Good to Grow
See the fruits (and flowers!) of your labor with container gardening
Want to extend the growing season, grow something tasty and do it all on your patio or balcony? Container and small-space gardening allows condo-dwellers and those with small patios to do just that.
First pick out a container that’s heavy enough—and large enough—to grow a few plants. A larger container means you’ll be watering less.
“Get a decent-sized container because plants use a lot of moisture. If you get a little pot you’re going to be watering way more than you need to,” advises Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
The right type of soil and fertilizer are your next ingredients. Ironically, Epping recommends a “soil-less mix” composed of peat moss and composted bark. These mixes are found at better garden centers in town. Epping says a bag of mix lasts from season to season, so you don’t have to dump out the bag at the end of the year.
For the non-gardener, fertilizing might seem overwhelming—but it’s a necessary step, even for container gardening. But it’s as simple as picking out a slow-release fertilizer, says Jamie Vanden Wymelenberg, horticulturist and grower at Klein’s Floral and Greenhouses. Slow-release fertilizers are pellets that you place on top of the soil. Every time you water, a bit of fertilizer is released. Vanden Wymelenberg recommends Osmocote by Scotts Miracle-Gro.
“Beyond [the soil] select a fertilizer that matches the plants you’re growing,” adds Epping. “There are fertilizers that are better for vegetables, and ones that are better for flowers. If you use a fertilizer for flowers on vegetables you’ll get giant plants, but hardly any fruit because of the nitrogen content. They’re all labeled as such.”
What to Get
You have quite a few options when it comes to building your own little plant paradise in a small space.
“On a patio where you may have some ground space you can actually plant in the ground and use vertical-growing plants. There is a small palette of plants like that—garden conifers (planted in a container or in the ground), narrow, up-growing yews and even small-scale pines,” says Epping.
Trellises are another decorative way to create a privacy screen and they don’t take up a lot of space.
“Vines can grow on the trellis because they don’t take up space. And Clematis has beautiful flowers that bloom at different times of the year and there are several varieties,” says Epping.
Another bonus of container gardening is that you can get a little green as early as mid-April. Gardeners can mix perennials like tulips and daffodils and annuals like pansies, violas and ornamental lettuces in containers.
“You want to select plants that like growing in the cold and can actually tolerate a frost or two. Most of the plants you’re going to deal with in container gardening are annuals, which will give you a lot of color and last for the season. But you can certainly mix perennials in, too,” says Epping.
Klein’s sells pre-planted Spring Magic containers for really low-maintenance gardening. “You can put [these containers] out most of April and into May when it’s cooler. The perennials will bloom early and you don’t have to worry about freezing. They’re great if you’re looking for early season color. Eventually you can replace the early-blooming perennials with summer blooming annuals.”
Vanden Wymelenberg touts the Proven Winner line, a line of plants that has been shown to perform in different parts of the country, is low maintenance and flowers all season long. He ticks off Diamond Frost (a plant with white flowers) and Lantanas (low-growing, umbrella-shaped flowers in different colors) as species that will flower all season and are drought-tolerant.
Container gardening is all about cycling plants in and out. Once the early-season perennials wither and the heat starts to set in mid-June, you can replace those bulbs with traditional summer annuals like petunias and begonias, which will last right through fall again. Other plants that’ll last into fall? Mums, ornamental kale and cabbage, pansies and violas all like cooler weather.
“It’s really about extending the time you can have color out on your patio and deck. You can take the fall perennials out of the container and stick evergreen boughs in for Christmas so you can have almost eight months of something in your container—you can really extend it,” says Vanden Wymelenberg.
Did you know you can even grow your own mini farmers’ market on your patio? That’s right, growing vegetables in containers is popular, too.
“A lot of people want to grow vegetables and you certainly can do that in a container,” says Epping. “Vegetable growing is very hot because people want to know where their food comes from. You can even grow vegetables and flowers in the same pot! If you’re creative you can grow quite a variety.”
Echoes Vander Wymelenberg, “I believe it’s the economy—vegetables are the buzzword in the industry right now. People are growing their own food.”
Look for smaller-scale veggies like patio tomatoes, bush cucumbers, bush beans and herbs. “
Or add some eye appeal with an eggplant called Fairy Queen. It’s a smaller purple eggplant with stripes on it. Swiss Chard has dark-colored leaves, is beautiful and you can harvest it and consume it as well,” says Vander Wymelenberg.
Go and Grow: Tips
Containers are low-maintenance, but they’re not no-maintenance. “People want maintenance free, yet they still forget to water and fertilize their plants. If you can get in a routine, that’s important. Plants do need care if you really want them looking good. That’s part of the joy of gardening—to be out working with plants,” says Vanden Wymelenberg.
When you water, make sure water comes out of the hole at the bottom of the pot. “That flushes out any soluble salts that accumulate in the soil from city water like calcium and fluoride. It also assures that you thoroughly wet the soil that’s in the pot,” says Epping.
Purchase plants that are either sun- or shade-tolerant depending on your location. “For vegetables, you need a lot of sun. If you’re growing flowers you can always select shade-tolerant varieties. If you need some sun, just push the pot out so it’s not so close to the building,” says Epping.
Mix it up. “It’s OK to mix a small shrub, perennials and annuals in a container. You can blur the line between annuals, perennials and shrubs. Euonymus Goldsplash (a lower-growing shrub with gold margins on the leaves) and Sambucus Black Lace both make really good container plants,” says Vander Wymelenberg.
Shayna Miller is associate and style editor of Madison Magazine.