Container Gardens for Everyone

By National Gardening Association Editors

A container garden can be as simple as a few pots of herbs in a windowbox or as elaborate as an array of large, outdoor planters that rotate seasonally. The bottom line? Everyone can garden in containers. Even people with large backyard gardens often include a few potted plants in their landscape. Here are just a few reasons why container gardening is so popular:

Convenience. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to step outside your kitchen door to harvest a few cherry tomatoes or some fresh basil for a last-minute salad? Even if you have a vegetable garden in your backyard, it's still nice to have a planter or window box with your favorite vegetables or herbs right outside your door.

Space constraints. Perhaps you've longed to have a garden, but your city apartment offers minimal possibilities. Even the smallest balcony can become a peaceful oasis with the addition of carefully chosen and well-placed plants.

Property layout. You may have the loveliest gardens in your large front yard -- but the deck where you spend much of your summer leisure time faces your small back yard. Why not bring some favorite flowers into your outdoor seating area by planting them in containers and placing them where you can enjoy them daily?

Sun exposure. You'd love to grow tomatoes, but your yard is too shady. Tomatoes adapt well to growing in containers, so pot some up, place them on your sunny deck, and look forward to mouth-watering tomatoes all summer long.

Before you dive into container gardening, begin by defining what your needs are, what you are trying to accomplish, and what degree of versatility you'd like to have. Then choose containers and plants that best meet your needs. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I want edibles, ornamentals, or a mix?
  • How much sun does the area receive?
  • Will I need to be able to move the plants around? This can limit the size and weight of the containers.
  • Do I want to grow perennials or annuals? In regions with cold winters, perennials in containers may need some extra protection over the winter.

Design Ideas

Plants growing in containers can soften the transition between indoors and outdoors by bringing plants into outdoor living areas such as decks and patios. Plants can be arranged in endless ways to create the ambience you want. Both containers and plants come in a wide variety of styles, colors, and shapes; mix and match plants and pots to suit your style. For example, imagine a magenta-flowered dahlia in an electric blue ceramic pot. Now, picture an silvery green ornamental grass in a weathered terra cotta pot, its leaves and flower plumes swaying gently in the breeze. Do either of these fit your garden vision?

Container gardens are versatile. Arrange colorful potted flowers close to an outdoor seating area to create an intimate ambience for a small dinner party, then move them further away to make room for a larger gathering. Place tall plants to where they'll provide shade during the heat of summer, then move them so you can soak up the sun's warmth as the weather cools. You can also move containers to a protected spot if the weather turns threatening. Place fragrant potted flowers on plant stands to maximize their allure.

Tropical Treasures

Large, tropical plants with lush foliage and vibrant flowers are very popular. Even if your climate won't let you grow these beauties year-round, you can still enjoy them during the summer months. Planters filled with canna, brugmansia, mandevilla, bougainvillea, hibiscus, elephant ear, or banana plants will elicit gasps of wonder from guests whose gardens are more staid. Arrange these around an outdoor seating area and include a water feature or a fire pit; you'll find yourself spending much of your leisure time there. Oversized tropical plants can help provide much-needed relief from the noise of city life. Strategically placed plants will create a privacy screen; add some fast-growing annual vines on trellises to complete the picture.

Trees and Shrubs in Containers

Many small trees and shrubs thrive in containers, especially in regions where winters aren't severe. Symmetrically arranged containers flanking a front entry lend a formal elegance, as do evergreen topiaries. A Japanese maple in an artful pot provides an elegant yet understated focal point for a quiet space. Many fruit trees, including varieties of figs, tangerines, lemons, and limes thrive in containers, allowing gardeners outside the plants' hardiness regions to enjoy them all summer, then move them a heated area for the winter. Hardy, flowering shrubs for containers include Rose of Sharon, weigela, and camellia. In general, the larger the tree or shrub, the larger the container you'll need. If you'll need to move the container, place it on casters or a special plant dolly before planting.

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