearing, seeing her slide show and meeting, briefly, Rita Randolph of Randolph’s Greenhouses in Jackson, Tennessee. Rita’s canvases are her containers which she sells; some you can  see on her website.

There are so many choices of plants when making container gardens that TheGardenLady suggests that you start checking out some of the books or articles. But to get you started TheGardenLady will make a few suggestions.

There are many plants that you can use but you want slow growing plants. Also, you have to be sure that the plants are hardy to overwinter in your area. And you have to know if you want sun loving or shade loving plants depending on how your patio is located.  You can buy your container already planted with plants of your choice or you can create your own container garden.  First, you can always grow containers using annuals or treating perennials as annuals and when the first heavy frost comes, you can just compost the plants or throw them out. My neighbor does this and has a magnificent show of impatiens blooming all summer long.  However, if you want perennials TheGardenLady will start you off with a few ideas. Just remember that living things have a way of growing. So even if you choose midget or slow growing perennials you might have to repot them once every 3 or 4 years.

If you want something of a taller interest consider miniature and dwarf conifers. These grow very slowly with the added advantage that they can stay outdoors all year long and can be decorated in the winter for Christmas or just with food for birds. Conifers can be handsome alone or in the summer you can put some colorful annuals around the base that are discarded at the first frost.

Consider a bonsai tree for the container. Many trees and shrubs can be made into bonsai. Visit places like the National Arboretum in Washington DC or Longwood Gardens in Kennet Square, PA to look at bonsai trees to try to see if you would like a bonsai on your patio. You can learn to make your own bonsai.  Bonsai is an art practiced by the Chinese and Japanese for years – (see here for some history of the bonsai). TheGardenLady took a class at Rosade Bonsai after seeing their work at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Another suggestion is to use alpine plants or rock garden plants. You can mix and match. A site that tells you the names and heights of some of these small and slow growing plants is The Garden Helper.

One alpine family that TheGardenLady suggests is the Sempervivum (means always grows) family. This family has such interesting, charming, tough plants and will even flower for you. They are easily grown especially in sunlight. You can combine them into an interesting and unusual container show.

And the last suggestion is to consider Mini and small hostas for a container. “They like being in containers” says Walter Cullerton of Oxford Gardens in PA. They love shade and come in a variety of green leaf colors with white or purple flowers-some fragrant. A few that Walter Cullerton, founder and past presiden of the Tri-State Hosta Society, recommends are the minis: Hosta Stilleto, Hosta Lakeside, Hosta venusta and the small hostas: are Summer Music, Peace, Allegan Fog.

Unless you are growing a solo tree, know that it is most interesting to combine plants when you can. Michael Ruggiero who teaches at the NYBotanical Gardens says you should remember the words Thrill, Fill and Spill when creating a container garden. Plant something tall in the center of the pot for the Thrill, something low in the pot for the Fill and something that hangs over the pot rim for the Spill.

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