Now that it is spring, gardeners start to inspect their patios and porches. We notice they look a little boring and a bit blah. It is time for our outdoor containers. In the northeast planting normally begins in the middle of May. The local nurseries are filled with annuals and potting soil. There is no doubt that summer containers are wonderful as my own house is filled with them. At the end of summer, I do not put the containers away for the season. Instead, I rotate my plant selections. The entrance to my house is always filled with plants of some sort.
There are several keys to year-round container gardening that are applicable to all the seasons. Any container will work whether it is plastic, metal or wood. The contents are the important issue. The average annual needs a lot of water and an ample amount of sunlight. Most plants require at least six hours to fruit/flower but should have eight to ten hours to fully grow. So, you need to think about where the container will be placed. Will it receive morning sun from the east or will it have the hot western afternoon sunlight?
In the summer if you are growing bright light plants, like petunias or cannas, the sunshine is great. However, if you want to grow coral bells and hostas in a container, you will need shade. The same rules apply for the three other seasons of the year. Your daffodils and tulips may not sprout if they are in full shade, and if they do sprout will be smaller in size.
Decide what will be in the containers and determine how much sunlight they will require. Then determine how much water the plants will use. A container plant will require more water than one growing directly in the ground because it will dry out quicker, especially when grown in full sunlight. Make sure that you have a water source near the plants like a kitchen faucet for a watering can or an outdoor faucet for the hose. Having to haul buckets of water to the plants from afar will never last and even having to drag the hose across a long distance gets old very quickly.
During the hot months of summer your plants may require watering every day to keep them healthy and alive. Spring and fall require watering, but less so than summer. Watering in the northern states does not require much work over the winter. This year I rarely watered my outdoor containers during the cold months, but rather let the snow and rain do the watering. Down south you will still need to continually water, as even the winter days can top out in the eighties. Automatic watering systems are a great option to reduce the amount of physical watering you have each week.
Another item to consider when creating outdoor containers is the fertilizing. Plants growing in the ground are fertilized by bird droppings, rotting leaves, and other natural elements. Inside a container, the plants do not receive this fertilizer so you must supply it to them. There are countless options for fertilizer. Visiting a chain store, garden nursery and hardware stores or website will allow you to find numerous brands. There are liquid solutions for quick results and there are slow-release formulas that usually come in powders or pellets. The slow-release options can be combined with the potting mix when you first plant the containers. Organic and natural fertilizers, such as fish emulsion or seaweed kelp are always a good option. Whatever you select, the plants should be fertilized at least once a month during active growth (spring & summer) and then reduced during fall and winter.
After all these items are established, you have to decide what goes into the containers. What plants will you use? This is the fun part. Summer has countless options: there are hundreds of plants to select between. There are the classic and proven plants like geraniums, coleus, petunias, and begonias. If you want to switch up the containers a little bit consider some more exotic selections like a dwarf banana, cannas, million bells or a bougainvillea.
When the temperature starts to drop you can think about fall time plants. The obvious choice is to use mums, which are found everywhere from September to November. Another choice is to use kale in your containers. This plant comes in a range of textures and varieties. You can find purple, white, and green types as well as kales that have fringed edges. An edible container of cold crop vegetables is a different look for fall that not many people create. Plants like lettuce, radishes, kohlrabi and spinach can be grown in the container. These plants are accustomed to the cold temperatures and will continue to provide food for your household. There are countless lettuce varieties available that also come in different colors, with various textures and leaf designs.
By the time Thanksgiving ends, the last of the mums have most likely died off and it is typically time to put the containers away for the winter. This is where you can get a little creative. There are plants that can be grown outdoors in containers through the cold winter months, most of which are shrubs or evergreens. Green will be the predominant color, which is still wonderful compared to the brown of December and January.
Boxwoods retain their color through the winter and can be pruned to a small ball that is aptly suited for a container. Small evergreen trees make an excellent selection for height. Yellow and redwood dogwoods add color through winter. Holly plants can also be used in a container and are a nice change of scenery because they retain their leaves through the winter and, at times, will produce crimson-colored berries. Yuccas will typically keep their green leaves through winter and there are varieties that have yellow leaves.
As spring arrives to your home, the winter plants can be removed from the containers and placed in your permanent landscaping. Pansies are one of the first flowers for your containers. This plant is available in multitudes of color which is a wonderful contrast to the outside landscape that is still brown. Everyone has bulbs starting to bloom in their yards and you can have bulbs blooming in your containers if you plant them in the fall. Snow drops and daffodils with iris reticulates will create a beautiful spring display in your containers.
Of course, not everything will grow perfectly. Some plants are finicky and just refuse to grow in a container. If you have a grouping of plants in one container, you may have a predominant plant which outgrows all the others and can take over the container. Each season is a new experiment, and you will learn as you try new plants and combinations each season. With a little research your outdoor patio can have new color each season.
Lyndsey Roth is an experienced gardener and greenhouse grower.