Question: I’ve got a blank spot in my full-sun front landscape island where nothing will grow. Do you have any suggestions?
Sure do – try container gardening! Container gardening can add so much diversity with unlimited ever-changing possibilities. Theoretically, anything that grows in the ground can be grown in a container.
There are several ways to approach container gardening, so you need to ask yourself a few questions before you dive in. Are you working with a sun, shade or part-shade area? What sort of plants are you looking to include? Do you want long-term plantings or something you can change out with the seasons? How much maintenance are you willing to do? What size containers will you need?
Let’s start with your particular situation: Full sun. If you”re looking for a long term replacement for in ground plantings, an arrangement of three colorful containers of various sizes planted with mangave (say “mang-AH-vay”) is an incredibly low-maintenance solution.
Mangave plants are hybrids between a manfreda and an agave. Manfreda is a succulent type plant native to Texas that does not die after blooming. Agave, native to Mexico, dies after blooming but produces offsets called pups that replace the dying mature plant.
The mangave offers the best of both plants. It is a fast-growing, drought-tolerant, full-sun-loving party animal that continues to grow after flowering. It may or may not produce pups, depending on the specific variety you choose.
It will fill out a container in less time than an agave and can live in the same container for years. An added bonus is the amazing number of colorful and interesting varieties available, including “Crazy Cowlick,” “Mission to Mars,” and “Purple People Eater.”
Sun-loving bromeliads are also a great low maintenance container plant. “Raspberry Blanchettiana,” “Little Harve,” “Pinot Noir” and “Pink Panties” are just a few varieties for full sun.
Making sure your potting medium drains well is key with these types of plants — they could rot if they stay too wet for too long. Mixing mulch or bark with a well-draining potting soil usually takes care of this. Setting the containers on small blocks to keep them a few inches above the ground will also ensure that water can pass through the drainage holes freely.
If you have an irrigation system with spray heads that reach the pots there”s a good chance you won’t need to do any supplemental watering, as these plants are very drought-tolerant anyway.
Most common landscape plants can be grown for years in containers. Think about how beautiful bougainvillea is when it”s in full bloom. Now picture that same plant in a large colorful pot that compliments its flower color. Double visual pleasure!
And, as we all know, bougainvillea (in my opinion, the only thorny plant that’s worth it) can easily get out of control. Containers help to keep it a manageable size. Pick a container that will allow it some room for future root growth and you’ve got yourself a very impressive specimen plant.
Containers have long been used for herbs and vegetables where outdoor space is limited. Crotons, arbicola, ixora, ornamental grasses and even some palms can be grown in containers with great success. Annuals can be added to these pots year-round for an additional pop of color.
Containers in shade or part shade give you the added benefit of choosing from a huge array of amazing shade-loving foliage plants, and shade containers will not dry out as quickly as those in full sun.
Container styles and sizes are strictly a personal choice. Basically, anything that will hold soil and drains well can be a plant container. Anything, really anything! Galvanized tubs, used boots, old sinks and toilets, baskets and even carved-out pumpkins can be homes for potted plants for a while.
You can also go traditional with glazed or terra cotta pots. Glazed pots will last longer than basic terra cotta and plants in glazed pots do not dry out as quickly as terra cotta pots – but they are much more expensive.
The larger the pot, the longer you can go between waterings once the plants have established themselves. This may influence your container choices. Large pots can be very impressive whether they are planted or just placed around as yard art.
There are ways to help the less expensive clay pots retain water for longer periods of time. A lining of newspaper or coffee filters will reduce evaporation from porous pots. Painting the outside (you can have so much fun with this) or applying several coats of stone sealer on the inside or outside works well too.
Plants that fill the entire container help shade the surface and slow down evaporation. Having cascading plants that hang down over the edges of containers will also help to shade and cool the soil and the roots inside. Adding mulch or sphagnum moss on the surface both shades the soil and reduces evaporation.
There are products on the market that tout soil moisture retention. Moisture beads or moisture crystals are made of hydrogels. These are manmade polymers that absorb moisture like a sponge and then release it slowly as the soil dries out. Diapers are made with hydrogels and are an inexpensive alternative to the more costly commercial products.
Although this may be a good idea in theory, these polymers may be carcinogenic and are thought to contain neurotoxins. The quantities used when mixed with soil are very minimal, but the possibility of these chemicals leaching into the ground still exists. If you”re going organic, this would not be an option for you.
One major key to successful container gardening is to make sure you have a water source nearby. If you have large containers, making a 50-foot trek to and from the water source will get very old, very fast. Invest in a good long hose.
Hand-watering potted plants is one of those “feel good” chores. It’s a job that requires no particular planning or thought process and allows you to just be in the moment. I personally like to do my watering with a beer in one hand and the hose in the other, but that’s just me. I truly embrace the experience.
There are a number of DIY simple drip irrigation systems that attach directly to the nearest hose spigot. Battery-powered timers are inexpensive and for the most part dependable, but you might choose to contact an irrigation expert to design and install a system for you.
Another key to success is fertilizing potted plants when necessary. Since they are contained and cannot seek out nutrients, it’s your job to provide them. Nutrients leach out of potting soil with repeated watering, so you’ve got to replace them. Slow-release pellets and liquid fertilizers work in different ways, but both do well — the choice is yours.
Container gardening can have a place on every porch and patio or in any landscape situation. Whether you live in a condo, a little house in town, a mansion on the water or a farm in the country, containers are a great way to improve the look and feel of your garden. If you happen to be a seasonal resident, consider just letting the pots remain empty in your absence and replanting when you come back. Beautiful pots make a statement all by themselves.
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, nothing says “I love you” like flowers – but flowers in containers keep on saying it for months or even years.