Think outside the box for your spring container gardens

Nina Koziol
Chicago Tribune

If you garden in a small space — around a patio or on a deck or balcony — growing plants in pots is a good way to add color and a little pizazz to the space. And, in a big garden, placing large pots in a sunny perennial border or in a shady bed can create interesting focal points.

For the past several years, Wave petunias, coleus, sweet potato vines and Dragon Wing begonias have been the mainstays of many container gardens. But Stephanie Cohen has other ideas. The author of “The Nonstop Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide to Smart Plant Choices and Four-Season Designs” (Timber Press), Cohen would like to see gardeners branch out this spring with some new plants.

“There are many lovely small annual grasses in lots of new colors like cherry and pink,” Cohen said. “At 1 1/2- to 2 feet tall, they make lovely fillers for a container and, unlike a flowering plant that may not look that great at the end of the season, they are beautiful throughout.”

In warmer parts of the country, annual grasses can stay in the pots all year, she added. In areas that get a fall freeze, the grasses can be tossed into the compost.

Plant breeders, such as PanAmerican Seed with their ColorGrass series, have introduced new varieties of blue fescue, sedges, tufted hair grass (Deschampsia), lovegrass (Eragrostis) and other upright and clump-forming annual and perennial grasses that provide texture and color in pots placed in full sun. Shade-loving grasses, like Japanese forest grass or Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’) shine on their own and provide a cascade of chartreuse leaves over the rim of a pot. Cohen also likes the idea of growing miniature hostas, like ‘Blue Mouse Ears’ and ‘Teaspoon’ in pots for shady sites.

“People are going nuts for succulents, and they’re growing them in troughs,” Cohen said. She grows several of them in her garden in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. “There are wonderful miniature sedums and hens and chicks (Sempervivum spp.) with blue-green leaves and red edges that are stunning. I overwinter them outside by a wall because I don’t want the deer to see them.”

In its 2015 trends forecast, the Garden Writers Association predicted that many gardeners will grow edibles in pots as well as in the ground.

And, in a new book, “Grow a Living Wall: Create Vertical Gardens with Purpose” (Cool Springs Press), Shawna Coronado explains how to make the most of a really small space: a wall. In less than 2 square feet of floor space, Coronado nurtures a tower of herbs, vegetables and flowering plants for pollinators.

“Ornamental edibles are my favorite container plants,” Coronado said. “I don’t see edibles as a trend. I see them as a long-term proposition for gardeners across the world.”

Some of her favorite container combinations include ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard, ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets and ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vines. She likes to mix things up a bit by planting ornamental grasses and dinosaur (Lacinato) kale for seasonlong color and texture.

“Edibles in containers will be big this year,” Cohen agreed, “but I’d do herbs. They’re used to being cut and they grow back quickly. And, what’s nice about herbs is that they don’t like a lot of watering.”

One of her favorites is ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil, which has green and white leaves.

Top tips

Invest in large pots. The soil in containers that are less than 2 feet wide and 2 feet tall can dry out very quickly in hot weather, which can stress plant roots.

Choose a pot with drainage holes. If there’s no way for water to drain out, the soil can become waterlogged when it rains and roots will rot.

Consider the weather. If you choose a ceramic pot but live in an area where the temperature dips below freezing, you’ll want to empty the container and store it off the ground in a garage or shed so it doesn’t crack.

Use a soil-less potting mix that has fertilizer in it. You can find bags of potting mix at local garden centers and big-box stores.

Use a water-soluble fertilizer once a month during the growing season if you’re growing flowering plants in your pots.