Container gardens: Plants don't need ground to grow

And limited space doesn't have to limit your horticultural creativity

amaier@idahostatesman.comMarch 14, 2014 


    Choose your container. You can use almost anything you want, but there are some things to keep in mind. Most important, the container needs to have good drainage so roots can breathe and you don't get mold or fungi, Camille Wells notes. She prefers terra cotta pots.

    If you're setting up your garden on an apartment balcony, make sure you're not going to be sending plant water raining down on the neighbors below.

    "That can make you really unpopular really quick," Lisa Anderson said. Even if that's not a concern, placing trays under pots is important to prevent staining of the surface below.

    Doreen Guenther encourages making use of "funky junk" for containers. "Be cute and be fun," she says. Someone might enjoy making use of an old toilet or bicycle, she says. Or you could stand a pallet upright and grow plants vertically, she suggests.

    Find the light. Most vegetables will need a lot of sun - in general, at least six hours a day, Guenther said. However, leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach will grow with more shade. Make sure you do your research and ask questions at greenhouses to ensure that plants in the same pot need the same amount of sun or shade, Cathy Creechley says. For example, petunias and daisies prefer the light, whereas canna lilies need some shade.

    Make sure the plants play well together. "Most plants get along just fine," Guenther says, but there are always exceptions. Vegetables, for example, will not grow well when planted with fennel. Creechley notes that mint will quickly overtake any other plant it shares a pot with.

    Size the plant to the pot. Simply put, "you can't grow a 6-foot-tall sunflower in a 12-inch deep pot," Anderson says.

    In general, though, most roots will go only about 9 to 12 inches deep, Anderson says.

    If you want to attempt tomatoes, you will want 18 inches of depth in the pot and at least that much width, Guenther says. "You can grow some fabulous tomatoes that way," she says.

    Line the bottom of the pot. You can use large gravel, plastic packing peanuts or even crushed soda cans, Anderson said.

    This adds weight and prevents soil from coming out of drainage holes at the bottom of pots - which should be about a half inch in diameter.

    Use sterile soil. Buy quality potting soil. Don't use dirt from your yard. Topsoil will compact too much, depriving the plants of much-needed oxygen, Anderson says. A freshly purchased potting soil will retain water better.

    When you reuse soil, you also run the risk of transferring bugs or diseases from plants that once lived in that dirt.

    Water daily. You want to pour until you see water coming out the bottom of the pot, Guenther says.

    Creechley offers another tip: Water so that the top of the soil is moist, but not muddy.

    Fertilize often. By watering so frequently, you will be flushing vital nutrients away, Guenther says, so you will need to fertilize container plants more than you might otherwise.

    Anderson suggests fertilizing once a week.


    • Try a succulent. Cacti might be the most well-known, but there are many succulent varieties to choose from. They're popular because they are easy to care for and require little water.

    • Use a small conifer as a centerpiece. "They're pretty groovy," Doreen Guenther says.

    • Give yourself a challenge. Guenther likes to start with a plant she finds ugly as a centerpiece, searching for other plants to pair it with to make it more appealing.

    • Consider decorative elements. Guenther notes that smaller varieties of hot peppers are easy to grow in container gardens and are an appealing table decoration if you can't handle the spice.

    • Include an Echinacea - or coneflower - which continues to be popular.

    • Try calibrachoa or angel wing or dragon wing begonias, which Kecia Carlson suggests for this year.


    You can find classes at many Treasure Valley locations, from the Idaho Botanical Garden ( to Boise Schools' Community Education ( Many of the area's nurseries (including FarWest, Franz Witte, Madeline George, Edwards Greenhouse, Zamzows, North End Organic Nursery and more) offer classes - including many free events. Check the nursery websites for information. Here are two upcoming classes, for instance:

    Celebrate Spring with Zing! The Madeline George design team will lead a tutorial on creating unique container gardens.

    • 11 a.m. Saturday, April 12.

    • Madeline George, 10550 W. Hill Road Parkway, Boise

    • Class is free; register at 995-2815 or email at

    Fairy Gardens & Terrariums: Learn how to put together a mini garden.

    • 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, or Wednesday, April 9

    • FarWest Landscape and Garden Center, 5778 W. State St., Boise

    • Classes are $25 each, register at 853-4000 or

Growing up in Burley on a small farm with a large garden, Camille Wells discovered the healing powers of working in dirt. Especially during her high school days, she grew accustomed to having a garden sanctuary - a place to go to take her mind off everything else.

She lost that refuge when she came to Boise for work and moved into a small apartment. But she was determined to get her fix anyway, finding a Gardening for Renters class through Boise Schools' Community Education to help get her started on a new way of thinking. After that, the number of pots on her patio began to multiply.

"It got a little out of control," she said.

She started with strawberries, reveling in the ability to wander right outside her apartment to pick a few pieces of ripe fruit for breakfast each morning. She also grew mint, basil, chives, cilantro and lavender. This year, she wants to try rosemary. And she's interested in experimenting further with her container garden, finding video tutorials online for inspiration.

Wells' thriving congregation of containers illustrates the point her class instructor, Lisa Anderson, emphasizes: "You may be limited, but you can garden."

It's still possible to grow your own produce or create a miniature escape into nature when living in a small space. If you're closely surrounded by neighbors, gardening can also be a way to create privacy - by setting up planters end to end on a balcony (just make sure you know how much weight it can hold) or even using the railings as a trellis for plants such as tomatoes or lemon cucumbers, Anderson says.

But if you're new to container gardening, start small.

"Don't get carried away and think you have to plant everything you ever wanted to grow," said Doreen Guenther, who works at FarWest Landscape and Garden Center on West State Street.

Herbs are good plants to start with when gardening in a small space, she said, and offer a fun way to explore new culinary opportunities. You can also find seeds ideally suited for containers because they produce smaller varieties of plants - such as a type of eggplant called 'Little Prince,' she said.

Just be practical with your selections, Anderson warns. Before you get started, consider the colors you find appealing or the veggies that would actually be useful to have growing on your patio.

"Don't grow stuff you don't want to eat," she said.

And - perhaps most importantly - decide how much effort and time you really have to commit to a garden.

Anderson said that beginners might want to try starting with plants instead of seeds. In general, she advocates keeping things simple.

"I go for easy," Anderson said. "I have a pretty busy schedule, and I like my yard to look nice."

Kecia Carlson, principal designer and general manager of Madeline George Garden Design Nursery off Hill Road, says planning a container garden is not that different from any kind of landscape design. You start with determining what type of investment you'd like to make - a quality piece of glazed pottery or something more inexpensive? - and then consider the look you're going for. For example, she said, if you have a dark house, lighter-colored pots will pop more.

From there, select your plants and get creative with an arrangement.

"Don't make it any harder than that," Carlson said.

The Franz Witte nursery on West State Street offers up a simple formula for designing a container: Start with a "thriller" - a centerpiece that's tall and unique. Add "filler" - colorful, upright masses. Then finish with a "spiller" - plants that spill over the container edge.

Guenther suggests selecting plants that are foils of one another to keep things interesting. She rattles off one idea: rainbow chard and 'Silver Posie' thyme planted alongside flowers.

Carlson notes that grasses can add a lot of drama to a container. Guenther said black mondo grass is a good plant to add for some contrast.

Cathy Creechley, who works in custom potting for Edwards Greenhouse, loves pairing white flowers with mosses.

"The green and white just kind of pop," she said.

Don't shy away from mixing vegetables and flowers. In fact, planting them together can be useful because the flowers will draw pollinators to the vegetables, Guenther said. African marigolds are particularly good for that, she said.

Guenther and Anderson also suggest selecting both annuals and perennials when putting together a container. It's good to mix a perennial foliage with two or three annuals, Guenther said.

There are benefits to growing in containers. Though there is always the possibility of attracting bugs, Anderson said she's had fewer problems with pests such as snails when planting in pots.

And if the thought of arranging containers is starting to get overwhelming, you can also consider a fairy garden, terrarium or bonsai tree, Guenther said.

However, container gardening experts insist that it's all trial and error.

"Don't be afraid to experiment and don't be afraid to fail," Wells said.

Allison Maier worked as a reporter in Montana and New York before joining the Idaho Statesman, her hometown newspaper, as a copy editor.

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