How to Choose Plants for Container Gardens
Plants for Containers
Whether you have a large garden, a tiny one, or even just an indoor windowsill, plants in containers can enhance your home and be a great source of delight. One of the advantages of container gardening is that you can move the pots or tubs around so that those that look their best can be brought to the front, and when the plants are dormant, they can be hidden away somewhere at the back until the next season. Most gardeners who enjoy the advantages of using containers probably have some plants in the ground as well.
There are many, many plants that are suitable for growing in containers, so it all comes down to choice and what is available and suitable for your area. It is helpful to sketch out a plan and make a list before purchasing any plants. You can make decisions about the following:
- Position: You need to decide where you are going to place the containers. Is it a sunny spot? Is it in dappled shade? Is it entirely in shade? Is it indoors or outdoors? Your choice of plants will also be influenced by the climate where you live.
- Type of Plants: You need to know your purpose for wanting to grow plants in containers. Do you want your plants to be purely decorative, entirely edible, or a combination of both?
- Types of Containers: You must choose the type of containers you want to use. Perhaps you already have some that you want to use or you may have in mind what you want to buy. Will they be tubs, hanging baskets or wall-hangers? Will you choose small containers or really large ones? Or even daintily decorated ceramic pots with matching saucers?
- Know Your Budget: Before you make any choices, it is a good idea to establish your budget. Decide how much you want to spend and then try to keep to that amount, so you are not upset because you have spent too much.
Choosing Decorative Plants
When choosing decorative plants for container gardens, your choice will be influenced by the climate where you live, where you position the containers, their size, and whether you are choosing the plants for growing indoors or outdoors.
- Indoors. There is a surprising variety of decorative plants suitable for growing in indoor containers, ranging from tiny cacti, to miniature bonsai, to decorative flowers like African Violets (Saint Paulia) that will last for months. String-of-hearts is fun, too. Among shade-loving plants, there are about 100 different types of ferns, the most popular of which is probably the maidenhair—and even that has different varieties. For seasonal plants, spring bulbs can be grown indoors and include mini daffodils or even full-sized daffodils if you have the space and light. The perfume of hyacinths can be a little overpowering in a small space, but they are such fun to watch grow. Then there are good-sized palms of several different kinds and some small, slow-growing shrubs that only require watering occasionally.
2. Outdoors. There are so many containers that are suitable for growing decorative plants outdoors. They include huge terracotta tubs, large to small plastic pots, wall containers, and hanging baskets.
- Small Containers: For smaller pots, there is so much choice, including the bulbs and annuals mentioned above. Some more suggestions of colourful flowers include different types of dwarf and carpet roses, small fuchsias, and small azaleas.
- Medium-Sized Containers: These include Bergenia, and I think there are about eight different species of these perennials. They are particularly useful as, if grown in the sun, they produce lovely flowers; if in the shade, the leaves become an interesting focal point. Other ideas include canna lilies, begonias, chincherinchees, azaleas, and liliums. Some of these make great cut flowers.
- Hanging Baskets and Wall Containers: For these containers, you may decide to try annuals like petunia, lobelia, Sweet Alice, or some of the spreading and hanging perennials. If it is a shady spot, you may try a decorative fern of some kind.
- Larger Containers: Decorative plants that are suitable for larger containers include daphne and larger azaleas. Boxus grows slowly, but it's really useful if you want to try your hand at topiary. Plants suitable for larger tubs include flowering fruit trees, such as the flowering cherry, rhododendrons, lilacs and camelias. Small bulb plants or annuals can go well around the edges of large container gardens; such plants include anemone, freesias and Lachenalia (Soldier Boys). Even Christmas lilies, daffodils, dwarf agapanthus, and snowflakes may be suitable.
Choosing Edible Plants
In this useful group of plants, there are many that can be grown in containers, and what fun it is to be able to harvest your own crops. Again, there is quite a variety that can be grown both indoors and outdoors.
1. Indoors: Indoor edible plants can range from a single herb in a tiny pot to window boxes to quite large containers, if you have the space and the right position for the needs of the plants that you choose.
- Small Pots: These are quite sufficient for plants such as mustard cress that can be grown on the kitchen windowsill. A little can be snipped off with a pair of kitchen scissors and added as a garnish to a salad or other dish. A longer window-box can accommodate quite a range of herbs, even Italian parsley if it is regularly used and trimmed to keep it tidy. Several hanging baskets of plants, such as strawberries, can be hung from a stand or frame and take up a relatively small amount of space. They can flower and fruit for a long season and look attractive, too.
- Larger Containers: Then there are the dwarf varieties of several edible plants or fruit trees that can be grown indoors if you have a suitable position. Some dwarf fruit trees have grafts so that, for example, more than one kind of apple can be grown on the same tree. Of course, although the trees may be dwarf, the fruit is not. One interesting plant that can be grown indoors is the dwarf banana. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure it would be fun.
- Choosing Plants that Can be Both Indoors and Outdoors: Potted tomatoes, capsicums, and aubergines can be either grown indoors completely or brought on quickly while the weather is cool and then taken outside later to continue growing and producing. A number of other small fruit and vegetables can be treated in the same way.
2. Outdoors. It is surprising how many different kinds of edible plants can be chosen for container gardens outdoors. The size of your containers will, of course, influence the plants that you choose. Some will be annuals while others can remain productive in the same containers for years.
- Edible Plants for Small Containers: These can be quite suitable for herbs that are happy to be grown outside all the year round, depending on your local climate. The pots can be placed together to make an interesting display, probably near your kitchen, so they are easily accessible. Herbs include sweet basil, coriander, parsley, thyme and marjoram; even chives and garlic chives are good in small pots.
- Edible Plants for Medium Sized Containers: Herbs such as sage, cardamom and mint need larger containers. Pots of some kind are especially useful for the different kinds of mint as it is inclined to run everywhere in the garden if it is not contained. Cardamon is a wonderful herb as the leaves can be used for wrapping food while the rhizomes can be used in a similar way to ginger. At the moment I even have water chestnut growing in a plastic bucket, waiting until I make a proper small pond for it, but it seems to be flourishing right where it is.
Other plants that grow well in medium sized containers include strawberries, tomatoes, baby carrots, chilli, some species of cucumber, baby leaf spinach, butter and other kinds of lettuce, dwarf beans, even parsnips and turnips. I also grow asparagus in long tubs. As this plant will continue to grow for many years it is a good idea to use a container that will last and that will be deep enough to contain the roots of the asparagus. It is a very satisfying and rewarding plant to grow and can be eaten either raw or cooked.
- Edible Plants for Larger Containers: Larger containers may vary in size. The one shown here is great for just the amount of rhubarb I like to grow. Larger containers are also good for growing vegetables such as potatoes. I have seen containers for potatoes that are not pots at all, but a series of old car tyres that have been piled on top of each other. This is eminently suitable for potatoes as they need soil added as they grow if you want to augment your crop. As you add another tyre, you add more soil, the plant grows higher and sends out more roots that end in more potatoes being formed.
- Edible Plants for Really Large Containers: These may be huge pots that will remain in the same position for years. Such pots can be very decorative and enhance the whole appearance of the garden. You can choose from quite a range of fruit trees and citrus trees. They are also suitable for berry plants, such as the species of blackberry that does not spread, gooseberries and red and black currants.
Care of Plants
- Containers. Although we are mostly discussing the choice of plants to put in containers, thought must be put into the types of containers to be used. Most of the containers in my illustrations are simple and inexpensive. They're not looking their best, either, as it was winter when I took these photographs. However, this last pot is quite attractive, but it was not a good choice. It contains a small loquat tree. There are no drainage holes in the pot and when it rains the pot fills with water. Sometimes I forget to tip it out and I'm surprised the plant is still alive with such wet feet. Moral: choose containers carefully.
- Soils. Another topic that needs consideration is the type of soil that will go in your pots and containers. This needs to be chosen according to the needs of the plant you have chosen for your container garden. There are many soils on the market that are already made up with the right balance of nutrition that will help your plant to be well established, such as those for African Violets and for orchids. You may choose to make up your own, again according to the type of plant that you are going to put in the container.
- Nutrition and Bugs. Just as we need food and medication for disease, so do our plants in container gardens. They need to be fed and kept free from disease. There are numerous products available in nurseries and supermarkets, but, especially if you want to grow your edible plants organically, it is important to read the labels. There are quite a few organic recipes available on the internet that can be made up easily at home. For nutrition, a food that I find suitable for almost all types of plants is a seaweed concentrate; one made from fish is also good. I use a weaker strength than advised, but do it more often, usually on a certain day each week. Then I don't forget!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.