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10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Planning Your Container Garden This Year

by Fern on January 15, 2010

in Birds Bees & Butterflies,Frugal Container Gardening,Fruits & Vegetables,Herbs,How To,Popular

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This is the time of year when everyone goes crazy with seed and plant catalogs. Who can resist gorgeous photos of vegetables and flowers with equally tantalizing descriptions? It doesn’t help that the catalog deluge hits mid-winter when people are feeling a little cabin fever. But if you want to have a happy, healthy container garden that doesn’t leave you penniless, consider these questions.

  1. What type of sunlight does your balcony or patio get? Full sun (6-8 hours)? Filtered light? Partial-shade (Some direct sunlight, but less than 6 hours of it)? Full shade (no direct sunlight)? Choose plants accordingly. Matching plants to light conditions and watering correctly will solve the majority of problems container gardeners face (including pest problems).
  2. What do you like to eat? It’s great to try growing fruits and vegetables you’ve never eaten before, but be sure to hedge your bet with things you know you and your family like to eat.
  3. Do you have a long growing season or a short one? Choose plants appropriate to your zone (i.e. tomatoes that don’t need a lot of heat for colder climates) Sometimes, even though you live in a certain zone, specific conditions on your balcony can be warmer or colder than the area as a whole. You can learn about micro-zones by locating your local weather station.
  4. Do you get lots of snow? What about rain? Snow can be really hard on the containers themselves (freezing and thawing can crack pottery) if you plan on growing perennials. And rain is hard on plants living in containers. It’s good to choose plants with these two things in mind.
  5. What plants do you see at the garden center and on your neighbors’ balconies? These are clues as to what grows well in your area.
  6. Would you like to attract birds? Butterflies? Are you concerned about the plight of honey bees? Choose plants with birds, bees, and butterflies in mind. Remember not to spray with pesticides if you’re trying to attract wildlife!
  7. Do you like to can, pickle or make jams/jellies? Want to learn? Consider berry plants and fruit trees or vegetables that are suitable for pickling.
  8. Do you like caring for animals? Chickens are all the rage these days, but they’re not exactly apartment/condo friendly. But rabbits are, and their manure is just as good for your garden.
  9. Do you enjoy bouquets of flowers? Consider planting a container cutting garden.
  10. Are you into DIY or crafts? You can grow birdhouse gourds or plants commonly used in crafts, like lavender.

So, now that you’ve given things some thought, what do you plan to grow this year?

Photo Credit: Sweetbeetandgreenban

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Patsy Bell Hobson January 15, 2010 at 7:16 am

I think just planning for spring helps us gardeners get thru the cold. Good thoughts. The rabbit idea is wonderful. Except mine chewed thru the tv/phone cable.

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Mary C January 15, 2010 at 10:11 am

omg this year is going to be a real challenge for me. Not only am I expanding my container garden, I’m also in charge of re-planting my parent’s yard after they finish their new landscaping.
Trying to please them both is tricky, they have vey different ideas about what looks and works best…
As for my containers, they are mostly in a tricky spot, right along the north side of a fence. In the late fall through winter it is shade except for one corner that gets morning sun. When the sun shifts in the spring and summer it changes to sun and full sun! I am plotting to build a table I can cram full of containers at an easy working height (with some slug-resistance tricks), as well as attach a wire lattice to the fence above the table. I will probably also add some eye-hooks to the top of fence and the carport so I can stretch a tarp or canvas over the area on super hot and also rainy days…hoping the city public works truck doesn’t notice the covering on days I have it up…

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shari January 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

My containers will get filled in with whatever strikes my fancy when I go to Annies in late February. Most of my containers are “permanent” plantings but there are always gaps to fill in for various reasons. I also have a really bad habit of setting up more pots, but this year I am simply out of room so will have to curtail this activity, adding only birdhouse gourds and some of the gutter salad bars. I might try to sneak some regular peas and green beans up against a brick wall; the peas in the spring followed by the beans when it gets warmer. Other than that, I’ll have to relocate to a larger patio or my fantasy five acres.

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Elaine January 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Excellent post, Fern.

After nearly 20 years of balcony gardening, I’ve gotten to know the conditions on my south-facing deck quite well — it gets very little full sunlight in late spring to mid-summer. Greens grow very well — with a minimum of effort — but tomatoes really struggle. Also, I didn’t sow enough radish seeds or varieties last year so I’m making room for a second or third pot. Even though I grow mostly edibles, I also include some flowers that attract beneficial insects.

You’ve inspired me to organize the rest of my random thoughts about what to grow this year. Last year I missed out on some critical sowing dates — and wasted many of the pennies I spent on seeds — because I didn’t make a schedule. That might be #11 for your list. (But given my past poor habits, I better make it #1 on mine :-) )

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Jenny Peterson January 15, 2010 at 7:02 pm

I did all succulents this last year, which was great in the summer when it was super hot and I didn’t want to water much. But we have had a really cold and wet winter–unusual for us in Austin–and now my balcony plants are mush! So lesson learned: use succulents but diversify with more cold-hardy plants, or cover up more when it freezes!

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jess January 15, 2010 at 9:59 pm

This is a great list of questions for people to ask themselves. I have gotten so many emails from friends that are starting to think about gardening and have no idea where to begin (all this week… what’s going on? was there a big gardening special on tv or something?) . I have typed out the same kind of advice over and over again, i should just blog my advice email (which is quickly becoming a form letter) or link my friends to this post.

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Prue January 16, 2010 at 6:50 pm

Fern those are some great tips to follow. I always plan with what will fit where and around the pots that have a permanent spot on the garden. Then I usually scrap the plan part way through planting and plant according to whatever whim I am on! The only plan I tried to stick to was the tomato variety plan, which is a moot point now seeing as they all died from wilt! Planning would be smart, and increase yields, but doesn’t really fit with my scattered life :)

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Fern January 17, 2010 at 2:07 am

Patsy–Oh no! Hopefully the bunny was okay and it wasn’t too expensive to replace those wires!

Mary C–Sounds like quite the plan! My old patio had the same problem that you face. Full sun late spring-early fall, part shade the rest of the year. I think at the new balcony I will have 12+ hours of full sun year round in one corner, and expanding/retracting amounts of sun on the rest of the balcony ranging from 4ish hours to 6+.

Shari–Are you my long lost twin? I’ve been dealing with the ever expanding amount of pots problem recently. I don’t want to get rid of some of my plants, but I want to be able to walk through my balcony and have a seating area too.

Elaine–Check out the latest issue of Organic Gardening Magazine. They have an article about sowing seeds in succession to get the most out of your garden. The article is written with in-ground gardeners in mind, but could easily be adapted to containers.

Jenny–Wowza, I didn’t think Austin got cold enough to mushify succulents. I’ve never personally experienced that. Scary thought!!!

Jess–Or save a standard response somewhere and just cut and paste. ;-) I’m not admitting to doing that…but I do get the same questions a lot…

Prue–Bummer about your tomatoes. Gardening reminds me (often) that life is random and whimsical.

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Diane January 27, 2010 at 9:17 am

Great post! I just wrote up something similar for whole garden landscapes – it can be really overwhelming, but this post makes is do-able. Well done.

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LJ June 11, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Nice job breaking it down. Fitting the right plants for the job can make the difference between someone doing this again next year, and someone giving up. I’m trying to do something similar with shrubs, but I often use containers anyway. No rototilling, less digging, less weeding, and moveable.

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lissa March 23, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I have been container gardening for a few years. I have also moved every year so not very many have survived. This year I have the least amount of space but no crazy roommates. I have a very small balcony that gets full sun now but who knows what it will be like in a few months. I have more seedlings than I can count. I joined a plant swap group very affective for cheap gardening numerous packets of any seed I can imagine for a stamp how could I resist? Every window is now also full of small pots. I am going to experiment with growing in the plastic tubs I bought to move. I have a few wooden containers out there as well. Hoping my tomatoes can be happy sharing some space with swiss chard. I may try seasonal planting like the swiss chard earlier and then pulling them for the tomatoes. Sorry for the novel.

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Fern March 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

Sounds great Lissa, I think your tomatoes won’t ming the chard at all.

Catherine Horowitz December 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

I just moved from NY to Laguna Woods, near Laguna Beach CA. I now have a balcony, west facing. My dilemma is what to grow? I just recently got my first plant, a cutting from my friend’s jade plant! How cool is that! But now I need to start to grow some beautiful plants and flowers for my balcony. Any ideas will be grateful!

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Fern December 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Catherine–I live in Orange County as well. Pretty much every plant you’ve seen discussed on LOTB can be grown on your balcony. Another great way to get ideas is to shop at independent garden centers, they only carry interesting plants suitable to the climate around the garden center. Here are some garden centers near you:

Green Thumb Int – El Toro
23782 Bridger Road
El Toro, CA, 92630

Living Green Nursery – Lake Forest, CA
25290 Jeronimo Road
El Toro, CA, 92630

Dana Point Nursery, Inc.
34100 Coast Hwy.
Dana Point, CA, 92629

Roger’s Garden Newport Beach
2301 San Joaquin Hills Rd.
Corona Del Mar, CA, 92625

Adam February 24, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Im moving from CA to London England, and I want to start my own garden to grow fruits and vegetables to eat and I have no idea what to grow, or when to grow. I really don’t even know where to start.

I need to find out the best time to grow what things over there. Any ideas or helpful hints?

I just know its not as sunny in London like it is in CA.

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Fern February 26, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Hi Adam!

I live in California and have only been to London once, ten years ago. I’m in no way an expert on gardening in England, sorry!

Bethany January 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm

If you need to make room for more containers you can give some of your older or stronger plants to new time gardeners or maybe some kids in the area if they seem interested.

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