The Cranky Gardener

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Flowers in a watering can

Big Pot, Small Pot, Short Pot, Tall Pot

Let me begin with one of those blanket statements that always get me into trouble. Practically anything can be converted into a plant container. Well, so a Big Mac and fries can't be. But you can use the red, waxy cardboard french fry container to start a tomato plant.

Here's the thing: container gardening can be expensive or inexpensive — it's up to you. Sure, it would be great to be able to go to a fancy landscaping center and buy a collection of imported Italian pots, take them home where you fill them with those tiny bags of top-of-the-line potting soil and then plant them up with practically mature plants for an immediate effect. If you can afford it, go for it. In this age of instant gratification that we find ourselves in, it is an attractive prospect. Personally, imported Italian anything is out of my price range.

And while we're getting down and dirty here, there is something else I'd like to bring to your attention. Your plants don't give a rip how much you pay for their pots. There are a lot of things they do care about — adequate drainage, soil texture, sufficient water and nourishment, light and room to wiggle their toes — but they are perfectly content to grow in an inexpensive pot. Trust me on this one.

The prevailing wisdom used to be that clay pots were always best for plants because they are porous and breathe. I like clay pots and use them whenever I can. The plain terra-cotta ones come in a variety of sizes. They have drainage holes already built into them. Saucers are readily available. They are sold practically everywhere. And they are inexpensive. I bought six-inch clay pots this year for fifty cents each. The saucers were another fifty cents. So, pot and saucer for a medium-sized plant cost me a dollar. Not bad for someone on a tight budget.

But there is a downside to clay pots as well. The soil in clay pots dries out quickly. This means that you have to water your plants more often. The extra watering leaches minerals out of the soil, so you also have to fertilise more often. Here's a tip: because minerals (especially salts) do leach out of the soil when watering, don't leave the water that collects in the saucers or pour it back onto the plants. Throw it away. The salts may be too concentrated. If you want water in the saucers for root feeding, add fresh.

Another thing I like about clay pots — and recycled containers, for that matter — is that they don't overpower the plants. The plant, after all, should be the focal point, not the pot. I've seen containers with elaborate decoration used for flowering plants and multi-coloured foliage plants. Bad combination. The pots compete with the plants for your attention. If you do have a taste for highly decorative containers, then plant them with solid-coloured foliage plants. I've seen Mexican-folk-art pots planted with succulents and herbs, for example, giving a very pleasing contrast to the colorful containers.

One of my favorite ways to perk up plain clay pots is to wrap raffia underneath the rims and tie it into long, dangling bows. Craft stores have raffia in a wide variety of colours. It is also inexpensive. You can also take some of those dabs of paint left over from other projects and use them to paint the rims and saucers. You can also apply paint to your pots with a sponge to give an artsy effect. I have a friend who decoupages her clay pots. And another who enjoys tole painting and decorates her pots this way. I have seen twigs glued around the rims. Remember the macaroni flower pots you made in Scouts, usually painted a hideous gold for Christmas? Or you can glue yarn around the rims or the entire pot. I've seen them covered in burlap. Or paint them with buttermilk and let the lichens grow on them. Use your imagination. Hand-decorated pots are fun and inexpensive and you can wind up with something totally unique.

In an earlier column, I mentioned that I'm thinking about growing vegetables in pots and raised beds. So, I'm going to need some large pots. One of the best containers to recycle for tomato plants is a pickle bucket. You know, the large white ones that hold sliced dill pickles. If you work at a fast-food restaurant or know someone who does, ask for the empty ones. Poke holes in the bottoms for drainage and you have a container large enough to grow tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, eggplants or just about anything.

Other relatively inexpensive large containers are half whiskey barrels. And I have inherited — if I can get it home — an enameled washing machine tub. I plan to use it as the center for a pyramid garden. Do you have a galvanized tub that has seen better days? How about an old tractor tire? Or some five-gallon or ten-gallon paint buckets? Have a hot water heater that needs replaced? Cut it in half lengthwise with a welding torch and you have two long planters. For outside containers, you can create raised planting areas out of concrete blocks, old bricks, landscape timbers or railroad ties. Shop yard sales for old tubs and buckets. It doesn't matter if they leak, remember. You're going to put drainage holes in them anyway. Don't throw away that old trash bin. Cut it down to a manageable height, fill it with soil and you have a container large enough for a patio fruit tree. Also remember to shop the garden centers at the end of the growing season in your area. They often mark down their containers to very low prices so they won't have to store them over the winter.

Also, there are many large containers made out of plastic and other lightweight materials that have the appearance of fired clay pots. They are easier to move because of the weight and withstand freezing and thawing better than actual clay pots. Plus, they are a fifth of the cost. And while you're at the home improvement center, go take a look at the flue tiles. They make great planters.

With smaller containers, you can be even more creative. An enameled soup pot makes a perfect plant container. Have an old leaky tea kettle? Turn it into a flower pot. Have a basket with a weak bottom? Line it with an old vinyl tablecloth or a plastic trash bag and fill it with pots of herbs. Straw hat? Turn it upside down, line it with plastic and add a pot of daisies. Again, use your imagination.

We have just saved so much money on containers that we can actually afford some plants to go into them! What a deal.

I have received a request for a recipe using artichokes. Here is one of my favorites. It uses marinated artichoke hearts and is very quick and easy to prepare. Serve it with steaks or roasted pork loin.

Artichoke and Red Pepper Relish


  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 jar (12 oz) roasted red peppers, drained and cut into strips
  • 1 jar (6 oz) marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (coriander leaves) or parsley

Mash the garlic into a paste with a pinch of salt. Add the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper and whisk together. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking all the while, to form an emulsion. Add the peppers and artichokes and more salt and pepper if desired. Let set for a half hour before serving.

Next time, we will talk about the perfect potting soil and I'll give you a recipe for making your own. We'll also discuss how to decide what size container you need for particular plants.

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