A giant blue glazed pot, a big green and blue one from Vietnam, two ochre pots with brown Chinese dragons, curvaceous plastic urns from the Canadian Tire store, dozens of repurposed black nursery pots, terracotta pots in a vast range of sizes and states. Collectively, they are homes to mature hostas, standardized privets, auricula primulas, hearty tomato plants, perennials in waiting, small seedlings, and newly rooted cuttings.
Earlier this year, I did an inventory of the plants in my garden that are growing in pots. The total came to sixty-two. That was before I added nine tomato plants and a dozen or so young perennials grown from seed or cuttings. The current total must be around seventy pots.
The pots vary in size from four inches in diameter to two feet. Most of the smaller ones are plastic — reused nursery pots. The biggest ones are wooden half-barrels and a couple of Chinese “egg jars.” At one time, these big clay jars were made to ship preserved eggs from China. Chinatown grocery stores sold the empties quite cheaply to gardeners and others as impressive large containers. I don’t think they’re as readily available now, so I’m grateful to have two of them. One is positioned near the pond and occupied by a Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum). The other anchors a group of clay and ceramic pots near the front steps. It’s rather wasted on a plant of Dusty Miller. I really should think of a more worthy use for it.
In addition, I have a few other glazed ceramic pots, ranging from large to medium size. Then there is a gang of the common unglazed terracotta pots from Italy. I like them, but they can’t be relied upon to withstand freezing temperatures. Eventually they crack and break, which is why I also have a shocking number of half-pots, quarter-pots, and a bucketful of potsherds. Plastic is practical but can look cheap and ugly, especially the nursery pots. They eventually get brittle too. I have a couple of good quality plastic pots that look like terracotta from a distance.
Seven Truths About Pots
- Pots provide plants with ideal little environments — the perfect soil and no competition from other plants, unless the gardener doesn’t bother to remove volunteers and weeds. I know this from experience, having lost a couple of potted lilies to hearty invaders.
- Potted plants can be moved indoors or under some sort of cover for the winter months. This makes it possible to grow things like lemon trees in places with cold winters — as long as the gardener has the strength to move the pots, that is. I have a jade plant and a variegated weeping fig that summer outside. A special set of straps makes it
easyless difficult to lug them in and out. The operation does take two, however.
- Pots can be moved around to ensure optimal light exposure. They can be positioned strategically to enhance a planting when in bloom and whisked offstage when finished. But see above re lugging.
- Pots need to be watered, sometimes as frequently as once or even twice a day, depending on weather and the size of the occupant. At its peak, a tomato plant’s roots totally fill the pot and pump through a lot of water, maintaining itself and plumping up the tomatoes. Forgetting to water, even for a few days, means rapid decline and death. Unlike plants in the ground, potted plants can’t put forth roots to seek moisture. They’re like caged animals that need to be fed.
- Some woody plants (shrubs and trees) confined to pots stage breakouts by growing roots through the drain holes in the bottom of the pot. If the soil below suits them, they take off and grow. Forget being a potted subject. I’m a tree! The gardener must keep an eye on these sneaky individuals, and do some judicious root pruning now and then.
- All gardeners acquire a shoal of plants in small pots — gifts from fellow gardeners, impulse buys, divisions, and “spares” of rooted cuttings or seed sowings. Very few plants will prosper indefinitely in a four-inch plastic pot. The gardener should have a plan for every one of these temporary pot denizens — a date by when it should be planted permanently, given away, or otherwise disposed of.
- Permanently potted plants need annual maintenance. Fertilizer of some sort, up-potting or re-potting, trimming, etc. Some plants withstand being root-bound better than others. Delphiniums, for instance, need to be turned out of their pots annually, and then returned to them with fresh soil. Otherwise, the soil becomes compacted and the roots rot over the winter. Goodbye, delphiniums. But I can’t grow them well in the ground because they can’t deal with the maple tree roots. This year’s star specimen is five feet tall and has bloomed well. With the black pot hidden by other plants, it looks like part of the bed it’s in. (Just in case, I rooted a couple of its new shoots this spring. They are now potted up. Add two more to the inventory.)
Despite the above, pots (or, more broadly, containers) are an important feature of most gardens. They add life to hardscapes like decks and patios, and they make it possible to grow things not suited to one’s native ground. All gardeners want to grow stuff they can’t.