Container gardening is the practice of providing

a habitat for annual, bi-annual, and perennial

rooted plants, bulbs, shrubs, and small trees

in a growing medium contained in a

permanent or semi-permanent receptacle

rather than in the earth of a designated area

such as a flower bed, garden, or field.

Container gardening can be a tomato plant in a tin can or a miniature orange tree in a stone urn. It can also be a cheerful combination of red, white, and blue petunias in a window box, a cactus in a clay pot, or an assortment of kitchen herbs in a wooden tub.

The growing medium is anything that will support growth of whatever type of plant life is placed in the container. In the case of epiphytes (such as certain orchids) little, if any, growing medium is provided.

The receptacle (hereafter referred to as “container”) can be of any size or shape, can rest on a solid surface or be suspended in the air, and may consist of any material ranging from cardboard to stone. An old boot or a broken-spouted teapot would serve equally well.

Given the right combination of plant life, growing medium, and container, anyone can grow something - indoors or outdoors – in a temperature between 55 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit under natural or artificial light.

On a more specific level there are certain types of container gardening which have become highly specialized. Orchid and bonsai culture are two examples. Another example is when the plant is tropical or semi-tropical in nature, is grown in a fairly small container, and is kept indoors all or most of its life. This is a houseplant and has its own library of reference.

Many food crops are raised in containers: “Champignon de Paris”, the button mushroom most commonly used in cooking, was originally grown commercially in flat boxes in the dank atmosphere of Parisian basements, hence the name. In areas of the world where the soil is poor or exceedingly porous, commercial crops such as lettuce are often raised in containers with a system of drip irrigation. Again, this type of agriculture is a subcatalog of container gardening.

At the same time a large percentage of container gardening involves the raising of food crops for personal use. There are many reasons for growing vegetables and fruits in containers: lack of garden space, adverse weather conditions, and locations with poor soil. Elderly gardeners who can no longer spade large plots of earth or stoop for hand-weeding often enjoy cultivating a kitchen garden in containers. Some of the more popular crops are tomatoes, peppers, green beans, radishes, strawberries, and many culinary herbs. This subject is well-treated by the Agriculture Department of various local governments.

Finally, container gardening is widely used for decorative purposes: hanging baskets on a patio, window boxes in an apartment, free-standing tubs and troughs incorporated into the landscaping of a tract house, or formal urns on a palatial terrace. Decorative container gardening is enhanced by the combination of two, three or more complimentary plants in the same container.

This is the true joy of container gardening: to create an entire garden of mixed flowers or colorful foliage plants that can be admired in a spot where it would not otherwise flourish. Fragrance can be provided for a poolside setting, color can be added to a patio décor, and quick-growing vines can shade a corner of a sundeck.

There are disadvantages to container gardening. Frequent watering is necessary as the soil in smaller containers tends to dry out quickly. Conversely, using containers without adequate drainage holes can mean that roots will rot, causing plant death. The nutrients in container soil is quickly depleted and must be replaced on a regular basis. Perennial plants outgrow their containers and need repotting. Bugs and fungi are a problem. Squirrels will bury nuts and seeds in container soil, or eat fleshy buds. On the whole, however, container gardening is easier than “open ground” gardening.

Shrubs and small trees in containers can remain in place for a number of years, but generally annuals are used; these last for one season only. Favorites can be potted up again the next year, or an entirely different look can be achieved. In temperature climates many perennials can be kept on a year-long basis, or until the gardener wants a change. Large containers can hold a resident perennial such as an ivy or a foliage plant, with colorful bedding plants added for a few months.

Trailing ivy, ferns, and other foliage plants are ideal for shady areas. The contrast of color, leaf shape, and texture can be used in a variety of ways. A small bit of Dusty Miller, with its gray-green, fuzzy and lobed leaves, sets off the smooth elegance of the dark bronzed foilage of New Guinea Impatiens. A froth of jade green Asparagus Fern completes the color palette while adding height and further texture.

The container itself presents many choices. Something in a neutral color and texture can best display a mixture of colorful blossoms. An indefinite mass of greenery can be used to point up a uniquely shaped or decorated container. Pale green flat parsley and silvery thyme growing in a terra cotta saucer-shaped container on a kitchen doorstep is both beautiful and practical. The possibilities are endless.

Any garden supply store, the local library, or the Internet can provide an overwhelming supply of “how to” material for container gardening. Some of this information is very good, some very bad; most of it is helpful. It is perhaps best to start on a modest scale and move forward slowly, learning by personal experience. The joy is in the journey.

A few references for starters:
Time/Life’s “Container Gardening” by Jane Courtier, ISBN 0-7370-0606-4