There are so many things to consider when starting container gardening or expanding your collection. Types and numbers of plants to grow, where the plants will go, the soil, the watering, the timing, daydreaming about how beautiful they’re going to look!
With all of these aspects to consider, it may be easy to look over one of the basics – the actual containers that are the foundation of (yes it’s in the name), container gardening. While it may not seem like one of the more important aspects, as many plants are quite happy in anything you throw them in, a little thought can go a long way. Size is the most important factor when considering a pot, as it can directly affect the happiness of the root system. The material should also be considered, partly for plant health and partly for the attractiveness factor, if you indeed care about that. There is a large amount of variation in materials and this is where it can be fun to get creative (growing flowers in a boot anyone?). Size, materials, a balance of function and aesthetics, it really is like picking out some real estate for your plants. Just like us, who could get by with the most basic house out there but might be a little happier and healthier in one that is consciously handpicked. So here’s to some happy plant house hunting!
Choosing the right size
Roots can be sensitive. Soil health has gained a lot of attention especially in recent years for how big of an impact it has on the roots and overall health of plants. If you don’t have healthy soil, you usually will not have a healthy plant. The size of the container is not going to affect the makeup of the soil, what nutrients and minerals it has, but it will affect the moisture level and how effectively the roots are able to grow.
It is better to get a pot that is too big rather than too small. The only downside if it is too big is the possibility of the soil never drying out, which herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano need. For the majority of plants, however, it is okay, even beneficial, if the soil is consistently damp. On the other hand, if the container is too small, the soil will dry out quickly and the roots will get cramped, eventually choking themselves to death. If you buy a potted herb from a nursery, it is safe to assume you need to repot in a pot that is double the size of the one it started out in.
Herbs usually do not need to be repotted if you give them a big enough pot to start out with, but other plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and some flowers will benefit from the gradual increase in pot size. In general, a plant should be the same height as the height of the pot, so changing pots when you notice that relationship will be advantageous. Certain herbs like basil and parsley have large root systems that need a deep pot, at least 30 cm.
In addition to thinking about pot size in terms of your plant’s health, it is also important to plan for the space in your home, on your balcony, etc.
Before going out and blindly buying pots that seem large enough for your plants, try to think about how they will fit and look in the space you have.
Taking some time to draw out your space and experiment with the placement of containers will ensure a focused shopping trip and it will then be fun to see the planning come to life in an organized fashion (and will eliminate the potential of having to sadly make returns of pretty pots that just don’t quite fit)!
A good consideration to make is if you want multiple plants in one container. Sometimes that can end up looking better and actually taking up less space than a lot of smaller containers. Herbs in particular can do well arranged next to each other in one pot, and your artistic side can come out when thinking about what would look good in what position.
Materials: some benefits and drawbacks
This traditional reddish-brown material is made out of an iron-rich clay and is the go-to for many plant growers. It is a porous material which allows the soil to “breathe”, maintaining consistent temperatures and moisture levels. Its earthy look naturally enhances the beauty of any plant and looks at home outside and inside. Because they are so popular it is easy to find them in a wide variety of sizes. The only things to be cautious of is its susceptibility to crack in extreme temperatures and the possibility of too much moisture loss due to its porous makeup. If possible, bring inside if the temperature outside is going to drastically change. If you are worried about moisture loss, consider glazed ones which will lock in that precious water.
While plastic isn’t the most attractive, it is inexpensive and lightweight which is important if you are thinking you may want to rearrange your pots. It is perfect for plants that will grow over the sides of the pot, hiding the not so enticing appearance. You won’t need to worry about the possibility of breakage as with terracotta – if it is good quality it can last a long time. Be cautious about dark colored ones if your plants need to get a lot of sun – the plastic will heat up quickly and it is not a breathable material, so all that heat will be trapped. Ask your nursery about them, you may be able to get some for free!
A wooden container is a beautiful natural option and has many benefits. Like plastic they tend to be lightweight, but unlike plastic they are attractive and can be shown off. They also, someone surprisingly, hold water well, and come in many shapes and sizes. Be sure to buy ones that are made out of rot-resistant woods like cedar and redwood. If you do get a softwood one, painting it with a non-toxic stain will prevent rot. It is better to not buy the cheapest versions out there as you want a well-constructed one. This is because wood will expand and shrink with the conditions (it could fall apart when expanding in the heat or shrinking in the cold). Even better, you could make one yourself with some wood scraps and a few nails, for first hand assurance that it is top quality!
Metal and concrete
These two materials can create a nice juxtaposition with what is growing inside of them. Be careful with metal, make sure it is not copper or lead which can be toxic. Metal can also get very hot, and cheaper metals will rust easily. But other than rusting it is durable and worth a shot if you are drawn to that look! Concrete is good for large, heavier plants, as it will not topple over in the wind (or be able to be snatched by an envious passerby). This could be a drawback, however, if you think you will want to move your plants in the future. If it is of good quality, concrete will last for decades, but if it is poorly made it could last only a couple of years. This is a trend everyone knows-the more you invest the longer it will last!
Get creative with what you may have around the house, or as mentioned with the wood, building some yourself. I’ll always remember a house in my town growing up that had a wheelbarrow at the end of their driveway, overflowing with beautiful flowers. It was so unique and always made me smile when I imagined that person coming up with the idea. A large variety of different containers will work, but just make sure that they have drainage holes in the bottom. Roots do not like sitting in water, so this is important. Some ideas are using a colander (talk about good drainage), cinder blocks, baskets, and old paint cans (just drill some holes in the bottom).
If you want to use containers without drainage holes, double potting is a good way to go. Use a traditional pot (probably plastic) with good drainage holes, and place that in whatever decorative container you like. As long as there is a little space for the water to drain into, it will work fine. Using this method, flowers etc. can look beautiful in a pitcher, bowl, or any container that calls your name. At the Naples FL botanical garden, I saw flowers emerging from purses, clogs, even a toilet.
And as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, an old boot can be more whimsical than you might expect when filled with your favorite flower. The more out of the box the real estate you pick is, the more you might be pleasantly surprised!