On The Garden Path: Containers

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ORNAMENTAL LANDSCAPE: Container gardening offers gardeners with limited space the chance to enjoy flowers and vegetables.
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ALTERNATIVE GARDENING: Planting flowers and vegetables in clay or plastic pots, tubs, whiskey barrels
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Buckets or wooden planters can provide 'no bend' gardening. It's also a good way to introduce children to the joy of gardening.

Container gardening is ideal for gardeners who enjoy raising flowers and vegetables, but lack garden space. It is possible to grow lush flowers and productive vegetables in containers of different sizes, shapes and forms. In fact, plant containers placed on patios, decks, balconies, porches, windowsills or even inside under lights allow gxardeners with limited space to grow fruitful, attractive gardens.

One advantage of container gardening is that, in addition to yielding produce, the attractive foliage and colorful fruit of many vegetables have ornamental value. Creative gardeners can arrange plants to create a scene of vibrant colors, textures and blooms.

Another advantage is that containers can be moved easily, especially those with wheels, for monitoring light and shade, or during bad weather, or for storing purposes. Culinary herb planters should be placed in or near the kitchen. After the growing and harvesting seasons, containers can be moved out of sight in garages or basements.

Older gardeners especially appreciate the ‘no bend’ gardening that planters can provide. And children are intrigued with this type of gardening, where they can plant and watch the growth process, which makes this method a good way of introducing children to gardening.

It’s important to select plants, media, site and watering methods according to environment, because extreme heat coupled with high, dry winds will quickly dry the relatively small root zone area of container plants. In this case, water-holding polymers, which absorb many times their weight in water and release it as plants need it, serve as a form of insurance against loss.

One of the concerns of container gardening is the type of planter to be used. Recycled tubs, buckets, kettles, traditional clay or plastic pots, whiskey barrels, hanging baskets, tires or wooden planters all serve as plant environments. Of course, the type of container should be determined by what is planted. For example, soil will dry out faster in clay pots, because water will evaporate through the sides. Plastic containers, which are lighter in weight, are more easily moved.

Wooden planters should not be constructed of creosote- or penta-treated wood because the vapors may kill the plants. Also, leaching may occur from certain chemically treated woods. Look for foundation grade materials, which are redried after treatment with waterborne wood preservative. Containers of redwood and cedar are preferable, because they resist rotting and don’t require staining or painting. Be sure each container has holes in the bottom, so water is able to drain.

Match the container size to the plant size. Tomatoes, squash and peppers need 3- to 5-gallon containers, while smaller herbs and vegetables require 1/2- to 1-gallon containers. Keep in mind that the size of the container affects the size of the plant and how often water and fertilizer are needed.

Raised beds accommodate another type of container gardening. This type of bed is often built 6 to 12 inches up, to a level high enough to allow working in it while sitting or standing. Raised-bed gardening eliminates stooping and bending over a low area. Try raising strawberries in circular beds with higher, smaller circles resembling steps.

Soil for raised-bed gardening must be well-drained, lightweight medium. It must support plants, as well as providing water and nutrients. Plain garden soil may work for some plants, but it has a tendency to dry out and become compacted. It’s usually too heavy, and it may contain weed seeds or disease organisms.

It is important that purchased, pasteurized soil mix or homemade mixes contain two or more of the following ingredients: perlite, vermiculite, soil, sand and peat or other organic matter, such as compost, rotted manure or pine bark. Perlite and vermiculite keep mixes light and provide pore spaces for drainage. Sand also provides for drainage, but it also adds weight to containers. Organic matter holds water, so the more organic matter, the less water is needed. Soil that provides micronutrients should also be added if plants are intended to grow for more than four months.

Because container plants have restricted root systems, they must be fertilized and watered frequently. An all-purpose media may be made by using the following recipe. Mix and moisten 1 part sphagnum peat moss or composted bark or compost, 1 part vermiculite or perlite, and 1 part sand. Add 1/4 cup of 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1 bushel of mix. Mix ingredients together well.

Select plants that are suited to the location and that are pleasing in forms of color. Tomatoes, peppers, beans and other vegetables require at least six hours of full sun to be productive. Leaf and root vegetables require less sun. Flowers should also be chosen for the amount of sun they need.

Small or low-growing vegetables best suited for container gardening include lettuce, beets, chard and dwarf peppers. Flowers include petunias, dwarf impatiens, marigolds and zinnias. Herbs will thrive in small containers that can be moved inside during winter months. For larger vegetables, such as squash and tomatoes, select bush or determinate types that remain shorter in size, yet yield well.

Even if garden space is limited, container gardening can provide the satisfaction of bringing productive vegetables and beautiful flowers to your yard.

For success in this endeavor, be sure to choose your containers, soil mix, plants and location with care, and utilize your knowledge of the requirements of this type of gardening.