No Lawn? Don't Fret! Garden In Containers You Can Grow Anything, Anywhere, Anytime

Posted: June 24, 1992

My first garden downtown was a large fire escape filled with boxes, nail kegs and, of course, flower pots. I had junipers and roses. All of my house plants, from geraniums to fig trees, spent the summer there. I added new stuff every season: California poppy from seed my father had collected, all manner of fuchsias, veggies and herbs. Now I have both a yard and community garden plot, and I still garden in containers . . . like 11 million other Americans.


I'd always wanted a lilac in my door yard, but I don't have a door yard. But I do have a lilac by my front door - it's in a whiskey barrel next to the steps. The corner between the front steps and the house is perfect for containers, especially pots of shrubs. Thousands of people have them.

In the '70s, when people had pale green or white "tire urns" (Ortho Books' "Container and Hanging Gardens"), an elderly gentleman spent his days recycling tires at the end of our Queen Village street. These days, wine barrels and concrete planters are in. Almost every block in town has planters by the steps and window boxes, too.

I gave up window boxes after termites and rot dropped my second pair right off the front wall.

I might replace them with Smith and Hawken's classic, rectangular fiberglass planters, which wouldn't fall apart every six or seven years. (Smith and Hawken, the mail-order gardening source extraordinaire, also has matching square planters that would be neat wired to the steps to deter the epidemic of plant and planter thieves). Gardener's Eden, another mail order source, has square green or white planters in their catalog, but not window boxes.


The fiberglass planters look terrific in the catalogs. They're relatively light and probably ship better than clay or aggregate. At 14 to 24 inches high, they'd hold lots of soil. Gardeners and gardening experts agree that providing enough "soil mass" is really important for lusty plants. Besides, you can grow a mini-landscape, even a hedge, in large containers.

Jon Belizoni and Phillip O'Connor, who have both won prizes for roof-top and terrace container gardens in the City Gardens Contest, swear by containers that hold lots of soil. In his first roof garden, Belizoni's plants always got late-season blahs because they lacked root room. He solved that problem with deep boxes. Three are 36-by-36-by-36 inches with wisteria vines climbing a trellis to shade part of the deck. (He expects the wisteria vines to last at least 10 years before they break out of the boxes.) One "container" is a 12 foot by 18 inch by 2 feet deep deck divider.

Belizoni lines containers with styrofoam, which keeps roots from getting

baked in the summer and frozen in winter, especially in high, windy spots. It may even slow evaporation and reduce watering. Redwood, cedar or pressure- treated lumber delays rot and insects and lasts much longer than untreated wood.

Most of O'Connor's planters are recycled fish and vegetable crates from Reading Terminal Market. (They were free, and he wanted to use his money for building the roof deck and buying plants.) Fish boxes are a foot deep. Peach and corn baskets are three or more feet deep. O'Connor lines his baskets with plastic bags to hold moisture and protect the wood. Naturally, the bags have drainage holes poked in them.

He uses the fish boxes as cache pots. Each one holds two plastic storage boxes that look like milk crates. Even fully planted, they're easy to move when he wants to rearrange the garden. The boxes are lined with hardware cloth to hold the soil in place.

O'Connor discourages the use of smaller plastic and terracotta pots because they dry out and blow over too easily. It's windy on a roof.


Light soiless mix is fine for container gardens, but not always fine enough. If you use an automatic watering system its pore-size can be too large for good lateral water movement. Don't hesitate to use commercial mixes, but remember to feed your plants regularly.

Compost, alone or mixed with sand or fine granite, is grand if you can get it. Scott Trull, a container gardener in Wisconsin, uses compost and rotten granite, sometimes 3 parts compost to 1 part sand, sometimes the other way around.

Good garden soil is a fine addition to planter mixes, according to Dennis Wolnick, Penn State's greenhouse and nursery crop specialist, who suggests adding no more than 15 percent to 20 percent. (That is 5-6 cups in a 2-gallon bucket of potting mix.) Soil prevents some salt build up and keeps pH close to neutral where you want it. It also supplies trace minerals.

Adding soil or organic matter, compost or sludge, to a peat-lite mix makes watering more efficient, because the water can move around better. Since Philadelphians can get composted sludge from the city, I asked Wolnick about it. He prefers composted sludge to uncomposted, but sludge shouldn't be any more than 25 percent of the mix because it can be high in ammonium and burn your plants.


Whether you build, recycle or buy your containers, pick ones that fit your setting: formal or informal, modern or traditional, Cape Cod, rowhouse or adobe. O'Connor said his recycled containers give the deck a country look. The shapes and weathered wood colors of the baskets and barrels, railing and deck pull the garden together.

To add height stack your containers, put some on old bricks or concrete block, or build a a board and bricks shelf. Keep your eyes and imagination open and you can find garden containers and decor free for the recycling.

With all the catalogs that come in the mail, my eye has gotten spoiled. I love the fancy new planters available, even Jazz's classic 4-foot high, 40- inch wide plastic urn. It's guaranteed for 25 years and looks like terracotta. Perfect . . . but I'd have to redesign the whole yard to get it in.

Size, color, texture and material all count whether you're buying or trash- picking. A huge glazed Chinese urn, for instance, would look weird on O'Connor's roof, even if he could get it up there.

Climate is as much a part of a garden setting as the style and scale of the built environment. Permanent containers and plants have to hold up to the weather. Terracotta may crack and peel in our climate. Wood, concrete, cement aggregates and heavy plastics hold up better. If your garden just cries for rosy clay, look for the perfect shade in another material. It's out there.

I love the look of my iron witch's cauldron next to the lilac barrel, but I only plant annuals in it. A really cold winter destroyed my everbearing fig,

because metal does not insulate the soil. Wood, fiberglass and some aggregates are better.

"Double potting" works well. You put your planted pot into a larger one with a few inches of peat moss, bark chips or styrofoam packing in the bottom and fill the space between them with the same material . . . great insulation

from heat, cold and drying winds.

If your garden is up in the air, or you move things a lot, you need to think about weight and portability. Roof-top and balcony containers, especially, should be light (if you've not built special support for them), strong and insulate the soil well. Fiberglass can be great, but watch out for corners. They may not be so crack-proof as the walls because they're not as thick. Wood and aggregates are heavier - a negative - but may hold up better - a positive.


Don't plan a container garden without a water source near by. You'll get crazy and the plants will die. I use a hose and never stray far from home during summer. To solve the water problem, you can select planters and plants that don't need a lot of water, double pot to keep the soil from drying out so fast, or install an automatic watering system. You could do all of the above.

Large containers hold moisture longer than small ones. My whiskey barrels don't need any more watering than my raised beds. Soil in plastic and glazed ceramic planters stays moist longer than in wood, even wood lined with foam. Stoneware, concrete and aggregates dry out more slowly than terra cotta. Pressed paper, plastic boxes lined with hardware cloth and wire baskets lined with sphagnum moss dry the fastest.

An automatic watering system can be anything from a "leaky hose" laid among the plants in large containers to a drip set-up with emitters for each plant, pot or hanging basket. There are emitters with flow rates from 1/4 gallon to 2 or more gallons per hour. Each container gets just what it needs. You can hide the water lines under or behind containers or in the shadows. You can turn the system on yourself when the plants need water or add a timer so it turns on even when you're away from home. In rainy climates, you can even override the timer with a moisture sensor.

Whatever system you use, you will have to water container-grown evergreens, trees, shrubs and perennials in fall and winter if you want them to live.


You can grow anything you want in containers. They'll often do better than in the garden because you can make special soil mixtures, water just when the plant needs it, and feed each plant its favorite food. The plants and style are up to you - overflowing cottage garden planters, an elegant lone bonsai, dwarf fruit trees or even a hedge.

If you want an instant garden or one that changes style and color all season, container gardens are great. Plant and replant annuals and tropicals all season. I usually start my witch's cauldron with pansies, follow them with basil that the whole block can use in gravy and then plant some chrysanthemum for the late fall. When they get old, I stuff the pot with cut evergreens and holly branches. They look good until pansy season rolls around again.

One of my neighbors has pots of spring bulbs that she covers with annuals while the bulb leaves go past. Another has an evergreen surrounded by ever- changing annuals. You can plunge pots of house plants into a container, or take cuttings in February so you'll have little ones to plant right in the container in May.

Rapid evaporation and sudden temperature changes make the microclimate in a container a lot like the Northern Plains. If you want your planting to last, choose plants that are hardy in zones 5 and 6. It's up to you whether you want to start with mature plants or with young ones. Mature plants fit their containers immediately and grow slower than young ones. They're also more expensive. Young plants may look too small for a year or two, but they'll probably adapt to container life better. You can always underplant with bulbs, annuals or ground cover 'til they fill out. Try to buy container-grown plants even if they cost more, because they are used to life in a pot.


Wherever they grow, container gardens are adaptable and beautiful. If you want, you can invent a new look every month or tend a bonsai grove for years. If it weren't for containers, I wouldn't have lilac in the door yard or a lemon in the living room. Container gardeners can grow anything, anywhere, almost anytime. What more could you want?

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