Pots, Not Plots

Purple and red flowers in pots grouped together
Caladiums and double impatiens make a great combination in a shady area.

uminescent orange and yellow nasturtiums spill over the edge of a large stone pot, dwarfed by the tall spikes of beautiful pink angelonia flowers along a classic brick wall in Amanda Beamon’s garden on Avon Drive.

Like many gardeners, Beamon has learned about growing in containers by trial and error. “I never had a garden growing up, so I just kind of tried planting a few things here and there,” the native New Zealander related. After her garden got a makeover by a landscape designer, she just tries to add things that complement the design.

When discussing her style of planting in the four large containers, she laughs and says, “To be honest, I just kind of stuffed plants in them. I like hydrangeas. If people gave me a gift of, you know, a grocery store hydrangea, I would plant that.” Then she would transplant them into the garden later and they’ve been successful along her drive.

When choosing a pot for planting, drainage is critical. Without it, a wet spring will bring problems like root rot and fungal issues. If there’s no way to add drainage holes to a container, try filling the bottom with Styrofoam peanuts and then planting mix on top of the peanuts.

A basic formula makes container planting easy. In the center is one big plant, the showstopper called the “thriller.” Around the tall plant are a few other plants referred to as “fillers,” and then to soften the edges are trailing plants called “spillers.”

It’s easy to plug plants into the thriller-filler-spiller recipe, but this is gardening, so there really are no rules. There are countless combinations though, sometimes without a filler or spiller. As long as it looks right to the gardener, the container is perfect.

As she grew as a gardener, Beamon learned to wait until the time was right to plant annuals. “I had to sort of experiment a little bit,” she said. “I did lose some to frost a few years ago and I just started planting them later.”

Her shade containers are filled with deep green ferns, hostas and deep pink begonias. Thrillers for shade include caladiums, elephant ears, coleus, tuberous begonias and more. Impatiens, lobelia, corydalis lutea, torenia and Persian shield are a few ideas for fillers. The spillers include sweet alyssum, sweet potato vine, creeping Jenny (Do not let it escape into the garden!), ivy, bacopa and many others.

There are countless choices for sunny locations; one favorite for a thriller is a tall canna plant. Lantana, gerbera daisies, marigolds and a host of others will work for fillers. For spillers, look at vinca vine, trailing snapdragons, nasturtiums, bidens, calibrachoa, petunias, euphorbia and many more. The variegated petunias like Night Sky or Starry Night put on a unique show and are great for hanging baskets.

Pink, yellow, orange, red and white flowers planted in the bed of an old rusted truck from the 1950s
Anything can be a container, even a pickup truck like this one at Janoski’s Farm and Greenhouse in Clinton.

A little clay pot works well for a succulent like sedum. Anything can be a container—it’s about picking the right plant for the right sized pot. It’s fun to be creative and find unique items to grow plants in. There’s a pickup truck filled with dirt at Janoski’s Farm and Greenhouse in Clinton that’s home to a multitude of flowers. Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens often use an old chair, converted to grow succulents.

a close up of bright purple and spotted white petunia flowers
Night Sky petunia and variegated flowers are ideal for hanging baskets.

When planting a container, it’s a good idea to get the planting mix moist before adding the plants. Don’t fill a pot with dry material; add the plants and then water.

Combine the planting mix in a separate tub, adding enough moisture so that the mix sticks together when squeezed, but does not drip.

When filling the container with the moist mix, leave about an inch at the top for watering. It’s nice to be able to soak the plants without worrying about water flowing over the edges of the pot.

The planting mix is something available at any good garden center, is lighter than potting soil, usually filled with nutrients and a better choice than something heavy like garden soil.

Adding about 30 to 40 percent compost into the mix couldn’t hurt either. PittMoss Plentiful, made in Ambridge, is a great choice for containers. It’s lightweight, organic, filled with natural fertilizers and uses two-thirds less water than conventional peat-based mixes. The water usage is important. Containers are a great idea early in the season, with plentiful rain, but can become a chore in late summer, with hot weather and not as much natural moisture.

hanging basket of flowers and succulents over a well taken care of garden.
Succulents are great for containers as they don’t need much water.

Bigger is better, too, when it comes to pots; the more mass of planting mix, the less watering is needed. The downside is that once a big container is put into place, it’s hard to move.

Any vegetable grown in the ground can also be grown in a container. Stay away from corn—it needs more space than it’s worth.

a pot with red flowers and bigger green and white leaves with red spots
For a shady area, caladiums and double impatiens put on quite a show.

Tomatoes are one of the most popular container-grown vegetables. Choose a pot that holds at least 15 gallons of planting mix and never let it dry out, as that causes something called blossom end rot. The plant can’t get the calcium it needs, which is usually in the soil, but unavailable without water. Self-watering containers have a reservoir at the bottom and as long as it’s filled, the soil will never dry out. Greens like lettuce, arugula, kale and others are easy to grow in pots along with a host of herbs.

Fabric pots make great containers too. They are lightweight and store flat at the end of the season. Root pouches, made from recycled water bottles, are inexpensive and last for years in the garden. A 15-gallon version filled with PittMoss can easily be moved around the garden by using the built-in handles.

Containers will need water more often than the garden. Stick a finger deep into the planting mix: If it’s dry, the pot needs water.

Fertilization is also critical during the summer months. Apply a good organic liquid fertilizer concentrate to the plants weekly.

Beamon has plans for her container garden next season. “I might switch it up a little bit,” she said. “I really liked the begonias and the ferns and stuff. But I put a perennial in the middle (of a container) and it’s actually coming back. It’s a lavender.”

Beamon enjoys a certain satisfaction in growing plants in pots. “I just like looking at them. they go on my patio, and I just enjoy seeing them. As long as the deer don’t eat them, then I’m pretty happy.”