Gardening fads and fashions are
as perennial as gardening itself. This spring giant
plants such Colocasia (elephant ears) and Alocasia are
all over the covers of gardening magazines and catalogs.
Next year miniatures will probably return, only to be
supplanted after awhile by something else. Editorial
ink always flows like water over Niagara Falls, submerging
the old horticultural trends and carrying the new ones
along. Some gardeners follow the fads slavishly. Most
find what works in a particular situation and stick
with it, knowing that everything-from “white trash gardening”
to xeriscaping-will go in and out of fashion on a semi-regular
basis. As Sonny and Cher so aptly put it “The beat
This is especially true of container gardening.
Over the past five years or so, pots have been all the
rage. Amateur and professional gardeners, garden writers
and merchandisers have all discovered that in many situations,
growing a variety of plants in containers is a satisfying
way to put together a garden.
Needless to say, this is not a new idea.
Potted specimens have sprouted throughout history.
The Romans had pots and so did Renaissance potentates.
The Dutch have traditionally done much of their backyard
gardening in containers. In Japan and elsewhere in
Asia, potted specimens are prized both indoors and out.
The Victorians took tender greenhouse or conservatory
specimens outside in the summer to luxuriate in the
bright light and clement weather. More than one observer
has noted that legendary English gardener Gertrude Jekyll
was not above padding out her famed color borders with
potted specimens when in-ground plants flagged. In
our own time, container gardens have long been mainstays
of city terraces and balconies, rental properties and
situations where the soil is too poor or polluted to
support plant life.
One of the nicest things about pots is
that they are like wicker furniture-easy to shift around.
You can have collections of potted plants on your terrace
or deck or in the middle of your back yard, and you
can rearrange them five or six times a day if the mood
strikes you. Pots are also wonderful if your only sunny
space is an area that is paved over. Containers are
perfect for individuals who have a problem with commitment.
If a particular potted specimen proves to be ugly or
unwieldy or just not your cup of tea, you can dump it
out and start again. All relationships should be that
easy to end.
Novices to container gardening should
know that you can grow just about anything from a small
tree to a tiny alpine plant in a pot. Just make sure
that the pot is big enough. When in doubt consult a
knowledgeable person at your local garden center, and
err on the side of a pot that is too large rather than
one that is too small. To keep things manageable with
larger specimens (trees, shrubs, roses, etc.), invest
in one of the new lightweight pots. Unlike older plastic
containers that looked like cheesy imitations of terracotta,
the new lightweight pots are almost indistinguishable
from clay until you get very close. Fill those light
pots with soil-free potting mixture. If the big pot
is on a terrace or deck and you anticipate moving it
around, save your back by getting a saucer that has
wheels built into the bottom.
If you decide to invest in a collection
of potted plants, remember that they have to be watered
more often than in-ground specimens. They will also
need fertilizer every once in awhile. If you tend to
forget such things, I recommend investing in “self watering”
containers and window boxes with built-in reservoirs,
as well as timed-release fertilizer sticks that you
just plug into the soil and forget about for six or
eight weeks. Gardener’s Supply (128 Intervale Road,
Burlington, VT 05401; 800/427-3363; www.gardeners.com)
has a good selection of self-watering containers and
As a rose lover, I am glad to see that
various rose growers have acknowledged that a whole
class of people enjoy roses, but need varieties that
are easy to raise in containers and other small spaces.
Poulson, a Danish rose breeding firm, has developed
many cultivars that grow to be about 3-feet tall and
3-feet wide, perfect for containers. You can find a
selection of Poulson’s finest at Arena Roses (P.O. Box
3096, 525 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA 93447; 888/347-5580; www.arenaroses.com).
Other companies market varieties that are sometimes
described as “patio roses”. These are also bred to
have a compact growth habit.
If you want a containerized kitchen garden,
it is easy to create. Get a big pot and a tomato cage
and prepare to harvest lots of fruit. Herbs can be
grown singly in small pots or massed in larger ones.
For those living in places where deer take a toll on
garden crops, containers can be efficiently barricaded
to keep hungry animals away from lettuce, peas and other
tasty vegetables. Unless you have an enormous number
of pots, you won’t be able to raise sweet corn or feed
an army, but you can probably produce a reasonable amount
of fresh, tasty produce over the course of a summer.
Four years ago I bought a tall aster.
I wasn’t sure what color it would be when it bloomed,
so I potted up the young plant, and put it in a sunny
spot. At the appropriate time I staked the stalks to
they wouldn’t flop over. The aster thrived and bloomed
lustily. I put the pot in a place where the blossoms’
colors would complement the existing scheme. Three
years later, I have not yet decanted my aster and installed
it in the ground. Needless to say, the plant is just
fine. My aster experience is proof positive that containers
work just as well for the terminally lazy as they do
for the industrious.