What comes immediately to mind when someone mentions container gardening? Is it those half-whiskey barrels in front of a suburban split-level? Or is it perhaps the image of elaborate, factory-produced planters and other containers filled with pansies and geraniums?

Those are certainly valid forms of container gardening. And indeed, some people use containers to the point where the thing becomes so stylized and the containers so formal and elaborate the plants take second seat to the containers. That, too, has its place. In fact there really are no rules for how to go about container gardening. And that’s where the cottage garden concept comes in.

Cottage gardening stretches back to a time when people who lived in small houses, cottages, on a small plot of land, still managed to grow vegetables and often, even a few flowers. Since space was so limited, cottage gardeners used every available space for planting. And that included planting in containers, any container.

Container benefits

Here in Maine, people often own large tracts of land, but despite having a 100-acre “back 40,” they have little tillable acreage. Open land, minus trees, with good, rich soil, is something to cherish. And so we have one thing in common with those cottagers of old England and Colonial America who made such judicious use of their postage-stamp parcels.

But far from being a drawback or a second choice, containers provide a valuable alternative to traditional in-ground gardening. With containers, we can closely monitor the amount of nutrients, water and even sunlight that a plant receives. Containers hold everything that a plant needs, in a small, compact space. And best of all, containers are portable.

The movable aspect of containers says much for them. Sunlight striking any one spot differs from one time of year to the next. And from year-to-year, trees grow, often faster than we can imagine, and shade places that weren’t shaded before. With an in-ground garden, all we can do is cut the tree or trees. But sometimes that isn’t possible. With a container, all we need do is move it to another location.

Unusually wet conditions have little effect upon container-bound plants. Containers drain quickly and the soil that was saturated today may be dry and crumbly tomorrow. This brings up a few to-do’s regarding growing plants in containers.

In many instances, the soil in a container or planter can be used for several years. Since nutrients must be added regularly, the soil only acts as a vehicle to hold the nutrients. However, in the case of those who eschew granular fertilizer or even Miracle-Gro, the organic nutrients (compost, composted manure, and so on) must be bound in the soil at planting time. But other than that, soil in containers has a long shelf life.

Simple directions

As mentioned, plants growing in a container depend upon the gardener for their sustenance. We must provide everything, because the plant cannot set out long or deep roots to tap into nearby nutrients or moisture. We might liken this to a goldfish in a bowel. Without constant tending from us, the fish dies. Ditto for plants in containers.

Different plants require differing amounts of sun and that has a bearing on where we situate our containers. Next, as mentioned above, we must supply all the necessary nutrients. So far, neither of these requirements poses much of a problem. But the last consideration, water, keeps us on our toes. Too little and the plant dies. Too much and it gets “wet feet” and dies from any number of causes.

Since soil in containers dries out sooner than soil in the ground, we must water containers regularly. But unless the container has adequate drainage, the water sits in the bottom and the plants become yellow and die. So above all, whatever container you use, make sure it has plenty of good drainage.

And that’s about all there is to managing containers. It isn’t all that demanding, except for keeping track of soil dryness or wetness. Mostly, it’s good to allow soil to become fairly dry and then water thoroughly. But again, that’s pretty easy.

Container choices

The true cottage gardener would certainly make use of those pre-made containers or planters if they were available. But he or she would not use such devices exclusively. The type of container to use is limited only by our imaginations. I currently have onions and Mexican tea (an aromatic relative of lamb’s quarters) growing in two different battered, old galvanized pails, basil and eggplant growing in a large, plastic tote once used for hauling fish and a clump of dahlias doing just fine in what looks like a concrete urn but is made of lightweight foam. I found it along the road with a “free” sign on it.

And since it qualifies as a container, I may as well include the old truck tire that I filled with soil and planted winter squash seeds in. At this point, the tire is no longer visible because of the thick squash foliage and vines.

With the exception of the tote and the tire, all the other containers have been moved about my property several times this year in order to take better advantage of changing patterns of sunlight.

Whatever you might choose to use as a container, remember that the larger the container, the easier it is to maintain. Small containers don’t hold much soil and consequently need frequent watering. Larger containers last far longer between waterings.

I’ve seen innovative gardeners use old wheelbarrows as planters and I even once tried growing flowers in an old boot. Neither of these is very practical, because they both dry out far too quickly. But they are artsy and have a certain appeal.

Urban gardeners

Even people living in cities can grow all sorts of plants, as long as they have access to a deck, porch, vacant lot or even a rooftop. Container gardening provides the way.

I’ve seen pictures in gardening magazines of people sitting on a city rooftop, surrounded by lush plants of all sorts. If the caption didn’t describe the setting, the reader would have no idea that the photo wasn’t taken out in some rural area. Container gardening makes that possible. Really, there is no reason that anyone, if they wish to and have the physical ability to tend their containers, cannot grow something, no matter where they live.

Finally, by adopting a free-form, cottage-garden type of mindset regarding container gardening, we open ourselves up to a fun, interesting and hugely rewarding form of gardening. So the next time someone offers you a plant that you really like, don’t tell them you don’t have the space. Just find a proper container for it. You’ll find a place for it somewhere.