At one time or another in our lives, most of us find ourselves in a position where a big garden, or even a small one, is not feasible. Maybe we live in an upstairs apartment, or in a condominium, or in the basement of our parents’ home; and an open window and a stiff breeze are about all we can expect from our outside space. Perhaps we have voluntarily downsized, giving it all up for the luxury of watching someone else battle the pollen and the weeds and the Japanese beetles from the comfort of our balconies. But then one day, while sifting through the paper or walking through a store, a well placed ad or tempting display stand awakens within us the desire to grow something.
If we have never attempted any type of gardening before, and we are still smack in the middle of our twenties, it might be easy to disregard this feeling as a momentary lapse in judgment. Gardening will come later with the mortgage and the kids and a subscription to Family Circle – besides, without a plot of one’s own, there is no such thing as a homegrown tomato, right?
Wrong. Whether you are twenty, thirty or eighty, have two acres or two square feet, I am here to tell you that you too can enjoy the pleasures of homegrown herbs, cut flowers or juicy tomatoes – all it takes is a little creativity and a container.
But before you go stuffing an Early Girl into an old boot like they’ve shown you in the trendy magazines, I think it’s important to lay down some ground rules first. We can’t have your first garden becoming your last – and we all know what August whipped window boxes look like.
When you confine a plant to a specific amount of soil, you take away that plant’s ability to search beyond the confines of its cell for moisture and food. You force it to look to you for all its needs, so it’s a good idea to understand what those needs are.
Water: You must water your pots/baskets/boots at least once a day, preferably in the morning. Some hot summers call for twice a day and a mid-afternoon rain shower as well. Terracotta pots, while exceedingly lovely, dry out exceedingly quickly, so if you wish to go for the Old World look, access your Old World farmer and do what needs to be done.
Food: Plants need more than water to survive. When a plant is in a container, elements and minerals are lost through constant leaching and must be replaced. Whether with fish emulsion or a little Osmocote, you must feed your containers – ideally about once every three weeks unless you’re using slow-release formulations.
Depth: I’ve seen people watering heat-scorched containers twice a day, feeding until foliage browns, and ending the whole saga by throwing out their trowel in favor of a pool pass and a good novel. When it comes to choosing containers, the deeper the better. The hanging baskets currently on sale at your local garden center have never, and I repeat never, been deep enough for our climate. Search out baskets and containers that will give your plants room to stretch their roots – containers which can hold moisture more than one hour after you have watered them.
Plant Choice: I love trailing lobelia as much as the next soppy English gardener, but the fact is, lobelia belongs in a window box in the middle of Wiltshire, not suspended from my Mid-Atlantic porch roof dying a long and agonizing death in the middle of July. We may start cool, but we end hot – choose container plants wisely. A good place to start is with the many varieties of geraniums and Mediterranean herbs – the Italians know what they’re doing on this one. There are also a huge amount of hybrid veggies specifically selected for containers.
And now for the Aesthetics: no matter what you decide to grow in your pot, trough, basket, etc…., there are a few more rules involved if you are going to do this thing beautifully. Containers are like throw pillows. One (unless large), is pitiable. Two are awkward. Three finally seem worthwhile – and anything over three screams luxury. Group with abandon, but do not mix an extra large terracotta pot with two six-inchers and expect them to be friends.
Keep your color choices harmonious. Orange marigolds with magenta petunias? Go back to the books and look at those color wheels – they won’t lie like your friends will when asked how your front step looks.
And above all, don’t go nuts, fill forty pots and expect to be lovingly caressing them in two months’ time. It is more striking to create a few groups of a few pots than to have pots spread out over a larger area. Take on what you can manage. If that is one window box or a group of three tomatoes on a back porch, it is far better that you manage them well than to feel overwhelmed and resentful in July.
There is something wonderfully appealing about a healthy, well cared for container garden, and something equally sad about neglected pots begging for an early death on the compost pile. Start on the right foot, maintain your containers throughout the warmer weather and there is no reason you shouldn’t be enjoying the former all season long.