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Most gardeners will eventually try gardening in some type of container. From the high-maintenance hanging basket to the practical grow boxes, we love to take plants out of the ground and put them into a pot.

Containerized plants can be mini gardens brought closer to eye level, closer to the front door and in places otherwise unfriendly to gardens. Plants in pots focus our attention: help us notice a color, catch a fragrance or find the entrance to a building. If flower beds could be likened to prose, then planted containers are poetry.

But be warned:A well-designed planter requires careful selection and, occasionally, ruthless editing.

Planter boxes are a great way to try new plants or combinations on a small scale before they are used in a border. Not sure you dare mix red and fuchsia? Try them in a clay pot on your deck and then decide.

Plants in containers require different care than the same plants in the ground, however, because it is an artificial environment.

The two biggest issues are food and water. Once days are consistently 80 degrees or hotter, many containers will require daily and generous irrigations. Within a short time, any fertilizer in the soil will be depleted, and the plants will be showing their displeasure. To keep them at their very best, use water-soluble fertilizers and apply weekly. If you have trouble remembering to change your oil, slow-release fertilizers applied two or three times a summer might be a better idea for you. Some feed is better than none, and regular feed is best of all.

To reduce the amount of maintenance needed, use the biggest container possible: More soil volume equals less work. A whiskey barrel-sized planter will probably go two or more days between watering even during the heat of summer.

Watering problems are the No. 1 killer of plants in containers. Leaving for the weekend or longer can present a challenge. Some gardeners move their baskets and pots to where the automatic sprinklers will keep them watered. Installing a drip system with a timer is an effective method as well. Then there is always the option of hiring the neighbor’s 14-year-old son (assuming he is not a “drip system” himself) to water while you are away from home.

If you are intimidated about growing in containers or have had poor success in the past, I suggest this recipe:

(Almost) Foolproof Container Gardening Tips for (Almost) Dummies

• 6+ hours of direct sun.

• Container that is at least 18 inches deep and at least 18 inches wide (bigger is better).

• Good potting soil (for very big pots you can cheat and put compost, bark or cheap potting soil in the bottom half of the pot).

• Slow-release fertilizer; apply as directed.

• One plant for each 3 inches of diameter of container (adjust up or down based on starting size of plants, this formula assumes a 4-inch pot), then throw in one or two extra plants for good measure.

• Vigorous, no-fuss plant selection is vital. Choose any combination from the following: trailing petunia, trailing verbena, sweet potato vine, bidens, Lobularia Snow Princess. If you want some height, add: red fountain grass, Dracena (Cordyline) red or green, or Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus).

Stay tuned for additional ideas for containers in the next column. I would enjoy hearing about your experiences with container gardening as well.

After working for years in commercial greenhouses in Idaho and Utah, Susan Harris of Shoshone is a garden designer and garden coach. Reach her at

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