Gardening: How Valerie manages a container garden (and her husband)

Posted 5/29/20

Valerie working on containers, a martini close at hand. By Stan Cutler If you want low maintenance, high-reward gardening, containers are the way to go. You can put a container garden in a tiny back …

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Gardening: How Valerie manages a container garden (and her husband)

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Valerie working on containers, a martini close at hand.

By Stan Cutler

If you want low maintenance, high-reward gardening, containers are the way to go. You can put a container garden in a tiny back yard, a small deck or porch, a balcony, or a rooftop. Anyplace outside where you keep plants in containers qualifies. Most plants can thrive in pots, everything from flowering annuals to trees (in a big enough pot).  You could even grow tomatoes. Do your houseplants a favor, take them outside. There you go - you are now the proprietor of a container garden.

Fifteen years ago, my wife, Valerie, the gardening fanatic, asked me to build her a deck off the kitchen. I envisioned cocktail hours. I should have known what she really wanted as we discussed the railing. She didn’t care for any of the alternatives, deeming them either too expensive or too ugly. Then she decided that they were all too ugly, no matter how much they cost. What if, she said, we lined the outside of the deck with containers. That way, no one would get close enough to the edge to fall over. So far, after fifteen years, so good.

We put skirting around the deck and painted it light blue, the color of the window trim. On a Sunday junk store outing, Valerie paid five bucks for a rusty, hand-wrought plant holder, a single sinuous rod with rings for five small flowerpots. She took it home, wire-brushed it, and painted it. The ironware perfectly adorns the skirt facing the yard, almost as if Valerie had it mind in the first place.  

She considers the appearance of the containers as important as the flowers they hold. She haunts yard sales and flea markets looking for large, ceramic pots with holes in the bottom. She does not sit them directly on the deck, but on three little pieces of wood, each about two inches long and a half-inch thick. This allows the water that drains from the bottom to evaporate, preserving the deck.  

You can use store-bought flower boxes or easily build them yourself out of 1 x 8-inch lumber. DIY boxes have the advantage of being built to size. Cut up some plastic garbage bags and glue the material to the insides, otherwise the boxes will rot within a few years.  Properly lined, they last at least ten years. I drill seven or eight one-inch holes in the bottoms and cover them with a layer of landscape fabric, a permeable material that drains while keeping the microbes and fungi in the potting soil from eating away at the wood. Paint the outsides however you like. Attach strips of wood across the bottoms to allow air flow under them. Valerie uses the boxes for woody herbs like tarragon, thyme and rosemary and puts flowering plants in the boxes with them.     

Over the years, she has developed an approach to selecting the annual container plants. She’ll shop for them over several weeks in early Spring and keep them in the shade until she has a few more than she has room for. To add interest, she selects a few specimens more for their showy leaves (e.g., begonia, coleus, oxalis) than for flowers. On planting day, with all of them on view, she selects them by color and texture to maximize their beauty. She uses an old serrated steak knife to gently score the root mass after she removes the plants from their store pots. Her favorite source is The Secret Garden in Roxborough with Primex in Glenside running a close second. She’ll buy enough to put two, three or four plants in each large pot. Miraculously, she always finds room for the extras.

In the Autumn, we haul all of the pots to the tool shed. Your basement (if you have one) will do just as well. Over the Winter, the annuals die but the soil is usually okay in Springtime, especially since the new plants are in their own, new soil. Geraniums often survive the winter in the dry darkness. Remember to dead-head the spent geranium flowers regularly during the Summer and you’ll be rewarded by bright blooms into October. The boxes stay out all year long, the woody herbs usually survive and begin leafing out again in May.

So, we have less of a deck than a platform for a container garden. There’s just enough space for a couple of chairs and a tiny table on which to set my martini glass.

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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