It’s summer in Birmingham and everywhere you turn colorful flowers are blooming and gardens are starting to brim with the best seasonal veggies. Yet, when you return home, you’re frustrated by the lack of life in your own outdoor space. Whether it’s a concrete and metal balcony, or a vacant, dull patio, container gardening is an easy, affordable way to enjoy the benefits of gardening-even in a minimal amount of space. Spruce up an outdoor living area with colorful plants and flowers or try growing tomatoes and herbs right on your very own balcony-either way, container gardening is the sensible way to get big results.
The key to successful containers, is developing a good plan and then executing it, explains Andy Portera, co-owner of Portera Landscape Design, located in Birmingham. One of the first steps in your plan should include taking note of the amount of sunlight aimed at the area where you want to grow. “Most veggies and herbs thrive on sun so make sure you find a sunny spot for them,” says Portera. However, he also suggests being mindful to the needs of plants that prefer shade. “If you have a pot in full sun (6+ hours a day), don’t plant something that likes a good bit of shade such as caladiums or impatiens.”
Determining the type of container and the correct size is also a key factor for successful growing. Traditional containers include terracotta and glazed ceramic pots, wooden barrels, or even handcrafted window boxes. Yet, container gardening also provides a great opportunity to re-purpose items originally made for other uses, such as old wooden crates, or plastic storage containers.
“Container plants need more water than those in the ground,” explains Lisa Elliott, of Hanna’s Garden Shop near Greystone. Also, be sure to check for proper drainage holes on the bottom of your container. If it doesn’t have any, be sure to add a few. “Drill or punch them out with a screwdriver or other tool. Allowing the pot to get rid of excess water is vital to success,” says Portera, who also advises steering clear of containers made from pressure treated wood or anything that may have held toxic materials-especially if you plan to eat what’s grown in the container.
The size of the container largely depends upon the quantity and variety of plants or vegetables you’re growing, as well as the extent of space you want to occupy. Whether you have a sprawling, yet dull backyard patio, or a 4 x 4 apartment balcony, the options for arranging various containers are somewhat endless. “Anything can be grown in pots,” says Elliott, who suggests planting anything from hostas to hydrangeas, and even Japanese maples in containers .
Create texture and ambiance by using a variety of different sized pots and display them at different heights, as opposed to using several of the same size pots all lined up in a row. Arrange pots by keeping the largest container at ground level, while placing smaller ones at various heights around it using small outdoor tables or stacking them on top of upside down pots. With an endless amount of color choice, Portera does recommend using lighter colored containers. “Dark colored pots heat up quickly in the summer so I tend to stick to lighter colors.”
Before choosing a pot size, Portera recommends reading the plant label so you can be sure the pot will accommodate the plant’s eventual size. Filling the containers with quality potting soil can also make a big difference. “Bacto makes a good potting soil (found at specialty nurseries such as Collier’s, located off of Acton Road) and we also use Miracle Gro Moisture Control potting soil,” says Portera. “Also, don’t put gravel in the bottom of your pots as it is not shown to offer any benefits. In fact, gravel cuts down on the growing area for plants essentially shrinking the size of your pot.”
When choosing flowers, select colors that compliment each other and plants that grow to various heights. “Annual bedding plants are great for containers and offer a variety of colors, sizes and textures,” says Portera, who suggests plants such as begonias and lantana, and especially sedums because of their drought tolerance. Planting herbs among flowers, such as parsley or rosemary, is another fun way to add variation to containers.
The final step in container gardening is maintaining all of your hard work. “Care after planting is also critical. Pots will dry up quicker than anything in your yard so frequent, deep waterings are important,” says Portera, who adds that frequent watering is especially important after the initial planting. Here in the South, some container plantings are fine to stay outdoors year round, yet Elliott suggests being mindful. The roots (of plants in containers) are more exposed to cold temps in the winter,” she says. Another important tip is to clip any remaining deadheads once a flower has spent its bloom, doing so will promote new flower growth. And lastly, make sure to eat the herbs and vegetables you grow, encourages Portera. “Nothing is worse than veggies and herbs that never make it to your dining table.”
Written by Kate Agliata