Get the Dirt: Container Gardening

By Lynn Barber, Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Agent, and Sonya Rose, Urban Horticulture/4H Program Coordinator, UF/IFAS Extension Hillsborough County

Container gardens are very popular today and are an attractive alternative to planting in the ground. Portability is a key feature for container gardening. Containers can be moved to a different location for sun, shade, water, weather protection and seasonal changes. If you place larger containers on wheeled plant stands, it’s even easier to move around inside your garage, porch, porch, or indoors. Containers help you control irrigation based on plant needs and encourage experimentation where you can try a wide variety of plant materials and controlled climates.

The selection of the container itself is an important decision. Porous containers, such as unglazed clay pots, earthenware, and wood, dry faster than nonporous containers. Non-porous pots, such as enamel, plastic, and metal pots, hold moisture better than porous pots, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your watering habits. Most plants die from over or under watering. Make sure there is a drainage hole at the bottom of the pot. If there aren’t any, you can use Styrofoam packing peanuts in the bottom to elevate the plant roots above the excess moisture in the bottom. Using these “peanuts” versus soil will also make the pot lighter and easier to move.

Plastic containers can be cheaper, lighter, and easier to clean than porous jars. Many plastic pots on the market today have been made to look like terracotta, so they are more attractive than in the past. Metal containers, such as brass, copper, or aluminum, usually have drainage holes in the bottom so the soil drains properly. Wire baskets are another alternative to containers and require a liner to hold the soil in place. Liners can be sphagnum moss and coconut fiber.

The nine principles of the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ program are as true for container planting as they are for landscaped beds. One of the best things about container gardening is the flexibility it offers. You can achieve the right plant, the right place, the first and most important of the nine principles, with a container even when your landscape conditions don’t match the plant’s needs. For example, if a plant likes acids, but your soil pH is alkaline, a container might be an easy fix. Add a soil amendment that acidifies the soil in the container and you have the right plant in the right place.

Locate sun-loving plants in the sun. If the soil is wet, do not water. Use slow-release fertilizers that don’t seep into the soil after irrigation or rain. After proper identification, manage pests responsibly using environmentally friendly products and treat them as needed. Select plants that attract wildlife so you can enjoy butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

Consider grouping several plants with the same requirements together to create attractive combinations. These requirements include light, water, soil texture and pH. Also consider mature height so you don’t overplant or underplant. Plants can be combined with an eye for color schemes, contrasting textures and different shapes. Be sure to consider proportions when creating plant combinations. Try to have at least one plant as tall as the pot. You can group multiple containers together to create visual impact.

In Hillsborough County, we offer container gardening micro-irrigation workshops. For more information on container garden designs and visual impact plants, go to Ask IFAS and search Container Gardens. You can reach us at 813-744-5519 or visit us at 5339 County Rd. 579 in Seffner. Remember to reduce, reuse, recycle and repeat.

Terri S. Tomasini