Published June 23, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Contain your garden: You can grow plants in just about anything that holds dirt. But first, you might want to keep these tips in mind.”
By Barb Gorges
When it comes to container gardening, Marti Bressler has a bit of everything: window boxes, hanging baskets that adorn even tree limbs, and concrete urns filled with flowers.
Below a large window at the historic home’s carriage house is a window box. She plans to install more.
“I don’t see many people using window boxes,” she said. “I don’t know why not.”
Hidden around back is her husband Larry’s vegetable garden, also planted in containers. He likes making use of what’s available, including an old enamel cooking pot, a damaged trash can and plastic tote.
Marti said her sister, Judy Day, is also a fan of unusual containers, including old-fashioned laundry sinks.
“I love containers, they are easier to take care of,” she said.
If this was the year you were going to grow your own vegetables or set out more flowers, and you still don’t have anything in the ground, never fear: Containers are here to save the day.
Local garden shops have plenty of plants left. It’s as simple as this: find a large pot, fill it with potting soil, pop in a plant and you too will have a splash of color and/or tomatoes within reach.
Anything that holds dirt will work—even an old cowboy boot or a wheelbarrow. But containers need drainage holes, so drill a few if necessary. Even if you have experience watering plants in containers without drainage, keep in mind Cheyenne is subject to sudden torrential summer rainstorms. You don’t want your petunias to float away or drown.
This year, I am growing my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in large black plastic pots that were used by a nursery for growing trees and shrubs.
I was looking for saucers to protect the patio from staining. But I decided to do without—I don’t want the pots sitting in excess water and besides, the winter sun should be able to bleach out those water stains.
Note: If you need to protect your deck, you can use an old turkey baster to suck up excess water from the saucer. But otherwise, it is easier to place containers where draining water can seep into the ground.
Whether you use porous pots (clay, concrete, unpainted wood), or non-porous pots (plastic, metal, glazed clay, painted wood), consider aesthetics and utility.
Soil in non-porous containers won’t dry out as quickly. Plastic is lighter, easier to move when it starts hailing. But, as master gardener Kathy Shreve discovered, you may need bricks in the bottom to weight them so they won’t tip in the wind.
Size is important. Kathy reminded me larger pots don’t dry out as quickly. For annual flowers, you can crowd quite a few in one pot, but for vegetables, adequate root space is more important. The more root space, the more production. Tomatoes need soil that is at least 18 inches deep, said Catherine Wissner, Laramie County horticulturist.
Neither plastic nor clay winters well when left outdoors. Freezing and thawing cause cracking and disintegration. Larry Bressler said he paints clear sealer on the outside of Marti’s concrete containers.
On the other hand, I’ve had the same old oak whiskey barrel halves for nearly 30 years now, and they have never needed maintenance, though I suspect the bottoms have rotted out so I don’t move them. And I can over winter perennials in them.
You can mold your own hypertufa container from a mixture of Portland cement, peat moss and perlite. See this website for an excellent step by step illustrated guide: http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/make-hypertufa-trough.aspx
Everyone warns against completely filling containers with garden dirt. Contained soil doesn’t provide plants what the open garden does.
On the other hand, garden plants, especially vegetables, need a little more than a soilless (peat and vermiculite or perlite) potting mix.
So, for my vegetable pots, I mixed in some leaf compost, about one-third to one-half of each pot, with standard potting soil. I did it like combining fancy cake ingredients: a little compost, a little potting soil, water, stir, repeat several times. I don’t have a place to use a shovel to combine piles of materials.
Unless your plants develop diseases, you shouldn’t have to replace the soil next year.
Many sources recommend putting rocks or stones at the bottom to improve drainage. I think that is only necessary if there is a chance that the bottom of your container will be sitting in excess water—or you need the weight.
Because so many containers are thickly planted for instant color, be sure to feed your flowers. Liquid fertilizers like compost teas or fish emulsion mixed in your watering can to the specified dilutions work well, as do time-release products like Osmocote. Marti told me she adds cow manure from the ranch to her containers every year.
If a white crust forms on the soil surface, you’ve been using too much chemical fertilizer and need to flush the salts out by over- watering your container and letting the water drain out and away, several times in the course of a few hours.
One of Marti’s chief garden pleasures is the time she spends each day watering everything with the hose, giving her a chance to deadhead and groom her plants.
But for those who can’t be in the garden as often, there is the method I saw demonstrated by Stephanie Selig, www.patioplantsunlimited.
For her busy clients, she sets up a drip irrigation system. From the distribution tubing she leads the ¼ tubing up through a drainage hole in the container before filling it, and places an emitter on the end. Of course, to accommodate the tubing and make the pot sit level, you need some little feet to raise it up. Put a timer on your system and you might be good to go—even on vacation.
You know you are done watering your container when water seeps out the bottom. Don’t let your pot sit in a saucer of water unless the water will evaporate in less than an hour or two.
When it comes to flowers, keep in mind the principles of flower arranging:
–Filler: Something tall like “spike,” a dracaena, is very popular;
–Thriller: Focal point of flashy flowers), and
–Spiller: Trailing petunias, ivy or vinca, especially for hanging pots.
In the vegetable realm, look for smaller varieties. The labels may point out which are especially suited for container gardening.
A container that is on wheels or not too big and heavy can be moved to where the plants in it get the right amount of sun and protection from the wind, without having to wait until next year to try a better location. And best of all, you can take your moveable plants inside on frosty fall nights.