Container Gardening: Tips for Success
LESLIE: Even if you don’t have a big, beautiful lawn in front of your home, you can still create a beautiful landscape with container gardening that can surround your front or even your back entry.
TOM: Yes. But to be a successful container gardener, it takes a little more than just arranging pretty pots. Here with expert tips to help turn your thumb green for this project, we welcome Roger Cook, the landscape contractor on TV’s This Old House.
ROGER: Great to be here.
TOM: So Roger, container gardening has become really popular. It’s not just for flowers and shrubs. You can really grow just about anything with the right combination of containers, correct?
ROGER: Containers and the right amount of sun. I have people who grow tomatoes and herbs and every other thing in containers, right at their back door. And it’s great. They walk outside and pick what they need to make pasta.
TOM: I remember when my wife and I first got married, had our very first apartment. And she wanted to grow basil. And so we had these sort of flower boxes that hung off a railing and we couldn’t get it to go. And then one day, I’m in the supermarket and I see basil with the roots attached in the supermarket. So I bought them from the supermarket, came home and planted them. And within weeks we had like bushes of basil. So, there’s a lot of ways to do this.
ROGER: Yeah, I mean it’s just picking the right plant for the right spot, again. And you can have a lot of fun with them.
LESLIE: Now, Roger, I think, really, one of the key components to having a potted plant or a container garden is the watering element, because they do tend to dry out so quickly.
ROGER: Yeah, you have to remember they’re exposed all the way around to the sun and the wind. So they’re going to dry out faster than the surrounding environment. You need to make sure that the parts are watered adequately.
TOM: Now, I actually saw you guys use a system, on one of your Ask This Old House segments, which I thought was really interesting. It was sort of a PVC – almost like a manifold with a pipe laid in the bottom of the pot, totally covered by soil. And it had like wicks that came out of it that you filled the pipe up with water. And then, I guess, instead of having to water every day, you could fill this pipe up and have it water itself for a week or so.
ROGER: Well, I think that’s the key is keeping containers moist all the time to the right level and not letting them dry, get wet, dry, get wet. And that system was beautiful to just fill it and then walk away. That’s a win situation.
TOM: You’ve got to check that out. It’s on ThisOldHouse.com. Really interesting system.
ROGER: And the other thing is to remember to have a container large enough that can sustain the plants and hold some water.
LESLIE: And how do you know that the container is large enough for what you’re putting in there? Is there a rule of thumb?
ROGER: Yeah. If you have a container that’s 18 to 24 inches wide, then you probably want to put just 3 to 5 plants in that and give them a chance to grow out, get their roots into the soil. If you put too many plants in, the roots will all be tied together and you won’t be able to get any moisture in the soil.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. And I’ve always found that whenever it comes to our yard, I always use the containers as a really great place to sort of highlight annuals and bring in a lot of color. Is that really the best use for them or can I think about putting a perennial in there?
ROGER: It’s a good place to put annuals because it’s condensed; you’re not going to spend a lot of money. But I like to combine annuals and perennials. I like to use a perennial as like a specimen in the middle. And if it goes by – say it’s a plant that flowers early, I can flip it for another perennial and take the one I took out and put it in the landscaping so I’m recycling the plant material and not throwing it away.
TOM: We’re talking to Roger Cook, the landscape contractor on TV’s This Old House.
Now Roger, when we talk about containers, we typically think about the individual flower pots and square containers and that sort of thing. But what about the sort of living-wall version of container gardens? We have the containers sort of mounted to a wall, then going up and up and up. Number of systems available for that today, right?
ROGER: A whole bunch, including one that’s a blanket that will just cover the whole wall and has drip irrigation that starts at the top and comes all the way – I’ve seen them done in commercial applications but you could do it in a residential, also.
There’s all sorts of systems that will fit into what you have at your house. It’s just finding the right one for you and then making sure there’s a way to keep it adequately watered.
TOM: Now, I want to ask you about drainage, too. Because, of course, we’ve got to water them; they do need as much water as other plants. We don’t want to overwater them and have that water sit in there and rot the roots away.
I saw – one of your Ask segments, I believe it was – where you actually installed a very cool drainage system into a container. It was sort of a PVC arrangement. Can you talk about that?
ROGER: Right. It was a PVC planter which came with piping in the bottom and – that just allowed the water to come into the pot itself. So you would just fill it up and it would release water to the soil.
There’s a number of things we do to help hold the water in the soil and there’s things we do to drain. We want that water to drain out; you don’t want to have too much. And that’s why I always put a little bit of stone and filter fabric in the bottom.
And the key to watering is to water and find out how deep down that water is getting. If you see it coming out the bottom of the pot, that’s one indication. But you always can stick your finger in and see if the soil is moist or not.
TOM: So no limit to what you can really do with these container gardens if you’ve got the right sunshine and the right watering mix in the soil to support it.
ROGER: And a great solution for people who only have small yards or a deck or even a balcony.
TOM: They say curb appeal really makes the difference when you put your house on the market. So it really doesn’t matter if it’s a condo or a co-op or a single-family house. You really can create a landscape one container at a time.
ROGER: And it’s a great way to have some fun.
TOM: Absolutely. Roger Cook, the landscape contractor on TV’s This Old House, thanks again for stopping by The Money Pit.
ROGER: My pleasure.
LESLIE: Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by The Home Depot. More saving, more doing.