I consider container gardens the accessories in a landscape. Sort of like the Harry Winston diamonds, the Miu Miu clutch and the Jimmy Choo shoes on Oscar night: nice, but the dress is what really matters.
The same is true in the garden. Once you have done the heavy lifting in the yard – the cleanup, the dividing and pruning and the mulching – you can take your time designing the "mini me's" of gardens – the containers.
Containers can accessorize your deck or add curb appeal to your entrance. But they also can find a niche in your garden, on the odd tree stump, hanging from a garden hook or tucked under ornamental grasses, providing a visual bonus.
Design faux pas are easier to spot in containers, and you can avoid them altogether by having someone at a garden center design and plant one for you. Likewise, catalogs sell plants in container combinations. Or go monochromatic and plant a clutch of pansies or a patio rose.
Jeff Bredenberg, in his new book "How to Cheat at Gardening and Yard Work," offers shortcuts for all manner of gardening, from growing vegetables to landscape design and container planting. It is a good book for gardeners who don't want to be caught taking themselves too seriously. Or spending too much money.
Here's some of his advice on cutting corners, saving money and maximizing the longevity of container gardens.
– You can convert all manner of found objects into containers for plants, but there must be drainage to prevent root rot. If the container doesn't have holes, either drill them or create artificial drainage with 2 inches pea gravel or wood chips. Put screen over the drainage substance to prevent the soil from washing away. Toss that found container if it doesn't work -- or if its whimsy wears out after a season.
– Don't skimp on the size of your container and then cram too many plants into it. The plants are an investment for the season, but the container is an investment you can use again. Besides, the plants will battle for water and suffer for it.
– Container gardens require water every two or three days -- more often if they are in full sun. Consider a timer-controlled drip system.
– Add compost, and the soil in your container will retain water longer. Use time-release fertilizer and you could be done with that chore for the season.
– Stands or those little clay "feet" -- anything that lifts the container off the deck or the ground -- are a good idea. This will reduce staining on the porch or deck and will keep the container garden away from pests in the yard. Consider putting the planters on small dollies so you can rearrange them or move them easily in and out of sunlight.
– Terra cotta pots are classically attractive, and their porousness allows air to get to the roots. But they dry out quickly on hot summer days. Bredenberg advises smearing petroleum jelly around the inside of the pot before adding soil. This moisture barrier, he says, should last through the growing season.
– Planting a very deep and heavy container? Fill the bottom half with Styrofoam "peanuts" and then add the soil. This makes the planter lighter and allows air to reach the roots.
– Small pots dry out quickly on hot days. Give them a big drink before you leave for work -- and add a couple of ice cubes to the surface of the soil to give an extra helping of water gradually.