Container gardens: Plants don’t need ground to grow

Growing up in Burley, Idaho, on a small farm with a large garden, Camille Wells discovered the healing powers of working in dirt. Especially during her high school days, she grew accustomed to having a garden sanctuary — a place to go to take her mind off everything else.

She lost that refuge when she came to Boise, Idaho, for work and moved into a small apartment. But she was determined to get her fix anyway, finding a “Gardening for Renters” class through Boise Schools’ Community Education to help get her started on a new way of thinking. After that, the number of pots on her patio began to multiply.

“It got a little out of control,” she said.

She started with strawberries, reveling in the ability to wander right outside her apartment to pick a few pieces of ripe fruit for breakfast each morning. She also grew mint, basil, chives, cilantro and lavender. This year, she wants to try rosemary. And she’s interested in experimenting further with her container garden, finding video tutorials online for inspiration.

Wells’ thriving congregation of containers illustrates the point her class instructor, Lisa Anderson, emphasizes: “You may be limited, but you can garden.” It’s still possible to grow your own produce or create a miniature escape into nature when living in a small space. If you’re closely surrounded by neighbors, gardening can also be a way to create privacy — by setting up planters end to end on a balcony (just make sure you know how much weight it can hold) or even using the railings as a trellis for plants such as tomatoes or lemon cucumbers, Anderson says.

But if you’re new to container gardening, start small.

“Don’t get carried away and think you have to plant everything you ever wanted to grow,” said Doreen Guenther, who works at FarWest Landscape and Garden Center on West State Street.

Herbs are good plants to start with when gardening in a small space, she said, and offer a fun way to explore new culinary opportunities. You can also find seeds ideally suited for containers because they produce smaller varieties of plants — such as a type of eggplant called ‘Little Prince,’ she said.

Just be practical with your selections, Anderson warns. Before you get started, consider the colors you find appealing or the veggies that would actually be useful to have growing on your patio.

“Don’t grow stuff you don’t want to eat,” she said.

And — perhaps most importantly — decide how much effort and time you really have to commit to a garden.

Anderson said that beginners might want to try starting with plants instead of seeds. In general, she advocates keeping things simple.

“I go for easy,” Anderson said. “I have a pretty busy schedule, and I like my yard to look nice.” Kecia Carlson, principal designer and general manager of Madeline George Garden Design Nursery in Boise, says planning a container garden is not that different from any kind of landscape design. You start with determining what type of investment you’d like to make — a quality piece of glazed pottery or something more inexpensive? — and then consider the look you’re going for. For example, she said, if you have a dark house, lighter-colored pots will pop more.

From there, select your plants and get creative with an arrangement.

“Don’t make it any harder than that,” Carlson said.

The Franz Witte nursery on West State Street offers up a simple formula for designing a container: Start with a “thriller” — a centerpiece that’s tall and unique. Add “filler” — colorful, upright masses. Then finish with a “spiller” — plants that spill over the container edge.

Guenther suggests selecting plants that are foils of one another to keep things interesting. She rattles off one idea: rainbow chard and ‘Silver Posie’ thyme planted alongside flowers.

Carlson notes that grasses can add a lot of drama to a container. Guenther said black mondo grass is a good plant to add for some contrast.

Cathy Creechley, who works in custom potting for Edwards Greenhouse, loves pairing white flowers with mosses.

“The green and white just kind of pop,” she said.

Don’t shy away from mixing vegetables and flowers. In fact, planting them together can be useful because the flowers will draw pollinators to the vegetables, Guenther said. African marigolds are particularly good for that, she said.

Guenther and Anderson also suggest selecting both annuals and perennials when putting together a container. It’s good to mix a perennial foliage with two or three annuals, Guenther said.

There are benefits to growing in containers. Though there is always the possibility of attracting bugs, Anderson said she’s had fewer problems with pests such as snails when planting in pots.

And if the thought of arranging containers is starting to get overwhelming, you can also consider a fairy garden, terrarium or bonsai tree, Guenther said.

However, container gardening experts insist that it’s all trial and error.

“Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid to fail,” Wells said.


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