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Musings on Container Gardening

Updated: Apr 17

Since I now live in the city, I have a much smaller lot than what I had in the county. And, to be honest, some years the thought of shoveling through heavy clay soil—which is not altogether unlike the highest form of torture—makes me go limp. Both this newfound miniature space to garden in and my aversion (laziness?) to digging have led me to a wonderful new hobby: container gardening. I have a patio I like to sit on, and I have found that one of the most sublime pleasures in summer evenings is a chilled glass of dry riesling, some music, and the assortment of plants I have thoughtfully arranged in containers.

Do you have a small space? Or a patio or deck that you just like sitting on but want to make more welcoming and serene? Containers are the way to go. You don’t need many. 7 to 9 in just one corner of the deck to look at from your patio chaise does the trick. Though I must confess, this container gardening thing has consumed me: my patio is a lot of concrete, and being the plantsman that I am, my immediate thought was: “More containers for me!” Ergo, I have over 50 containers in my container garden. (But a lot less concrete to gaze upon.)

Some guiding principles on containers: do NOT put more than one species into one container. Allow the one container to house one species of plant—it will pop more. Of course, if it is a larger container, put 3-5 plants of that species in there. More pop! Also, for the love of god, do NOT use multi-colored pots. Let the plants do the talking, not the containers. Muted colors/textures only!

Just like arranging plants in the landscape, arrange your containers in odd numbers—ones, threes, fives (fifteens, seventeens, nineteens…). The human eye cannot break down odd numbers like it can even, and so this “power of three” will lend more robustness to your layout. And while we are talking design, let’s talk about theme. Do you want an English cottage garden look? Use lots of contrasting color. Think pentas meets begonia meets salvia. Perhaps throw in some ornamental grass like river oats to add some contrast. Or maybe it’s not the English you want to emulate, but the Japanese. Go for texture: put in lots of baby spruces, boxwoods, arborvitae, or junipers. Add more texture with a baby rhododendron in shadier environs and get just a brush stroke of color, which will make a once-in-a-season statement. And yes, you guessed it: you can plant shrubs into smaller containers! Get those tiny fellows one finds at garden centers and keep them tiny by pruning them every year. By gum, get your inner bonsai artist on and let your shears be your paint brush with those little guys.

The best thing I like about container gardening? I can change the look of my garden every year, if I want. I can move containers around, or if I had gardened with annuals the year before, I will then have to select new annuals all over again. Having a fresh palette each spring can rejuvenate the creative juices. Do not overlook container gardening: it can be liberating.


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