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University of Illinois Extension

Tips for Successful Container Gardens

April 14, 2013

One great thing about container gardens is that they can add color to otherwise dull areas such as patios, decks, balconies, and walkways, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"A pair of old boots planted with purple petunias can add a conversation piece to a home's front entrance," said Jennifer Fishburn. "In addition, container gardens can be used as a focal point in a flower garden."

Fishburn offered some tips to ensure a successful container gardening experience.

"Containers are available in a wide range of sizes, styles, materials, and colors," she said. "Anything that will hold soil and mature plants, and will drain, will make a good container--even an old tin bucket.

"No matter what container you use, it should have adequate drainage holes. Containers without drainage holes will create water-logged soil, which will cause root rot. If using a decorative container without drainage holes, put plants in a pot with drainage holes and nest it inside the decorative container."

Select containers that will blend with the surroundings. They should also be in visual proportion to the setting and match the style of your house or structure where placed.

"Also take into consideration what you plan to plant in the container," she said. "Containers should be at least six inches deep to allow room for root growth. Larger containers allow for plant combinations but also require a large amount of potting soil mix to fill the container. To decrease the amount of growing media needed, fill the bottom of the container with sweet gum balls."

It is also important to select a good quality growing media. The purpose of a growing media is to provide nutrients, water, and support to the plants. The media should be well-aerated and drain well, yet retain moisture. A sterile, soilless media is lightweight and works well for growing flowering annuals. A good mix should wet relatively easily, and should not compact excessively when wet.

"The possibilities of plant combinations are endless," Fishburn said. "Select plants that will complement one another in size, texture, and bloom color. Provide visual interest by using combinations of tall, upright plants with rounded plants and trailing plants.

"Be sure to group plants with the same light and moisture needs. Avoid mixing slow-growing and vigorous plants together. For visual impact, combine flowering plants with foliage plants."

Proper watering is essential to the success of a container garden. In the hot summer months, some containers will need daily watering.

"Water by inspection and don't put your plants on a watering schedule," she said. "Water needs will vary due to size of plants, size and type of container, and temperature.

"Gauge moisture by sticking your finger in the soil. If soil sticks to your finger, the soil is moist enough and doesn't need water. Plants given too much or too little water will die. When watering, apply enough water so that water comes out the drainage holes. If you use a saucer below the pot, be sure to drain the excess water."

Water-holding polymers can be used to extend the time between watering, however, they need to be used according to label directions. Water-holding polymers absorb water and then slowly release water back to the soil. Add water-holding polymers to the growing media prior to planting.

"Frequent watering causes a depletion of nutrients from the growing media," Fishburn said. "Water-soluble fertilizers and timed released fertilizers are good choices for providing additional nutrients to the plants.

"Timed-release, also called slow-release, fertilizers are incorporated into the growing media at planting time; some growing media include timed-released fertilizers. As the name implies, the fertilizer is released over a period of time."

Most growing media don't retain nutrients very well, and watering leaches nutrients from the soil. Water-soluble fertilizers add needed nutrients to the soil.

"Read and follow label directions when using fertilizers," she said. "For flowering plants, select a fertilizer higher in phosphorus, the second number. For foliage plants, choose a balanced fertilizer or one slightly higher in nitrogen, the first number. The brand of fertilizer is not important."

Container gardening, she concluded, can be as simple or as elaborate as space, imagination, and funds permit.

Source: Jennifer Fishburn, Extension Educator, Horticulture, fishburn@illinois.edu

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