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.