DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 2 2013

Self Contained: A Little Philosophy of Container Gardening

by Rebekah B

Collage of my front porch garden

Any little corner of the world can be transformed into a personal and unique work of art.  Every change that we make to our world and environment changes all of us just a little bit.  Flowers and plants, like books, are among my best friends in the world.  They are quiet and dynamic, and the depth of their being touches my heart.

I became a home-owner for the first time just three years ago this month.  My favorite type of house is the Craftsman bungalow.  While my house is not a 1930’s artisanal gem, it is a renovated small 1950’s ranch with a large front porch add-on.  A front porch is an architectural hug, an invitation, a welcoming embrace.  I fell in love with my house because of the porch with its columns, ceiling fan, and large front window.  I immediately sketched out in my mind the containers overflowing with luxuriant plants, flowers, and herbs that would adorn the biggest room in my house!

A porch can be an oasis...

While trained as a visual artist and painter, gardening affords me a multi-dimensional experience, artistically speaking.  The plants have color, texture, aromas, form.  As living beings, the plants interact with one another, and they attract a world of what most would consider to be pests.  In any case, as I stated above—plants are dynamic, and they act on the environment around them.  My basil has introduced miniature snails to my front porch.  Tiny bees hum, darting in and out of the blooming oregano, while moths find shade and shelter during daylight hours under the leaves of flowering plants.  A salamander enjoys frolicking around my geraniums.  Zippered webs with juicy lemon yellow and black garden spiders have haunted my columns and rosemary.  Birds, chipmunks, and squirrels peck around in the soil and mulch, searching for succulent treats, scattering debris in their wake.

Garden spider and salamander: creatures in my container garden:

Garden spider and salamander: creatures in my container garden

Luna moth (female) on my porch lantern:

Luna moth (female) on my porch lantern

As an amateur gardener, visual artist, and creative human being, I feel a strong sense of responsibility for any change that I bring about in the world.  Philosophically speaking, this means everything we do, think, or say, changes the world.  While we all create our world with each choice we make, I feel it is important to be in sync with nature.  All humans possess intuition—like animal and plant life, we also  have the wisdom of  nature available to us if we choose to listen.  Long ago, I read an anecdote regarding a young Hopi girl who, hoping to please her grandmother, offered her a flower she had plucked from the ground.  The wise grandmother scolded her startled young granddaughter.  I never forgot the words of wisdom that grandmother shared with the child.  She told the girl that the flower was better off in the ground where nature had placed it, and that by picking it, she had done harm. Nature always works to create balance and harmony with constant shifts of creation and destruction.  Every change made requires a counter-change to restore balance.

And so, when I embark on any home improvement project, artistic endeavor, business venture or any other human intervention, I try to remember that we are not separate from nature.  Everything we do, think, or feel does have an impact on everything and everyone else.  This does not mean we should be paralyzed by fear of doing wrong.  It is a lot of fun and very rewarding to create with nature, and to learn as we go.  Much of what we do create does engender consequences that are beyond our control.  Some of these consequences will be positive, while others will be negative.  It is simply good for me to keep this in mind, as being responsible encourages compassion, respect, and moderation.

Creeping Jenny, Fireworks grass, and Purslane just starting out

As for the container gardens themselves…I like to use a variety of planters of different sizes, finishes, and heights.  Kiln fired ceramics with glazes hold moisture better than unglazed terra cotta. Fiberglass winters well, while the terra cotta is fragile.  Containers made of wood or concrete are also available, and repurposed objects can also serve as planters.  Drainage is important.  Most containers have a hole in the bottom.  You can devise a variety of systems to ensure that the containers are raised off the ground to protect your porch from staining.  Containers can be filled from the bottom up with pea gravel, then peat moss, which encourages drainage, potting soil mixed with compost and fertilizer, and a layer of mulch on top, to keep moisture in.  Some plants need more sunlight than others, and some expand and tend to take over the entire container.  During summer months, notwithstanding the excessive rain we have been experiencing of late, you may have to water early in the morning and later in the day, if your containers are under a roofed area.  Simple drip irrigation systems exist that you can adapt to your own needs, if desired.  Try to not wet the leaves, as this can encourage rot and fungus.  When cutting off dead leaves or flowers, sterilize your scissors or pruner with rubbing alcohol to prevent spread of diseases.

Containers disguised by cascading greenery

Play and experimentation with a variety of annuals and perennials is part of the fun.  Involve your children; gardening is a great learning experience for kids! Some of the plants will weather the winter, while others will perish.  I have had great success with asparagus ferns; the bright yellow-green foliage is abundant and flows over the edges of the containers. Beware, they do have thorns!  Miniature English ivy is nice for garnish, as are many ground-covers, such as sedum or golden creeping jenny. Herbs, such as oregano, also a perennial, are equally elegant, with their small furry silvery leaves.  Orange mint, an annual, also grows quickly and flows nicely over the sides of the container.  During the winter, some of these plants are less vibrant, but they renew in vigor as soon as spring kicks in.  Grasses also add nice texture, height, and color.

This one’s not mine, but it looks like a fun way to play with containers:

This one is not mine, but it looks like a fun way to play with containers!

Designing your container garden is a lot like composing a painting or photograph.  In a small area, you will try to create balance in color, form, and texture.  Use a variety of planters with a range of sizes, heights, and finishes.  Plant stands can also diversify your display. Try to choose plants that have leaves of different size, texture, and color.  Flowers can co-exist nicely with leafy plants or herbs. Some plants remain small and compact, while others grow tall and willowy.  Combine plants to emphasize contrast as well as harmony. Remember to leave room for your plants to grow and express themselves.  At first, your containers may seem stark or even naked, but soon they will work their own magic and fill in.  Smaller plants will cushion the lower levels, while taller varieties will rise up towards the sun.   Some plants may not survive while others flourish.  Give them love and attention, and observe them well.  They will communicate with you as you learn their language…

Interspersed in this post are some pictures of my own containers.  Enjoy!

DCPL collections include many helpful books on container gardens and gardening philosophy. Here are a few nicely illustrated fairly recent publications that I perused:

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph M August 3, 2013 at 9:39 AM

Nice post. I especially appreciate the pictures of the wildlife.

Dea Anne M August 5, 2013 at 1:19 PM

Great post! Your garden is really beautiful. I started my own container gardening adventure with one tomato plant and one pepper plant in big pots on my back deck. Now I have four raised beds in the backyard for fruits and vegetables but I still keep flowers and herbs growing on the deck. Again, that is a gorgeous garden!

Deborah S August 6, 2013 at 10:44 AM

Excellent post! Your container garden is a sight for gardening eyes! I truly enjoyed reading about your garden and the pictures your shared allowed me to be on site in my mind. Well done.

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