Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Just try to contain yourself!

By Hortiholicus happii

If you've ever cared for a garden, I'll bet you've supplemented your designs with containers filled with seasonal flowers to add color to your deck, patio, or yard. Container gardens are a wonderful way to continue gardening in ever-smaller spaces. An astounding variety of plants makes it possible to grow full gardens in small places, with a little planning. Dwarf conifers and shrubs in containers can provide year-round greenery. Use dwarf varieties as anchors for flowering perennials with staggered bloom times and you’ll have a great year-round garden in the space of a small table. Intrigued? Here are a few tips to get you started:

♦ Be creative! Experiment! Containers are so easy to modify, why not try herbs, vegetables, or fruits that you can’t find in your local store? There are many specialty seed and plant companies that provide a wide range of plant selections; go outside your culinary and flower range and try something new. Try Nichols Garden Nursery for rare seeds and herbs, or Hydrangeas Plus for an unusual hydrangea, or Monnier’s Country Gardens, LLC for a fuchsia you’ve wanted to try. Containers are also a great way to try new combinations. This very vibrant purple and gold combination wowed everyone who visited.

♦ Plant roots need air to be healthy, so make sure your containers have adequate drainage and the soil is not heavily compacted. (A soil-less potting mix is best). If plant roots get waterlogged, they will develop root rot and you will likely need to replace the plant.

♦ Plants in containers need more frequent watering than those in the ground; soil in containers dries out much faster than soil in your yard. Drip systems are easy to find and install. Look for them at nurseries, home improvement stores, and on-line. With a drip system, you can take a trip knowing that your garden will be there when you return. Please note that drip systems need to be adjusted throughout the year to match seasonal climate changes.

♦ When choosing containers keep a few things in mind. First, use containers that are in scale for their setting and that match your overall home design. Second, use containers large enough for your plants to grow. Roots generally will reach a depth equal to two-thirds of the plant’s above-ground height. Pick a container that is as wide as the eventual canopy. Of course you can bend the rules and create stunning seasonal shows, but for long-lasting container gardens you should keep eventual plant sizes in mind. Finally, if heavy lifting is an issue, look into the new lightweight containers made of fiberglass and plastic. There are many designs that go beyond the “round plastic bin” and emulate terra-cotta and stoneware textures. Never lift a pot when you can roll it and never roll a pot when you can offer someone with a strong, young back a cup of coffee to move it for you.

♦ Plants in containers need protection from weather extremes, so pick plants that have a greater hardiness rating than your local climate. Put your less hardy plants together in separate containers so they can be brought in during harsh winter weather. Portland’s hardiness zone is generally an 8, but I like to pick plants that are rated to zones 7-6 or below when planting them in containers. (Note: microclimates exist everywhere and wind, sun exposure, and elevation can all effect hardiness ratings.)

♦ When fertilizing plants, more is not necessarily better. Rapidly growing annual vegetables generally need more nutrients than slower growing, established dwarf trees and perennials. Only apply fertilizer to match the plant growth cycle. There are many books and online sources for more information about applying nutrition to your soil. You may be surprised at how little fertilizer plants really need.

Whatever gardening activity you enjoy, make sure to be safe and take your physical abilities into account. If you have difficulty lifting, bending, and moving objects, use containers to put your garden on a more comfortable level. And don’t forget to wear your sunscreen and drink plenty of water! Never stop gardening, just stop moving boulders. Keep moving, keep growing, and keep learning. Happy gardening!

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