Ready, set, go! Yes, it’s finally that time of year, the time when you can start planting your garden. (Caveat: after Mother’s Day is still the rule). The waiting has been sheer agony, passing by grocery and hardware stores’ alluring displays of not-yet-ready-for prime-time annuals and perennials this past March and April has truly challenged your will power to new extremes. Colorful gerbera daisies. Dashing delphiniums. Exotic Asiatic lilies. Pass! Like a smart gardener, you refrained from all of these tempting beauties. Why? Because you learned your lesson last year, or the year before. Mother Nature is always the one who is in charge of your garden. After too many false starts, you’ve finally mastered the art of patience, also synonymous with being a good gardener. Congratulations.
So, where to start now? You may be one of the lucky ones who has a protected courtyard or some shade or a roving, mountainous sunny spot with decent (amended) soil. But if that doesn’t describe your outdoor space, don’t fret, there is an option that creates just as much of a stop-in-your-tracks visual for your guests and neighbors to ooh and ahh over — the good, old-fashioned container garden.
Container gardening has been around for centuries, dating back to ancient times, though an exact date is unknown. Initially, containers were used practically as vessels for edible and medicinal plants. It wasn’t until the Hellenic period that the concept of container gardening would be used for aesthetics. In the ancient city of Babylon, according to legend, King Nebuchadnezzar II decided to turn container gardens literally upside down when he designed the famous Hanging Gardens for his wife. His idea was to create a lush garden where plants and flowers fell down from columns, creating a dramatic effect, thus earning the name the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These mystical gardens were also considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Over time, gardeners began to use containers more and more for beautification purposes. In the 17th century, France’s King Louis XIV had a very clever gardener, Andre Le Notre, who created vast tropical gardens using large boxlike structures to house the king’s beloved orange trees, in what became known as The Orangerie. Fast forward to the Victorian times in America when many European immigrants arrived, bringing with them their beloved plants, many of them rare species. Containers took on a whole new role where heirloom and vintage silver and gold vases, jars, and pots were commonly used to show off their prized exotic treasures, turning Victorian container gardening into an artform.
Today, container gardening continues to be more popular than ever with dozens of gardening magazines and TV shows dedicated to working with nature and a variety of receptacles. In Santa Fe, container gardening can be found all over, from private residences to downtown businesses; it’s hard not to walk through the Plaza without seeing some spectacular display of vibrant flowers cascading from hanging baskets or brimming from Mexican pots and handmade ceramic urns.
In terms of what to plant, that depends on your goal. Maybe it’s for food, maybe it’s for beauty, or maybe it’s both. Tomatoes, chiles, squash, even corn can grow in a container, you just have to consider the size of the pot as all of these plants can grow fairly large. Herbs can be mixed with annuals to create a fuller, more diverse look. Succulents and cactus have never been more popular and do well in containers; however, you will need to add perlite or pumice and coarse sand to your potting soil. Combining these plants with annuals or herbs doesn’t work due to the soil requirements, so it’s best to keep the Southwestern plants separate.
If you are planting perennials, make sure the container is deep enough for the roots to establish. You will also have to find shelter in the winter months for the plants as the dryness, freezing temperatures and wind can be an instant killer.
There are no rules for container gardening other than choosing the right sized container, making sure the plants are getting enough sun, or shade, and keeping the watering consistent. Remember, the more pots you have the more water you will need. Make sure to recycle rainwater and graywater whenever possible.
Carole A. Langrall has been in the floriculture industry for over 20 years, from working with South American flower growers to opening floral event studios in Santa Fe, NM and Baltimore, MD. As a Master Gardener, she educates and lectures on the importance of native plants, beautification projects and environmental art. She is available for demonstrations, classes and special events. Contact her at: www.flowerspy.com