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Container Gardening – Choosing the Perfect Pot

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Submitted by: Carolee James

For many gardeners who may have very poor soil or whose lifestyles—due to physical ability, work, travel, space or environment—do not allow them to have regular gardens, container planting is a viable alternative. Even gardeners who have extensive gardens can use containers to add another layer to enhance their spaces. Container gardening can bring scent close to an entrance, beautify a small deck or patio, grow vegetables and herbs right outside the kitchen door, make a statement within a garden bed, and even become a water feature!

But choosing the perfect pot can be a bit daunting when one walks into the garden center or peruses catalogs with dozens of sizes, materials and styles of pots to choose from. I would like to provide some guidelines for choosing your perfect pot, as well as share of few of my reasons for my pot preferences.

Containers most often found in nurseries and garden centers are made of: terra-cotta, glazed terra-cotta, metal, cement, plastic, fiberglass or wood. They come in sizes from small (2 inches) to large (up to 4 feet square), and everything in between. Styles range from the classic pot, to urns, to tall vessel-like, to squares, rounds and rectangles and either very plain or enriched with detailed designs. With so many choices just where does one begin?

First let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each type of pot material.

{b” >Terra-cotta: Pros {/b” >– Natural and classic look that lends itself to almost any setting. The porous nature of this earth-based medium allows air and water to pass through the walls of the pot and encourages good drainage. {b” >Cons {/b” >– Can crack if dropped or frozen. Plants need to be watered more often than other materials. Heavy when filled.

{b” >Glazed terra-cotta: Pros {/b” >– Due to the variety of colors and styles available, these pots can fit in any setting. Due to glazing the terra-cotta interior tends to hold up better with weather changes. It is stronger and less-permeable.{b” > Cons –{/b” > Still susceptible to weathering. Breakable. Heavy when filled.

{b” >Metal: Pros {/b” >– Cold weather is not a concern. Pots made with sheet metal are lightweight and depending on size, somewhat easy to move. Styles are appropriate to traditional and contemporary settings. {b” >Cons {/b” >– Cast iron is heavy. Prone to rusting unless applied with a weather resistant sealant each year. Absorbs heat and can burn plants. Not appropriate where children could touch hot metal.

{b” >Cement: Pros {/b” >– Weather resistant and very durable. Any planting in cast stone will not blow over. Very classic look. {b” >Cons{/b” > – Very heavy. Relocating even an empty pot is difficult. Color choice limited to small range of earthen tones.

{b” >Plastic: Pros{/b” > – Newer higher-grade plastic pots are indistinguishable from stone and terra-cotta pots and are much lighter in weight. Can be left outside year round in colder elevations. Retains water better than other materials. Virtually indestructible. Easy to move. {b” >Cons:{/b” > – Because they are lightweight, they are also prone to blow over in windy conditions. There is a stigma that plastic is cheap/tacky.

{b” >Synthetics; Resin, Fiberglass, Foam: Pros {/b” >– Much like the new plastic pots, synthetic pots are look-a-likes to terra-cotta, stone or metal. They are lightweight and come in an array of sizes, styles, colors and decorative details. Even filled with soil and plants they are easy to move. They also stand up to weather changes very well. {b” >Cons-{/b” > They may have a tendency to flake and chip with over-handling.

{b” >Wood: Pros{/b” > – Rustic and natural look. Somewhat porous, but will not dry out as quickly as terra-cotta. {b” >Cons{/b” > – Over time wood will break down due to exposure and watering.

There are also self-watering pots. Made of lightweight polypropylene, these pots come in a variety of colors and styles. Each pot has a hidden reservoir holding from one gallon up to two-and-one-half gallons with a water-level indicator and an easy-fill funnel. They also contain an evaporation grill which moistens and aerates the soil. A whiskey barrel made of recycled plastic with an eight gallon reservoir would be perfect for a larger floral display. These self-watering pots would be perfect on a balcony or anywhere where watering by a hose is difficult. Water soluble fertilizers can be added to the reservoir for added convenience.

Once you determine which of the above materials is right for you, choosing the size and style/color is just a matter of what you´re planting and what tickles your fancy!

My container garden consists of succulents, annuals and Japanese Maples. I use different pot materials for each of these plants. Here are my reasons. Unglazed terra-cotta pots are perfect for succulents and cacti because the pots dry out quickly after being watered. Since these plants don´t like to be kept moist this type of pot is ideal. On the other hand all of my 24 Japanese maple trees, which need moist soil, are planted in various sizes of plastic, foam and terra-cotta glazed pots. These materials are just right for them since there is no evaporation through the pot walls. Lastly, I use a variety of metal, cement, and terra-cotta containers in several sizes for annuals. Some are tucked amid shrubs and perennials in my garden beds where they get regular water by a timed sprinkler system. Others must be hand watered and I am seriously considering purchasing a few self-watering pots to replace those, as I have a tendency to forget to give them regular water in the summer!

Next week I´ll discuss soil, fertilizing, planting and watering container gardens.

Carolee James enhances her extensive California native plantings with containers of potted plants and keeps a close eye on her favorite Japanese maples by keeping them in containers on the deck.