Pots are the easiest way to garden.
If you have only one square foot of sunlight where something might grow, you can grow your garden in a pot.
Gardening in a pot allows you to be spontaneously creative… and outrageously unconventional in your plant choices and design.
Pots are the “trial and error” notebook of a gardener’s education.
A friend was telling me yesterday that she’d love to find a class to teach her about designing potted plantings.
This brilliant and creative friend, an artist by profession, could definitely teach such a class !
I asked her to please let me know if she found one, because I would come with her…
But I’ve never taken a class on making pots. I have studied thousands of photographs of others’ pots in gardening books and magazines. And I’ve grown plants in pots since I was a child.
Maybe a local garden center offered such a class, once upon a time, and I just missed it. Hard to say…
But here is what I’ve already learned about growing potted plants, by long years of trial and error; and what I can share with you:
1. Choose the largest pot your space and budget allows. From a design perspective, big pots have impact.
A few big pots make a much better statement than two dozen tiny ones; unless they all match and are grouped artistically together somehow.
Big pots allow plants to grow lush and healthy. There is more room for the roots to grow and it is easier to keep the planting mix hydrated in a large pot. A larger mass of pot and soil helps moderate soil temperature in extreme weather, too.
2. Feed the soil with compost; organic amendments like Plant Tone and Osmocote; coffee grounds (high in nitrogen), and organic liquid feeds like Neptune’s Harvest. Most potting mixes are nutritionally sterile, so the plants must be fed to perform well.
3. Site the pot, then choose the plants. Know first of all where your new pot will go in your home or landscape; then select plants which will grow with the level of light and exposure to the weather that location offers.
You may have the same pot in the same spot for many years, but the plantings will switch in and out seasonally.
4. Select a ” community of plants” which will grow together harmoniously for each pot.
Choose plants which share similiar needs for light and water, but will “fill” different spaces so they weave together into a pleasing composition.
5 Select plants for contrast. Choose plants whose differences create an interesting composition.
Contrast color of foliage and bloom to create an interesting, and maybe a dramatic, visual statement.
Contrast foliage texture and shape, and choose plants which will grow to different heights and proportions so there is a balance of tall, trailing, airy, flat, round, and spiky.
6. Study nature for inspiration. Analyze how plants blend into communities in the wild. Notice what you like, and what you don’t.
Do you enjoy wide expanses of a single species growing to a fairly uniform size? Do you like grasses mixed in among the flowers?
Do you like lush vines covering structure? Do you want a classically symmetrical static look, or an asymmetrical spontaneously evolving look?
These differences matter, and you can achieve them all in pots.
7. Develop a mental image of what you hope to create in the pot before going to the garden center to purchase the plants.
Have an idea of what you hope to create, and which plants you want to use.
I often take a list with me. Others take photos. With a smart phone, you might even bookmark some photos online which are similiar to what you hope to purchase.
Now, it is a rare treat when the garden center actually has in stock everything on my list.
But, if you know your parameters for light, moisture, size, color and price; you can often make brilliant substitutions.
8. Be realistic about what you can grow. Apologies here for the downer… but realism at the beginning saves later disappointment.
Know, in advance, what you can sustain.
I know I can’t grow certain plants where deer or squirrels can reach them. I learned that I can plant tomatoes all I want, but no net or screen will prevent squirrels from stealing them as they ripen, even on the deck. I know that certain plants, like impatiens, left in reach of deer will be grazed.
Maybe you can’t water hanging baskets of Petunias every day in summer, or you don’t have enough light to keep them in bloom where you have space to hang baskets.
Once you learn and accept the parameters of your current gardening situation, it allows you to find beautiful alternatives.
9. Let time be your ally. Plant slowly and carefully, leaving sufficient room for each plant to grow.
Remember to use some combination of rooted cuttings, seeds, tubers, bulbs, and actively growing plants.
Unless you’re planting for an immediate show or competition, plan for the arrangement to evolve during the season as the plants grow, peak, and fade.
Different plants will take over as “stars of the pot” at different times during the season.
Plants will grow at different rates, and some will try to muscle out others. You will have to referee with your pruners from time to time. That is OK, and makes it more interesting.
10. Treat your potted plants like pets. K now their names, know their needs, and give consistent loving care. Expect to learn continuously when you garden. There is always more to know; and the more you know about each plant you grow, the better care you can take of it.
Plants need to be appreciated to grow well. Visit each regularly, and take care of its needs. Whether it needs water, pinching, training on a support, turning, or simply a kind word; remember that is a responsive living being.
And, a bonus:
Our plants love for us to share with them. You give your dog toys, don’t you? Plants respond to our love just as animals will.
What can you share with a plant? I dilute leftover tea and coffee, and use it to water potted plants. Tea and coffee are high in nitrogen and other phyto-chemicals. (The same pot doesn’t always get the tea, and there are plenty of “plain water” waterings so the soil doesn’t get too acid.) I use finished coffee grounds and rinsed egg shells as mulch in large pots around fruits or vegetables.
When making a pea gravel mulch, I often include something beautiful such as a shell, agate, glass marble, or crystal resting on top of the soil.
A friend scatters trimmed hair around her plants, which also helps keep deer away.
As you work with each of the plants in your potted garden, you will learn to know what it needs, and to provide for those needs. You also learn which plants grow well together, and which will not.
The real difference between someone with a “brown thumb” and someone with a “green thumb” comes down to how much attention the gardener pays to providing what each plant needs to fulfill its potential for beauty and productivity.
Each pot, each season, teaches us something new.
We continue to grow, just as our plants do.
Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014