Gardening: If there's no room for a big garden... contain yourself
July/Aug. 2007 California Country magazine
By David Ross
Flowers, fruits, vegetables... in fact, just about every plant that can be grown, can be grown successfully in a container.
Summer is finally here and there is work to be done on the farm. What, no farm? Although not everybody has a large farm to plant, everyone has at least some space. That's right, no excuses. Every address, no matter how large or small, has room for container gardening.
Flowers, fruits, vegetables—in fact, just about every plant that can be grown, can be grown successfully in a container. You name it, I can help you grow it in a pot on your patio.
First you will need to get a container. It can be made of clay, wood, plastic or whatever you like. The plants don't care. Just make sure it has plenty of drain holes in it and that water will pass freely through it.
If you are someone who is likely to overwater, use a terra cotta or redwood pot that will help your plants use up excess water and prevent them from drowning. If you are an “underwaterer,” use a glazed or plastic pot that won't absorb water and therefore won't compete with your plants for that much-needed summer water.
You will also need some good potting soil. Whitney Farms, E.B. Stone and Sunshine offer premium potting soils and I recommend them highly. Avoid cheap soils.
Now it is time for some plants. Before selecting your plants, you will need to know if the spot you have chosen is mostly sunny or shady. If the area gets only morning or filtered sun, select shade plants for your pot. If the area gets more than a couple of hours of direct sun daily, choose sun plants. If you are not sure, use both and see what survives!
For summer shade color, nothing is more floriferous (wow, big word) than impatiens. They come in pink, red, lavender, white, salmon and many variations including picottees, which have a darker edge on their petals.
Coleus is another great plant that brightens a shady spot with brilliant colored foliage, not flowers. Pothos, an easy-to-grow houseplant, also makes a nice choice that will spill out of your pot.
For sunny areas, vincas are unbeatable. They bloom in white, pink, lavender and now red, too. The hotter it gets, the better they will do. Just remember to plant them slightly higher than the surrounding soil. (Caution: Dirt over the stem of a vinca will cause it to rot and die.) Other options to consider include petunias, zinnias and salvias.
Did you know that tomatoes can be grown in containers? Look for varieties such as San Diego or Patio, which are more compact growing. Try peppers, eggplant and bush beans, too.
True dwarf citrus grown on the Flying Dragon rootstock is also a good choice for a sunny patio container. Lemons, oranges, grapefruits and others stay smaller and last longer in containers.
To keep your plants flowering and fruiting, remember to fertilize them regularly. If you will mix up a fertilizer weekly and pour it over your plants, use Dr. Earth liquid organic. If that is unlikely, use Gro-Power monthly. Water thoroughly, which may be daily during hot weather, and enjoy.
Gardening to-do list for July/August
Water, water, water established plants deeply and container plants often. Wash dust and pests off of foliage weekly.
Fertilize all your plants. For container plants, if you are using a water-soluble fertilizer, that may mean weekly applications right now. For established plants in the ground, one last granular application for the year may suffice.
Watch for Bermuda grass in your fescue lawn. Control very carefully with Turflon Esther. It will control Bermuda in fescue, but it will also kill plants with leaves so be very careful when applying it. Read and follow all label directions.
Mulch! If you haven't done so already, put a thick layer of mulch around your plants to keep their roots cool and moist. This will allow your plants to go longer between waterings and inhibit weed growth.
Take a new look at drought-tolerant landscaping
After an extremely dry winter and various demands on the state’s water supply – including a shutdown of pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – conserving water is sure to be top of mind throughout the summer in California. And even if we have a wet winter next year, using water efficiently will remain part of our lives forever.
Conserving water indoors is becoming commonplace, with low-flush toilets, high-efficiency washing machines and so on. What hasn’t received enough attention in the past is being water wise outside.
So often when people think about being water wise in the landscape, visions of cacti and gravel come to mind. But with an ever-growing palette of attractive, drought-tolerant plants, it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are numerous plants that look great, bloom or have other outstanding visual characteristics and won’t be constantly begging for more water. Fall is a great time to plant these as that will allow them a chance to enjoy fall and winter rains and begin to get established before next summer. Remember, most drought-tolerant plants will still need regular water during their first summer or two until they become established.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Amaryllis belladonna, or naked lady, is a curious bulb that has lustrous, strap-like leaves during winter and spring. As summer approaches, the leaves turn brown and drop to the ground, leaving the bulb "naked," hence the name, naked lady. Around August, these naked ladies send up 2- to 3-foot-tall stalks topped by fragrant, light pink, large trumpet flowers. They will survive--almost thrive--on what meager rainfall they receive throughout the year. Caution, the bulbs are poisonous!
The Grevillea family is a member of the protea family native to Australia. It is a diverse family that includes groundcovers, medium and large shrubs, and large trees. Most of them bloom over an extended period from winter through spring with clusters of small flowers that attract hummingbirds. One of the common names for some grevilleas is hummingbird bush. It’s a great heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant shrub that needs occasional summer water only. While the variety "Boongala Spinebill" has the best name, one of my favorites is the Grevillea lanigeras. They bloom over a long season into summer and range from about 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide as a good bank cover, to varieties 3 to 6 feet tall as nice mounds of flowers. Avoid high-phosphorous fertilizers on this family.
Salvia, or sage, is another diverse family of small shrubs and perennials. While some varieties look best with regular water, many thrive on little or no summer water. Salvia leucantha, or Mexican Bush Sage, is a great-looking shrub that makes about a 3- to 4-foot mound covered by spires of purple blossoms all summer long. There is a compact version called Santa Barbara.
Leonotis leonurus, or lion’s tail, is a 4- to 6-foot shrub that is covered with whorls of velvety orange blossoms all summer and beyond. This upright spreading clump needs little or no summer water. There is an outstanding planting of Leonotus just outside the "Petting Kraal" at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.