Master Gardeners’ Tip of the Month: Container Gardening

Plant It In A Pot!

No matter what you want to plant – salad makings, welcoming front porch plants or a screen for your patio, you can plant some version of it in a container.  All you need is an appropriate container and some soil.

A successful container garden starts with good potting soil, complete with ample nutrients and good drainage. Certain materials will affect fertility and have an impact on drainage, so start with a soil that is labeled potting soil; if it has compost in it, even better. Then you’ll need some slow release fertilizer.

Just about anything can be used as a container. The most conventional are ceramic, terra-cotta or wood, but why not try an old wagon, hiking boots, baskets or a colander. Just make sure there are holes for ample drainage. Avoid the suggestion to put gravel in the bottom of your container to increase drainage. It doesn’t work, and in fact is counter-productive, taking up valuable soil and roots space. Also, if it’s a large container, think about how you will move it before you add soil and plants. For extra-large containers, try filling the bottom half with empty gallon milk jugs. Just make sure to leave plenty of space for soil.

Now the fun part: the plants. When you’re choosing plants for your container make sure that they are “like” plants, with the same needs (sun, water and nutrients). Consider the site where you want the container to be located (sun or shade). Most containers will require daily watering, in the warmer months; just check the container first before watering. Then make sure all the plants in one container need and like the same conditions; combining plants with different needs will allow for some to suffer while others thrive. The plant label will usually give you this information; nursery or garden center staffs are a wealth of knowledge as well – just ask.

srping 2013 container

The three key elements in a successful container designing are simple. You’ll need 1) the Thriller, 2) the Filler, and 3) the Spiller…. simple. This recipe works every time. It’s also important to consider leaf texture, color and size – try to vary each. The photo is of a container by my front door and is a good example of Thriller, Filler and Spiller. This container in the sun: Thriller – New Zealand Cabbage Tree (Cordyline australis ‘Burgundy Spire’); Filler – Ascot Rainbow Spurge (Euphorbia martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’); and Spiller – Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis). Each has a unique quality (color and texture), but all have the same sun-loving conditions. You can get even more creative by adding in a splash of color from assorted annuals like the pansies pictured here.  Happy planting!

Suggested books on container gardening:

  • Container Gardening: 250 Design Ideas & Step-By-Step Techniques (Fine Gardening)
  • The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers (Edward C. Smith)
  • Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage, and Herbs (Fern Richardson)
  • Container Gardening for All Seasons: Enjoy Year-Round Color with 101 Designs (Barbara Wise)

Q & A: To Weed & Feed or Not

Q: I live about a block and a half from the river, so I figure what I put on my lawn will wash into the river. I have opted to pull instead of poison, but I’m curious about the effect of lawn products on the health of our river and what impact does it have on the farms in the Lower Valley? Does anyone have any good information the impact? I fully intend to be shopping at our local Farmers Markets this season but I wonder about the sum of our lawn products washing into the river, making its way into the organic farms farther down river, or am I just looking way too much into this?
A: You are so right to have concerns about your gardening practices and how that affects everyone downstream, especially living close to the river. I don’t know the statistical answer to your question; however, King County is constantly monitoring the Snoqualmie River, among others, for increases in bacteria, temperature and elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Fortunately, there isn’t any industry along the river that would contribute to the pollution, but certainly increased development does have an impact. Overall, I believe the stream quality is good, but we should strive to do anything we can to protect it. Here’s a link to the King County river quality monitoring.

For homeowners, even those not living close to the river, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides leaches into the groundwater, and runoff ends up in Puget Sound via storm drains, untreated. There are some things we can do, though, to mitigate our effect on the land like reducing the amount of pesticides we use, adding compost to our gardens, mulching to help retain moisture and reduce the weed population, and water with soaker hoses to reduce runoff.  Two fact sheets on King County Extension’s website regarding gardening, water quality and pesticides.

Additional information on plant selection for container gardening and sustainable gardening practices can be found on our website at Bring your gardening questions to the Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners at the Nursery at Mt. Si on most Saturday mornings through mid-June, and then at the North Bend Farmers Market.

[The authors, Pamela Wickard and Ann Acton are master gardeners in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]

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