Container Rules and Overview

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Container Gardening
Rules and Requirements

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Container Intro

Container Rules and Overview
Color and Design
Potting and Repotting
Hanging Baskets
Planting Hanging Bags
Vegetables in Containers
Layering Bulbs and Plants
Vines and Roses in Containers

Once you've got the bones and structure of your garden in place, containers provide a great way to grow wider variety of plants. 

With containers, you control the soil and the climate, and how you group them.  You can make a sculptural statement with container plants on pedestals and hanging baskets, or hide the pots with a bank of color (or hide anything else you want to!) 

Lets look at the basic rules and requirements for container gardening first.

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Rule 1. It's your garden. Use any container you want or can find. Attractive glazed pottery is readily and fairly cheaply available. Clay and terracotta pots look good anywhere. There is nothing to stop you from using whatever comes to hand. Plastic pots, half barrels, old water tanks, oil drums, large tin cans, old boots, polystyrene fish boxes - if they hold container soil you can adapt them. Just make sure the container is large enough to hold a good volume of soil (the bigger the better) and has a drainage hole or holes so that excess water can escape.

A decorative container outside an English manor house.Rule 2. There few plants that cannot be grown in a suitable size container. This includes trees and shrubs, climbers, perennials, ferns and bulbs as well as the more commonly grown annuals and tender perennials. Don't limit yourself to a few common annuals. Experiment. If all you have is a shady spot then use containers full of shade lovers. Ferns, hostas, camellias, pieris, heucheras and many others can provide foliage interest, while flowering interest can come from fuchsias, lilies and impatiens. If your container garden is sunny but windswept use plants that thrive in these conditions. Hebes, cistus, cordyline, pittosporum and many others will all add decoration and provide a shelterbelt behind which more delicate plants can grow. If you need height try climbers. Small flowered clematis, morning glory, the less vigorous climbing roses, nasturtiums and many others grow well in containers. If your container area is really warm and sheltered then try tender plants. Sub-tropical plants like bougainvillea, brugmansia, oleander, tibouchina and hibiscus will thrive outside in warm summer areas - although they will need winter protection in all but the most favoured sites.

Rule 3. Once you decide to grow plants in containers you must never neglect them. Their roots can't escape and seek food or moisture, and the top growth can't travel long distances to seek light. This means that you must give them the right conditions in the first place and continue to provide these throughout the life of the pot.

Garden in a half-barrel.About container soil. Good container soil should be free draining but also hold moisture. It should also suit the pH requirements of the plants. Rhododendrons, most heathers, camellias, pieris, skimmia, citrus and many others must have acid soil. You can buy this at the local garden centre. Others benefit from acid soils. Hydrangeas will never be blue unless the soil pH is below 6. They will grow happily in more alkaline conditions but will only come pink or red.

Use a variety of container soils depending on the requirements of the plants. Most will be fine with a 50:50 mix of soil based and organic potting soil. The soil provides weight, a reservoir of trace minerals, and an environment in which beneficial soil organisms flourish. The organic component provides water-holding materials and also improves the drainage. For acid requiring plants, use a similar mix in acid container soils. For plants that need free drainage I add very coarse sand or fine gravel. To all of these add drainage material - broken clay pots, stones or coarse gravel, or polystyrene chunks in the bottom of the pot, and a mulch of gravel on the top. What all of this means is that the plants never sit in water, but have water constantly available unless the pot dries out. If it does the soil part makes re-wetting far easier.

Aloe  aristata in clay potIf all you grow is annuals or tender perennials started afresh each year you can completely renew the container soil each spring. Don't throw the old soil out. It makes good mulch for the garden. For more permanent plants renew the top 2 inches of the soil with fresh material as growth starts in spring. Scrape off the gravel mulch and replace the soil with fresh mixture.

Regular feeding is a must. Use slow release fertilizer added to the container soil when planting. This feeds the plants for a season but there is nothing to stop you using any soluble organic fertilizer and adding to the water once or twice a fortnight. Don't forget, the acid loving plants will need their own type of fertilizer.

All about watering. Never underestimate how much water most container plants need. A large container - 18 inch diameter or above - will need at least a gallon of water per session. In hot weather this can be twice a day. A gravel mulch helps to conserve moisture, and grouping the pots reduces evaporation, but container plants go through a lot of water. If this is a problem, invest in an automatic watering system which will keep the plants constantly moist. Alternatively, grow plants that will stand some drought.  A lovely pot of Aloe aristata, a succulent, is will take days without water. Agaves, pelargoniums, yuccas, sedum, sempervivum, cacti - if they can survive your winters or you have a light frost-free place to overwinter them - all are suitable.

Container gardening alongside basement stepsRule 4. Containers look better in a group. Unless your container is exceptionally decorative a group of containers makes a far better feature than a single pot. Pots can be added and replaced as required, the group refreshed as plants go over, and new combinations tried when you get tired of seeing the same arrangement. You can easily make changes in a single container, replacing plants two, three or more times a year. Try bulbs, wallflowers and pansies in spring, summer bedding summer bulbs for the hotter months, autumn and winter interest from chrysanthemums and foliage plants.

Cascade of ColorRule 5. Grow permanent plants in their own container but combine single season plants. This is one of the rules that can be considerably bent but it is worth remembering that plants grow at different rates and some could easily overwhelm their companions. This is rarely a problem with summer bedding (although some modern strains of Petunia have an astonishing growth rate) but combining perennial plants in the same container can cause problems. Better to use one plant per pot and group the pots.

Rule 6. Provide winter protection and guard against spring frosts. In mild areas, most permanent container plants will survive the winter outdoors. You still have to guard against the containers - and the plant roots - freezing in the occasional bad spell, so pack the pots tightly together under the house walls, use sacking to insulate the sides and cover the plants with if frost threatens. In harder winter areas your pots will need to be brought under cover and the plants hardened off as spring turns into summer.

Regal lilies for early summer interest.Rule 7. Don't plant permanent plants in overlarge containers. In order to prevent the roots sitting in water, repot only when the rootball reaches the sides and begins to mat. Then move the plants to containers one or two sizes larger. For slow growing plants - pieris and camellias for instance - it may take a couple of years before the plants reach their final size. Once they do, root and top pruning every few years will help to prevent deterioration. Think of it as bonsai on a larger scale.  For more information on this, see Potting and Repotting plants.

Rule 8. Don't be frightened of using containers extensively. It's your garden. A lovely small garden can be a tiny patch behind a town house. You can grow hundreds of different plants in containers - lilies, roses, peonies, clematis, camellias, annuals of all types, rhododendrons, vegetables and fruits, and countless others. Large containers and those on pedestals can be underplanted with flourishing perennials and bulbs as well as colorful annuals or perennial groundcovers. Even using simple plastic pots, you can arrange your collection in such a way that foliage and flowers are the only things visible for a magical effect.

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