Container gardens bring buckets of joy and soften the harsh contours of walls, walkways and public spaces. Plants corralled in containers can add dimension, color and whimsy to your space, with little maintenance. 

No matter how much outdoor space you have, there are numerous reasons to nurture container gardens. Whether it is a welcoming group of container plantings on the porch, pool deck or balcony, or an unusual vessel containing seasonal favorites, it is rewarding to “get down and dirty” with container gardening.

Many things can be used as planters — boots, barrels, tires and wheelbarrows are perennial favorites — but as any gardener worth their weight in Osmocote will tell you: At least one drainage hole in your planter is necessary. Drill it if you have to. Most plants will drown in a downpour if excess water cannot escape.

Good soil holds on to water and contains nutrients plants need.

“Splurge on soil — spend more on soil than plants,” say the experts from the National Garden Bureau in a recent Zoom seminar. And skip the rocks or other “filler” in large containers — go for top-shelf soil throughout, and just refresh the top few inches of soil between summer and fall.

There are many advantages to container gardening: you can move the planters to more or less sun; little weeding is needed; versatility in groupings or stand-alone pots can be explored, and it’s convenient to change out containers seasonally.

Container garden expert Laura Lapp, owner of Perfect Pots, shared a bouquet of useful tips at a recent fall container seminar at Penn Stone. Her shop on Strasburg Pike provides frost-proof ceramic pots in all shapes and sizes, as well as plants and garden accessories. Lapp has a science background and she has done extensive research on the best-quality soils, fertilizer and planting techniques to ensure your container gardens flourish.

Choose your container

Containers for gardens come in a wide range of designs, patterns, sizes and materials. One burning question is: plastic or glazed? While plastic pots are more affordable and easier to lift, they can fade, crack and break. Glazed ceramic pots from reputable dealers are pricier, but will last forever and look great all year long. Lapp said her products are winter safe when filled with soil and won’t crack in the cold. 

Using creative non-planter vessels for plants, like a colander (plenty of drainage holes), old shoes, milk delivery boxes or a steamer trunk, can be quite dramatic; however, they have varying levels of durability. A wood or leather container will break down faster than other types of pots. Some pieces, like succulents in fancy glassware lacking drainage, will need to be misted instead of watered, and still may not survive for long.

Getting started 

Once you find a suitable planter, Lapp suggested using mesh drywall tape over drainage holes to keep soil in, but allow water to flow out. Frey Brothers potting soil, made in Quarryville, is her go-to soil for planters as it holds water well and appears nearly black when moist and light brown when dry — a handy feature to avoid overwatering.

When planting fresh greenhouse plants, do not tear at the roots, Lapp said.

“Slide it out of the container gently, and place the plant’s good side out,” she said. 

Unless the roots have grown tightly around itself, just place the plant carefully in fresh soil and it will find its way.

The National Garden Bureau notes that it’s fine to pick up “grab and go” colorful mixtures from nurseries to add to your space, adding that you can plant and grow fresh colors in fall, rather than just relying on leftovers from summer. Garden bureau experts say to experiment in autumn — the sun is less intense, so you can skirt the line between sun and shade, and you’ll use less water. Evergreens with bright annuals can do the trick.

With autumn being a short growing season, gardeners can “fudge it a bit” with sun requirements, Lapp said. If a mum plant has started to bloom, it will continue to do so even in the shade, but if the plant is still closed tightly, it will need at least three hours of sun per day to start blooming. Fall plants have been growing all summer, so they tend to come in larger pots, she said. When designing your fall container garden, if the plants fit atop the pot, they will fit in when planted. 

“They can be snug,” she said, unlike spring plantings, where they need room to grow.

Taking care 

Watering is crucial to the success of container gardens. Weather and sunlight, as well as the size of the container, all influence how often it should be watered.

“The best time to water is in the morning, but anytime that is convenient for you is better than not watering,” Lapp said. 

Don’t use softened water on your plants, Lapp cautioned. The added salt “fools” plants into thinking they have taken up more water than they actually have, causing them to die of thirst.

When Lapp places plants in soil, she adds Osmocote, a multivitamin that perks up plant color. When she waters, she adds Jack’s Bloom Booster to the water, which is “like Red Bull for plants,” she said. 

Even if the container is plain, gardeners can get creative with colorful autumn plants and still make a splash. Follow the adage “thrill, fill and spill” by incorporating plants with height and a wow factor, filler plants that will complement that thrill, and plants that will cascade down your container.

Embracing cool weather favorites like ornamental peppers, grasses, echinacea, creeping Jenny, dianthus, kale and marigolds with varying heights, textures and bloom times will add interest to your container garden. Seasonal additions like warty gourds or a pumpkin stack will command attention. Whatever you choose, let your creativity run wild.


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