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How to Pick Pots for Container Gardens

The perfect pot for your container garden is one that enhances the plants and the location in which they're displayed. Choosing the right container involves a number of decisions: Determine the type of material to use — wood, terra cotta, ceramic, clay, metal. Think about your personal style. Whimsical? Try an old sink, wheelbarrow, or rubber boot. milk can. Elegant or formal? Select a classic urn on a pedestal. You also need to select a material that suits the location where you plan to display the plant and its container. A formal brick patio, for example, is ideal for terra cotta pots or elegant cut stone; a rustic woodland deck is just the place for a planter box of recycled barn wood.

Your definition of beauty and function comes into play when you start choosing the containers and matching them to plants. Whether you buy containers, make them yourself, or improvise, your attention to materials, colors, shapes, and cost can yield a great statement about your personal taste.

Also be sure to approach the selection process with a horticultural-science frame of mind. Your chosen containers need to be good for the plant — the right size, material, and shape can contribute greatly to the plant's overall health and beauty.

Garden containers: Considering porosity and drainage

Garden containers are available in a huge variety of materials —especially if you start making your own or finding unusual planter prospects. As you look for garden containers, consider at least two key factors: porosity and drainage.

  • Porosity: Some materials used for containers are more porous than others and allow moisture and air to penetrate more readily. Unglazed terra-cotta, wood, and paper pulp dry out faster but also allow soil to cool by evaporation and to "breathe" (roots need oxygen); porosity has the effect of drawing away excess water, preventing waterlogged soil. Non-porous materials like glazed terra-cotta, plastic, and metal hold soil moisture better, which can be both good and bad — depending on the importance of drainage or water retention to your particular plants.
  • Drainage: For healthy root development, soil must drain water properly and have enough space for air. Soil that is too heavy or dense can slow drainage; so can lack of a drain hole or a blocked drain hole. If drainage is slow or nonexistent, water may collect at the bottom (it can even stagnate and smell bad); roots can smother and the plant can die. Look for drain holes when selecting containers.

Garden containers: Considering shape and size

When choosing a garden container, think about what's good for the plant, and what looks nice. A garden container that's too small crowds roots, cutting off moisture, oxygen, and nutrients that are vital for healthy growth. If the pot is too big, the superfluous soil may stay too wet and can smother the roots.

Guidelines for ideal container size differ a bit for permanent plants and seasonal plants. For permanent plants like Japanese maple or conifers, think longer term and choose a pot that looks in scale with the plant when you buy it and allows room for a year or two of root growth. As a rule, when buying a nursery plant, transplant it to a container that is 2 inches deeper and wider than its nursery container. Don't be shy about taking the plants you're buying to the container section of a store to find the best match. Or if you own the container, take it into the nursery to match it up with plants.

Seasonals like annuals and bulbs can be crowded together more closely than plants that you grow in the ground, providing much more impact quickly. Crowded conditions can't persist for long, but you can satisfy the tight-quarters demands for extra water and food over your plants' short seasons. As a rule, figure that if the recommended spacing for ground planting is 10 to 12 inches, container planting translates to 6 to 8 inches apart. As a general rule of scale, if the annuals normally grow 10 or 12 inches tall, provide a pot with a diameter of at least 8 inches. If the plants grow 2 or 3 feet tall, better go for a diameter of 24 inches or a large container like a half barrel.

Improvised and whimsical garden containers

You can make garden containers from all kinds of items: broken wheelbarrows, old canisters, retired garden boots. Whatever you choose, make sure that the improvised garden container has proper drain holes and room for roots to grow.

Where to find potential containers? Try thrift stores, farm supply stores, barn sales, garage sales, antique shops, your grandmother's toolshed, or estate sales. The key is to keep your eyes open and get the word out among friends and fellow gardeners who may run into exactly what you're looking for.

Because these are not run-of-the-mill containers, your prize picks deserve special consideration so that can show them off properly. Consider these tips for putting your more unusual plantings in the proper locations:

  • Avoid clustering too many different kinds of containers together. This keeps you away from the garage-sale look, which also takes away from the uniqueness of each individual container.
  • Go for a prominent place for a single outstanding container. Put it where it can't be missed — on the front porch, atop a table (if it's small), near a window where you can see it from indoors too, or even indoors, if the container's not too big.
  • Groupings can be effective if you have, say, a collection of antique cans or buckets. Use pairs, as with urns, to frame a doorway or window. Dress up stairs, a corner of the deck, or a spot on the patio with groupings of the same type of container.
  • Consider how the container drains, and plan to drill drainage holes if necessary. Keep in mind that small containers need water often.
  • Expect long-term service outside to take its toll on some materials, including wooden buckets or wheelbarrows. Apply a preservative to keep wood from rotting.
  • Give your whimsical garden container a home that suits it. A hollowed-out piece of tree trunk is perfect brimming with colorful impatiens in a shady glade near a deck. And that old pair of leather boots filled with succulents or compact annuals and ivy may fit perfectly on the steps near the garage or workshop.

Overall, you may find that unusual containers provide welcome exclamation points in the garden. They open avenues of creativity and attract sometimes surprising, always interesting, comments and conversation.

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