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 goes on.”
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 other supplies.
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.