Rethinking container gardens

    As spring marches onwards, now is when gardeners look at empty pots and planters and think about what to put inside them. Container plantings are perfect for gardeners with limited outdoor space, and they’re great for making entrances, decks, and patios feel more welcoming.

    Traditionally, containers gardens are designed with annuals, using something tall in the back, a trailing plant in the front, and a medium height plant with colorful flowers in the center. These mixed containers look fantastic, but lately I’ve been looking for a new formula.

    This is because except for driving a Hummer, to me nothing says pre-recession like a big container of expensive annuals that have to be replaced several times a year. These displays aren’t seen that often anymore, and when I come across them I have a flashback to 2007 and the pre-Lehmann Brothers, pre-Bernie Madoff days.

    The past few years I’ve been experimenting with containers filled mostly with plants I’ve divided from my garden, and while the effect may be subtle, it can be very effective. A big benefit here is that perennials and even shrubs in containers will overwinter and come back bigger and better in subsequent years.

    The key is to choose plants for their foliage, not their flowers. Most perennials have a short bloom season, so the leaves need to hold the interest for the rest of the year. Interesting hostas are great in containers, as are heucheras. I plunked one of each into two containers on my neighbor’s shady landing a few years ago and they’re still going strong and look great. I’m not sure she’s ever watered them.

    You can also try evergreens as an anchor in your containers, and fill in with some small plants seasonally. I have a dwarf Japanese pine tree in a big pot that looks good all year, especially in winter, and another pot planted with a ‘Sky Pencil’ Japanese holly with space around it for annuals (I do still like annuals, even if I don’t use them that much.)

    Houseplants like fancy-leaved geraniums and different succulents can also work in outside containers. Stems of both these can be snapped off the parent plant and stuck directly in the dirt, where they will form roots quickly. A few weeks ago I filled a big copper kettle from a flea market with soil and planted the top with jade plants, aloe, sedums, and echeverias that had been in different pots in the house during the winter. They should fill in soon, and next fall I’ll pull them out and bring them back inside again.

    Having almost exhausted the topic and the reader here, I’ll just add that lastly, it’s worth considering that the container makes as much of an impact as what’s inside it. Using a cheap plastic planter is fine, but you may want something more attractive and more permanent like terra cotta, ceramic, or metal, all of which should last for many years. If you browse yard sales, flea markets and thrift shops you might find some good deals and unique containers to use as planters.

    Oddly, it’s actually been more fun to design containers using what I already have in the ground and in the house than what I find in the store. Maybe we should start a movement, and call it recession gardening.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.