Successful container gardens
horticulture educator, University of Illinois Extension
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[May 17, 2012]
Many gardeners do not have the space, energy or
time to devote to a flower or vegetable garden. Container gardens
can function as gardens that add color to patios, decks, balconies
and walkways. Some gardeners even incorporate containers into an
existing garden as a way to add variety.
Containers are available in a wide range of size, styles
and colors. Anything that will hold soil and plants and will
drain makes a good container -- even old boots. Select
containers that will blend with the surroundings, be in visual
proportion to the setting and match the style of your house or
structure where they will be placed.
There are a couple of rules of thumb to follow when selecting
containers. The container should have adequate drainage holes
and be large enough to support fully grown plants. Containers
without drainage holes will create waterlogged soil, which will
cause root rot. Nonporous pots such as glazed clay, metal, glass
and plastic will retain soil moisture the longest.
The advantages of larger containers are that they allow for
the use of many plants and may not have to be watered as often.
The disadvantage to larger containers is the large amount of
potting mix needed to fill the container.
The first key to success is selecting a good-quality growing
medium (potting mix). The purpose of a growing medium is to
provide nutrients, water and support to the plants. A sterile,
soil-less medium that is lightweight works the best. A soil-less
mix is generally fast-draining, yet moisture-retentive. A good
mix should wet relatively easily and should not compact
excessively when wet.
The possibilities of plant combinations are endless. Select
plants that will complement one another in size, texture and
bloom color. Be sure to group plants with the same light and
moisture needs. Avoid overcrowding, as this will cause stress to
the plants. Also avoid mixing slow-growing and vigorous plants.
Provide visual interest by using combinations of tall, upright
plants with rounded plants and trailing plants. Container
gardens can be a mixture of flowers, tropical plants, vegetables
Proper watering is another key to the success of a container
garden. In the hot summer months, most containers will need
daily watering. Check containers on a daily basis. Do not put
your plants on a watering schedule, but water by inspection. Use
your finger to gauge watering needs. Plants given too much or
too little water will die. When watering, apply enough water so
that it comes out the drainage holes. If you use a saucer below
the pot, be sure to drain excess water.
Water-holding polymers can be used to extend the time between
waterings; however, they must be used according to label
directions. Water-holding polymers absorb water and then slowly
release water back to the soil.
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Frequent watering causes a depletion of nutrients from the soil mix.
Liquid fertilizers and time-release fertilizers are good choices for
providing additional nutrients to the plants. Generally time-release
(also called slow-release) fertilizers are incorporated into the
growing medium at planting time; some growing mixtures include
time-release fertilizers. Time-release fertilizers do not have to be
reapplied very frequently. Liquid fertilizers are mixed into water
and applied with a watering can. Read and follow the label
directions for liquid fertilizers. For flowering plants, select a
fertilizer higher in phosphorous, the second number. For foliage
plants, choose a balanced fertilizer or one slightly higher in
nitrogen, the first number. The brand of fertilizer is not
Good news! Due to the high concentration of plant material, there
is little to no room for weeds to grow in container gardens.
Most flowering plants will benefit from deadheading (removing old
flowers), and pinching will keep plants compact. Also don't forget
to inspect the plants on a weekly basis for insects.
Container gardens are only limited by your imagination.
[By JENNIFER FISHBURN, horticulture
University of Illinois Extension, Logan-Menard-Sangamon Unit]