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Ann Wright: Utilizing container gardens

For those who want to brighten up an outdoor patio, or want to grow a small vegetable garden with limited space, container gardens might be the answer. Growing lovely flowers, edibles or a combination of the two can be fun and add beauty to an area. Container gardening is a good choice for a warm, sunny location with an accessible water source and some shade for the hottest times of the summer. Container gardens can help with the management of weeds, and reduce invasion by wildlife pests. Arranging plants in containers can bring out garden creativity.

There are a number of great choices for containers, such as old stock water tanks, large buckets, clay and ceramic pots, or fabric “Smart Pots.” Larger containers will help retain more soil moisture and, they will also accommodate more plants. Choose the right location for the largest pots and fill it on-site with soil, as the containers can become very heavy to move. Containers can be decorative ceramic, inexpensive plastic or re-purposed items such as old shoes, or kitchen tools – colanders, kettles are interesting choices. Keep in mind that:

• Clay pots are heavy and porous, requiring more careful water monitoring, and may crack if outdoors in freezing weather.

• Plastic pots are lightweight, durable and cheaper. They decrease water needed for plants.

• Metal pots hold water well but increase heat absorption. Metal pots will be more difficult to move around and more expensive. However, they will be more durable and last longer.

• Container size should fit the plants. Larger plants such as tomatoes or small trees will do better in larger containers since they have room for their roots to spread.

• Drainage is vital to the health of container plants. If the container has holes in the bottom, supporting the pot with rocks or boards keeps staining of concrete or wood to a minimum and allows better drainage. Another option is to drill holes on the sides of the pots ½- to 1 inch from the bottom. This works well for plastic pots.

• Hanging baskets are fun options to maximize space and add a decorative touch. In this area with hot, dry summers, ceramic or plastic containers manage water better, while peat-lined containers require more frequent watering. Succulents and herbs are good choices for hanging baskets since they tolerate summer weather well. Baskets draped with various herb choices are decorative as well as edible.

An important consideration for container gardens is soil choice. Don’t use garden soil. Potting soil mixes provide adequate drainage and support for root development and plant growth. Several soil mixes are commercially available, or you can use the UC Davis soil mix: equal parts sand, fir bark and peat moss. Although good drainage is essential for containers, rocks at the bottom of the container are not necessary and actually inhibit drainage.

When making a trip to the nursery to purchase plants, have a plan for your container — theme, type of plants, color combinations, etc. Read plant labels carefully. Growth habit, sun and water needs are listed. Look for healthy plants. Avoid plants with yellowing leaves. Look at the bottom of the plant container for excessive root growth and check the root ball for crowded, entangled roots. (If necessary, the roots at the bottom can be cut away allowing the spread of the roots for healthy growth).

Which to choose — annuals or perennials? Perennials may be slower to get started but will overwinter and last for several growing seasons, whereas annuals will die off in the winter. Look for “thrillers, fillers and spillers” which describe the growth habits of certain plants. Thrillers are taller plants, such as grasses, gaura, and foxglove type plants. They provide architectural interest and should be the tallest of your plant choices. Fillers are bushier, filling in lower areas beneath the taller thrillers. Examples of fillers are Heuchera, coleus, begonia, gaillardia, and heliotrope. Spillers drape over edges of the container complementing the design. Spillers may include nasturtiums, dichondra, ivy, creeping thyme and mint. Herbs can also be divided into the same growth habits to add variation to a container.

Regardless of growth pattern all plants in the same container should have similar sun and water requirements. Available sunlight may limit plant choices. Full-sun plants need 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. Many plants will tolerate less sun, but they may become leggy. Many will do well with limited sun and in fact will burn with full sun. Check plants for scorch areas and adjust the location as necessary.

Container-grown plants need more attention to water requirements. Mulching can help reduce water loss and shades the roots. You can check soil moisture levels using moisture meters, but just sticking your finger 2-3 inches into the soil will give a good measure of moisture within the soil. You can install a drip system for your containers but check the system and monitor your planting —drip lines can become clogged or dislodged.

To learn more about container gardening, check the workshop recording found on our website at https://ncmg.ucanr.org/. Or, to ask garden questions, join Master Gardeners of Nevada County at the Grass Valley Market (in the Penny’s parking lot), Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

Learn more about managing garden pests at our upcoming free workshop on June 18, “Integrated Pest Management for the Modern Gardener” at 10 a.m. at the Demonstration Garden, 1036 W. Main Street. At Also on June 18, but at 1 p.m., is the third in the Family Fun workshop series – Garden Care in the Summer. On June 25 we will present a workshop on houseplants. Check the MG website at for more information.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener

For those who want to brighten up an outdoor patio, or want to grow a small vegetable garden with limited space, container gardens might be the answer. Growing lovely flowers, edibles or a combination of the two can be fun and add beauty to an area.
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