Creating container gardens

Container gardening is a great option for saving space, avoiding inadequate soil conditions, or adding a pop of color in high-traffic areas. Create a beautiful arrangement of flowers and foliage this spring to place on your front porch or back patio. Using containers creates focal points or accents in the landscape or a screen to create privacy.

The possibilities are endless when choosing a container for your garden. You can use anything that can hold soil, has adequate space for the roots to grow, and has drainage holes. Samples of terra cotta, plastic or ceramic pots can be found at your local garden center. For something more unique, try repurposing an old item such as a tin watering can or toolbox.

The best soil for a container garden is potting mix, often comprised of varying mixtures of peat, compost, perlite, vermiculite, bark and other organic matter. An ideal media is well aerated and well-drained; never use soil from your garden or yard.

Many question if potting soil can be used from year to year. If plants previously growing in the potting soil were healthy and disease-free, it is generally ok to reuse the soil. You may need to add new potting mix or compost to replace lost nutrients and organic matter. If using a large container, save money on potting soil by adding a filler, such as aluminum cans or plastic bottles, to the bottom third of the container. Place a layer of landscape fabric over the top of the filler before adding the potting media.

Be creative when choosing plants. Include plant combinations of various textures and sizes of foliage and flowers. Select a color theme that compliments your house, containers, patio furniture or surrounding landscape. You can also incorporate herbs, perennials, fruits or vegetables into your containers.

Proper water and fertilizer applications are crucial for having a healthy, beautiful container all summer. The best way to tell if your plants need water is to feel the soil. If the top inch is dry to the touch, it needs water. Water until it flows out of the drainage holes to ensure the entire root system is soaked. Many potting mixes container slow-release fertilizers. This can be applied at the time of planting and will provide nutrients for three to four months. You should also apply a liquid fertilizer every two weeks to keep the plants healthy and blooming all summer.

If your plants get too leggy for the container, pinch them back mid-summer. This will make the plant more compact and tidier. Make sure you are also deadheading spent flowers to encourage new blooms, and remove any brown or pest-damaged foliage.

A common question at Illinois Extension is how to keep the squirrels or chipmunks out of containers. One tip is to put 1/4-inch hardware cloth on top of the soil around the outside of the container and cover it with a thin layer of soil so they cannot dig in it.

For more information on planting and maintaining container gardens or for unique plant combo ideas, visit