The lone voice of horticultural reason

Designing With Containers

A recent visit to England reminded me of how little we American gardeners utilize stone walls and terraces, fences and trellises, benches, sculpture, pathways and pots in our landscapes. Even in our own country you’ll see much more evidence of these essential design elements on either coast; their use peters out noticeably in the Midwest and is blatantly missing from most Twin Cities yards. Even Iowans are way ahead of us with their creative touches of folk art, farm antiques and spare tractor parts!

Focal point is a key principle in the creation of attractive gardens and just about any properly placed, man-made structure or object can quickly accomplish the goal of establishing interest, focus, surprise and an overall unique atmosphere to your property. We are out of the caves, after all; the garden needs some sign that we’ve tamed the wilderness. Let’s start with pots.

Container gardening really only hit American gardening magazines as a hip new trend in the ’90s. Yet in Europe, where soil and space have long been in short supply, growing in containers has been around for centuries. I recall leaving the Chelsea Flower Show-considered the world’s finest-years ago on my first visit to London and being as enamored with the creative gardens glimpsed through the tall wrought iron fences of the endless city row houses we passed walking back to the hotel as I was with the grand grounds of Chelsea. Containers of every size and material, pots and urns, boxes and barrels, glistening new copper and rusted antiques, stone, wood, tile, terra cotta, metal and moss, all brimming with colorful flowers, blooming bushes, hedges and fruit trees, each container a story, a style, a stroke in the overall painting.

Pots and other container shapes made from terra cotta, an oven-fired clay material perfected in Italy, are always a wise starting point. They’re expensive, as containers go, but like house paint and camping gear, the most expensive stuff works better. Since it’s a porous material, it’s important to first soak terra cotta before use; immersing it entirely in a container filled with water and letting it soak an hour is best, but if the pot you brought home is now the biggest container you own, spraying it with a hose thoroughly inside and out in a shady spot and repeating the procedure a few times will do. (I just had an additional thought-is there a lake handy?)

Be sure that any pot or container you build, borrow, buy or abscond with has a drainage hole in the bottom, or is capable of receiving one. I suppose the exception is whiskey barrel-halves to be used as water gardens, but I’ll bet we all would have figured that out. A few inches of course gravel on the bottom, or better yet, a few pottery shards over the drainage hole and you’re ready to add the growing medium.

Avoid the bagged “potting soil” sold at garden centers; that’s for houseplants and doesn’t hold water well. Look for peat-based blends specifically made for outdoor container gardening, or make your own in the wheelbarrow using half peat moss, half black topsoil plus a shovel full or three of course sand. Moisten the medium slightly before filling terra cotta. Remember, containers dry out quickly, so in hot, sunny spots you may be watering daily.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener