I live in an apartment with an incredibly shady so-called backyard: a 10-by-15-foot expanse of dirty concrete tucked behind my driveway. I've always wanted a big garden, but, unless a demolition crew knocks down the buildings blocking my sun, rips up the concrete and lays down good gardening soil, it's not going to happen. While a girl can pray, this season I settled on a more practical solution.
Container gardens can be tailored to any outdoor — or indoor — environment. Got all shade? There's a plant for that. Full sun? Lucky you; grow some tomatoes. With pots in every size, shape and color, and myriad varieties of plants to choose from, the combinations are endless.
Before getting started on my own potted arrangements, I headed over to Just Dancing Gardens & Greenhouse in Williston, where owner Sabrinajoy Milbury gave me a lesson on how not to screw it up.
"Before you start, you need to know where you want the container to go and what the light conditions are," Milbury began. If your patio gets six or more hours of direct sun, go for plants labeled "full sun." Four to six hours translate to "part sun," and three or fewer hours call for shade plants.
"You want to make sure that you have the right plant for your light conditions," Milbury said. "If you have a beautiful container garden full of plants that want full sun, and you put it somewhere [with] less than three hours, it's just not going to be happy."
Next, we talked soil. Container gardens call for lighter soil than traditional gardens, and you may need to make adjustments depending on what you're growing. If you're growing flowers, a non-organic potting soil works just fine. Milbury recommends Pro-Mix, which she has used for 18 years. For vegetables, fruits and herbs, however, she switches to Vermont Compost Company's Fort Vee organic potting soil. "If we're growing vegetables, we're going to eat it," she pointed out. "I want to use an organic soil."
Regardless of whether you're growing cucumbers or Gerbera daisies, you'll need to fertilize. "For anything that's not edible, I use a time-release fertilizer mixed into the soil," Milbury said. For vegetables, she uses Pro-Gro from North Country Organics, a liquid fertilizer that is applied weekly.
As for selecting a pot, the only requirement is that it have a hole in the bottom. And pot size matters: Bigger is definitely better. "The bigger the pot, the easier it is to keep it watered," Milbury explained. "Because it's got more soil, it'll hold more moisture."
She cautioned against using saucers under outdoor pots. "Saucers are great inside, because they catch water if it's dripping, but outside the roots are sitting in it, and you don't want that, because they can rot." Not to mention that standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitos.
We picked out a medium-size, bright-orange pot to light up my gloomy little scrap of concrete. Now all that remained was to pick out plants. There's no rule for how many to use. Some people follow the "thriller, filler, spiller" model: one tall statement plant in back; fuller, slightly smaller varieties in the middle; and trailing plants to spill over the sides. That formula works, but Milbury encourages gardeners to go for what they love.
I settled on a combination of spiky-leafed angel wing begonia, two funky fuchsias, a red-stemmed lady fern, a chartreuse heuchera and sprawling, silvery pilea.
For about $60, my new container garden helped light up an otherwise boring backyard. It's a good thing I haven't called in the demolition crew: I'm going to need that concrete slab to support more container gardens this summer.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Gardening Lite"