It may not be the South Forty, or even God's Little Acre, but a container garden can produce surprising yields.
Patio gardening has two big advantages over the in-the-ground variety: You can do it just about anywhere, which is important in an age of condos and shrinking yard space, and the pots are portable. You can move the plants around, inside and out, or even lend them to friends as party decor.
At Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar, hundreds of potted flaura and hanging baskets adorn the grounds, providing variety and color. It is an excellent place to go to get ideas about what might work on your patio, porch or deck. The grounds also have an elaborate herbal garden in pots, ranging from parsley to thyme to garlic.
Before starting your container garden, it is wise to ask yourself this important question, says Wade Roberts, garden director at Sherman Gardens: How much time do you want to spend on it?
A simple collection of hardy shrubs, plants and flowers can require very little maintenance. Even a few container-appropriate edibles such as cherry tomatoes, chard or strawberries won't be terribly time-consuming. But "if you get really fancy, you're going to devote all your free time to this," he warns.
So what does a basic patio garden consist of?
For a dose of greenery, you can bring in some long planters full of shrubs and hedges, with potted palms, some ivy and dwarf trees. This will not give you a whole lot of color, but it is not a whole lot of trouble, either. You can even rig up a drip irrigation system, use time-release fertilizer, and "you don't have to do anything except come home and have a cocktail," Roberts says with a laugh. "It really isn't that hard to set up."
To add some reliable color, the patio gardener can plant royal blue brunfelsias, which bloom heavily in the spring to midsummer with purple flowers; ivy geraniums, Indian hawthornes, azaleas, fuchsias, begonias and impatiens. These are all perfect for the semi-arid Orange County climate. Different colored shrubs such as the shiny xylosma, which has light green leaves for contrast, can also provide ornamental variety, as can the hibiscus, which has colorful flowers.
Good drainage is essential for container gardening. Ordinary soil is too dense for drainage and root development, so use a commercial potting mix or mix soil with sand or other mineral elements such as Sponge Rock, redwood or orchid bark.
Near the coast, you may have to water only once or twice a week. With an inland location like Brea, four times a week may not be too much. Micro-climates are also very important. If the pots are in direct sunlight, more watering is needed; in partial shade, less. Plants that get a heavy dose of afternoon sun are more likely to dry out than those that get morning sun. For the hotter areas of the county, such as the canyons, marigolds, zenias, petunias and bluefloss flowers do very well, says Susan Brozowski, color specialist at Sherman Gardens.
To soften the climate, the patio can be equipped with trellises, shade cloth or laths, which allow some light but filter out the harshest sunshine. Shade plants such as Australian tree ferns or ficus trees can form a canopy for light-sensitive plants such as other varieties of fern.
To tell how often a plant needs water, "look at the soil, feel it, touch it. If it is moist, it has enough," Brozowski says. Overwatering can lead to fungus rot, so "if anything, underwatering is best." Also, irrigation is preferable to overhead watering, because wet leaves and flowers can develop all kinds of diseases, such as powdery mildew. Never water blooming flowers directly, Roberts says.
Mature plants have well-developed root systems that form into a ball, which can get quite dense--and thirsty. "Solid roots drink a lot more, so you may have to fill a pot five times before the plant has drunk its fill," Roberts says. Usually, you should water until it starts coming out the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot, but this is not always an indication that the plant has sufficient water; if the root ball has become too dry and shrunk, the water may be draining down the sides. If so, the whole pot can be immersed until the root ball has loosened up.
Since the container plants cannot draw nutrients from the ground, frequent, light fertilizing is recommended. Regular garden variety brands can be applied every 2 weeks or so to replace the nutrients that have drained away. Plants need more nutrients during times of growth and bloom, but less or none when they are in their dormant stage during colder periods. Days are shorter during the winter and less light means less photosynthesis and less new growth. You can even kill plants by trying to force growth with fertilizers or by pruning during the winter, Roberts says. But now is a good time to prune and fertilize for maximum growth.
When a plant outgrows its container, the gardener has two options: shifting it to another pot or "shouldering it"--i.e., pruning the root ball. There actually are plants that are introverts, such as the cather lily, that thrive when their roots are tightly compacted. They do not take well to being moved to larger quarters. A good rule of thumb is to replant to a pot large enough to leave an inch or two of fresh soil around the root mass.
Containers can range from redwood baskets to clay, ceramic and plastic pots, and moss-lined wire baskets. Redwood is pleasing to the eye but has a short life span. "It looks good for about 1 1/2 to 2 years," Roberts says.
"And after 3 or 4 years it starts to fall apart," Brozowski adds.
Sawed-off olivewood or oak whiskey barrels make fine homes for trees, dwarf and otherwise. The root ball can be shouldered with a machete to get it to fit and then trimmed periodically. With proper shouldering, a ficus tree can thrive in a whiskey barrel, which can last 5 or 6 years. "You can even buy casters and roll it around the patio," Roberts suggests. The metal bands can be painted with rust-inhibiting paint, and the wood can also be painted for longer life.
Clay and ceramic pots have almost unlimited life spans, and can be sealed on the inside with a tar mixture to hold the moisture. A pottery seal glaze can be applied on the outside to give it a shine and discourage discoloring from salt buildup, which gives pots a musty, white film that is virtually irremovable.
All pots should have a drain hole in the bottom, which is kept from getting plugged by placement of rocks and pebbles in the bottom around the hole. You can get by without drainage if you have a charcoal and gravel bedding and you water sparingly, Roberts says, adding that it can be quite difficult to maintain a balance.
No matter how good a start your container garden gets, the key to its well-being is maintenance.
"If you keep grooming, it looks 300% better," Roberts says. He cites the ivy geranium as a plant that should be pinched periodically to force new growth. "Many people just let them go, but even when you buy it new, give it a pinch." Pinching means breaking off the tips and branches down to the leaf nodes to make it branch out.
As for pests, container gardeners in Orange County will most likely encounter spider mites, white flies, mealy bugs, aphids, and slugs and snails. All can be controlled with pesticides, but Roberts stresses that "anybody should realize that healthy plants will resist insects better than unhealthy plants."