Just about anything will grow in a pot, from fruits and vegetables to herbs and fragrant flowers. So why do we end up throwing a few geraniums and adracaena spike in our terracotta containers and call it a day? Probably because it's relatively cheap and easy.
What's more of a challenge - and more fun once you start digging around for ideas - is to create tapestries of texture and color in those containers, movable gardens that accent the deck or patio all summer.A container garden can be composed of anything from "a cactus in a thimble" to a pot so large and heavy it requires you and a few friends to move, says Tom Peace, who with David Macke taught a class on container gardening at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Before you head to the garden center to select plants, you'll need to determine what container to use, what kind of soil to fill it with and where the pot will reside - on a hot, sunny deck, a shaded patio or in partial sun.
The ideal container is at least 14 inches in diameter (and has a drainage hole), which enables you to use a number of plants and keep your watering requirement down to every day or so. Smaller pots can dry out very quickly.
"Use an 8-inch pot and you're asking for crispies," Peace says, adding that the exception is succulents and cactuses because they retain moisture.
The type of container you use - clay, wood, ceramic or plastic - is largely an aesthetic matter, but plant people and garden snobs favor clay. (As Macke notes, "If you use plastic and the taste police visit, just run and hide.")
When it's time to fill the container, avoid garden soil. It's too heavy. For plants to quickly adjust to a pot, they need a light, quick-draining medium that allows air to get to their roots. Peace and Macke like a mix that contains potting soil and vermiculite, perlite, compost or peat.
Now, the plants.
"When we think of containers, we think of flowers," Macke says. "We want them to bloom from here to hell and back."
But 90 percent of the time, you're looking at foliage, so don't give it short shrift.
"Flowers should be like the accessories in an outfit," Peace says. "The rest of the outfit is foliage. Flowers add the glamor, and you have to decide if you want to look like Charro or an elegant, well-dressed lady."
Peace and Macke say to design around the foliage first, deciding whether you want plants to be complementary or contrasting. Consider plants with textures that are bold, linear, fern-like or small-leafed, to name a few styles. And not all greens are considered equal - some are blue, bronze, burgundy, silver or variegated.
"The easier way to make it boring is to use all foliage that's the same," Peace says.
Also, think about a color scheme with the flowers you will use and decide whether you want it to be a cool or hot palette, or a contrasting one. White can be used with anything, Peace says, and yellow can tie together different colors. Blue can be used with either a pastel or vibrant color scheme.
A flower's shape also comes into play. Shapes include spiky, such as snapdragons, round (dahlias, daisies) and frothy (baby's breath). Vary the shapes within your pot.
Search the garden center for plants to try, and comb discount stores and the big warehouse retailers for good buys on exotic tropical plants that can be used for color and drama in containers.
Don't be afraid to put seven or eight plants in a 14-inch pot. And before planting, position them and get an idea of how they will look. Fertilize and water after planting, water as needed when plants are established and continue fertilizing throughout the summer.