The Cranky Gardener

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Flowers in a watering can

Introduction to Container Gardening

The wonderful thing about planting in containers is that it allows everyone, regardless of their circumstances, to have a garden. It also lets us be creative and whimsical. And it is the perfect way to transform a problem piece of ground, a porch or patio, a balcony or rooftop into a beautiful, restful space.

Now that I have decided to turn my old veggie plot into a container garden, I am excited about all of the design possibilities. I am planning to spend the winter with graph paper and sharpened pencil, so I will be ready in the spring to turn my plan into a reality.

Planning a container garden is similar to planning any other garden. There are certain things you must take into consideration before beginning. First it is important to carefully measure your area. The smaller your space, the more important it is going to be to have a plan, especially if the container garden is going to be your only garden. Is your area paved or not? Is it located in shade or sun? Are you creating an outdoor living area or bringing the outdoors inside? Does your garden need to be utilitarian as well as beautiful? What sorts of plants will grow well in containers? Do you know what kind of planting medium works best for containers? How do you choose the containers themselves? How do you find the perfect container for each plant? Is your garden going to be formal or informal? How do you create a garden that reflects your lifestyle and personality?

Whew, that's a lot of things to think about. That's why we're going to stretch this subject out over several articles.

Let's begin by dispelling the notion that you don't have any place to put a container garden. There are dozens of places to locate one. You can attach window boxes to the outside of windows or arrange a few containers on interior window sills. Wooden fences make wonderful backgrounds for containers, and you can even attach plant hangers directly to the fence to create a pleasing design. Don't have a wooden fence? Attach lattice board or bamboo fencing to a chain link fence to create a background. Have wooden siding? Attach plant hangers in a grouping directly to the siding. Arrange pots around the base of a tree, a birdbath or fountain. Group containers at one end of a small pond. Hang baskets of flowers from a tree or buy a shepherd's crook to hold one or two hanging baskets. Set pots filled with annuals in your perennial beds. Transform a ho-hum boring patio into a beautiful sitting area. Put a bench in front of a window and flank it with containers of various sizes. Create an apartment garden in front of a sunny window or French doors. Use a balcony or rooftop to create a relaxing outdoor living space. Use screens and containers to make a private nook in the corner of a large garden area. Use your imagination. Almost any area can be improved by the well thought out addition of container plantings.

Another point I want to address is the idea that it is always better to plant directly in the ground when you have the room to do so. Mr. Cranky and I had many discussions about this subject. Mr. Cranky always resisted planting in containers. He claimed it was unnatural and unnecessary in our case. What Mr. Cranky actually objected to was shelling out money to buy the containers and potting soil when I could just go outside and dig a hole. Theoretically he agreed with me that the judicious use of containers along with our traditional plantings would create an attractive garden. He was all for it as long as it was done in someone else's garden.

Then one year (at a prior location) I wanted to expand my veggie plot and move my herbs into the new area. Great. He went out to dig it for me and ran into unexpected heavy clay. So, I put the herbs into pots and arranged them attractively in the area. I was happy and even Mr. Cranky grudgingly agreed that this was a better solution than spending years trying to whip the soil into decent planting condition. I was so thrilled at finally scoring a point on this issue that I felt like I'd won the lottery.

So, even if you have room to create traditional beds and borders, it may be more practical for you to garden in raised beds and containers than to spend years and large amounts of money turning poor soil into good soil.

Another advantage to using containers is that you can group plants with different soil and moisture requirements in the same area. And of course, you can achieve an almost immediate effect rather than having to wait for in ground beds to become established. This is a great help when you need a finished look in a hurry.

I hope by now you are eager to create a container garden of your own. And that you have an idea of the perfect place to locate one. The garden I am going to create is located outside near two large raised beds for growing vegetables. It is bordered on two sides by shrubbery planted to hide a chain link fence. It is rectangular in shape (boring) and is approximately 12 feet wide by 24 feet long. It receives full sun. I want the garden to contain pots of culinary herbs, both annual and perennial, a small pond, a fountain, some ornamental grasses, some succulents, and well, I don't know what else yet. But I have the beginnings of an idea.

The pond kit was a birthday present from myself this year. The fountain was a gift from a dear friend who knew I wanted one but couldn't afford it. I may have to locate both of them elsewhere due to the need for electricity to them, but I'm going to try to find a way to get both of them into this area. If not, I'll use a birdbath for a focal point or move an obelisk I have in my daylily bed to the container garden. And I will need some paths through the area.

I want my area to be informal. It would look odd to have a formal planting so close to the vegetable beds. To achieve an informal effect, I will use a variety of container types, shapes and sizes. I already know I am going to build some square planting beds out of landscape timbers cut into two foot lengths. And I have several containers I can use to get started.

Containers can be very expensive, so I will need to be creative. Selecting containers is going to be the subject of the next article. We'll talk about traditional containers and not so traditional ones. We'll talk about grouping containers to achieve a pleasing effect. We'll also discuss how to make your own potting mix.

This week's recipe is inspired by a recent controversy over at Lil's Atelier over olives. We have a definite pro-olive faction and an anti-olive faction. I happen to love olives and olive oil. So I am offering you my version of a traditional tomato bread salad with the addition of, you guessed it, olives. It's very easy to make, is beautiful to serve, and is delicious.

Hypatia's Summer Salad


1 cup each of red and yellow cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup diced red onion

1 cup of mixed olives, such as kalamata, nicoise or cerignola, drained

2 cloves of garlic, smashed

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese

2 Tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1cup seasoned croûtons

Mix together everything except the cheese and croûtons and let sit for two or three hours. Right before you serve the salad, add the cheese and croûtons and stir to mix well.

The Cranky Gardener


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