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Put it in a Pot

By Paul James

While sitting on my back porch and watching the rain soak everything in sight last Sunday, I got the bug to garden. But because working wet soil is one of the absolute worst things you can do, I decided to repot my houseplants and stick a few tasty herbs in pots. After all, putting all kinds of things in containers is something you can do regardless of weather – in the garage, on a covered porch or patio, even between downpours.

And while obvious choices include annuals, perennials, and tropicals, those are just the tip of the iceberg (yes, you can also grow lettuce in containers). In fact, there are very few plants you can’t grow in containers, whether plastic, clay, or concrete pots, grow bags, wooden or metal troughs, even an old kitchen sink or bathtub — as long as they drain well.

For example, darn near every vegetable — save asparagus and rhubarb — and culinary herb can be grown in containers. And in the case of mint and horseradish, I strongly recommend you do precisely that because both will spread like wildfire in a garden. 

Leafy greens don’t require a deep container because their roots typically grow in the top four inches of soil. Ditto onions, radishes, and beets. Carrots, on the other hand, will need a deeper container to accommodate their longer roots. Patio and other indeterminate tomatoes can be grown in pots that are roughly 18” deep and wide (as can beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, and peppers), but determinate tomato varieties can get quite large and therefore require a much larger pot or container. I even know lots of folks who successfully grow potatoes in trash cans (Seriously. Google it.)

Thankfully, a number of seed suppliers offer vegetable varieties that have been specifically developed for growing in containers, particularly vining crops or those that ordinarily require lots of room to grow, such as cucumbers and melons, and it’s worth seeking them out.

Trees and shrubs — deciduous and evergreen — are great for containers, and they can be used in a number of effective and dramatic ways, from formal to funky. For example, to flank the entrance to your home, especially if the surrounding surface is concrete; to use in a spot where nothing will grow due to poor soil or drainage issues; to add a special decorative touch to a garden bed; and to draw attention to a specimen planting.

Practically any small- to medium-sized tree or shrub is a candidate for containers, in particular Japanese maples, conifers of all kinds, crape myrtles, dogwoods, and hydrangeas. But here are three things to keep in mind. First, realize that you’ll need to fertilize more frequently, because nutrients leach more rapidly out of containers. Second, be prepared to top-dress the container with a two- or three-inch layer of fresh potting mix every year. And finally, plan on repotting every three to five years, ideally in February or March.

And don’t forget ornamental grasses and bamboo, because they too grow and look great in containers.

But I must admit that I also like pots placed here and there in the garden with nothing in them, especially tall, amphora-style pots or those with colorful glazes. They can actually draw your attention even more than some plants. 

And you don’t have to water them.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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14 responses to “Put it in a Pot”

  1. Leslea Bennett-Webb says:

    Add me to the long list of folks who still miss you on HGTV. Even so, when I read these blog posts I hear your pleasant voice and it is so uplifting. Doesn’t matter the subject, it’s just lovely to get your reminders on how to appreciate our gardens even more. Thanks Paul!

    • Paul James says:

      You’re too sweet. You can watch my show now on Discovery+, but you have to pay a monthly fee for the streaming service. Thanks again for the kind words.

  2. Andy Hale says:

    Thanks Paul, we moved to OKC in October and the red clay soil is killing me but your article has inspired me to try some vegetable plantings along with my traditional patio potted flowering plants.

  3. Julie says:

    I’m curious about your HGTV show from several years ago. I loved your show and am glad it can be viewed on Discovery +. Will you be filming new episodes?

  4. Jeannie Alaback says:

    Will southwood be giving tomato plants for cans of food this year?
    Jeannie alaback

    • Paul James says:

      No. Because it’s nearly impossible to maintain social distancing, we’re selling the tomatoes for $2 each and making a cash donation to the food back. Cash provides many, many more meals for the hungry.

  5. Debby (your neighbor) says:

    Just wanted to let you know my hydrangeas survived the article temps and are starting to leaf out! Hopefully azaleas will fare as well. I’m going to try veggies in containers to keep the critters out.

  6. Greg Rosta says:

    Hi Paul,

    Awesome article, as always! I have two questions for you: 1. should I compost any potting mix in my pots every year, or can I get away with reusing some of it, amended with fertilizer, compost, etc.?; and, 2. what kind of fertilizer do you prefer for your seedling tomatoes and/or peppers (or veggie seedlings, generally)?


    • Paul James says:

      If you amend it you can reuse it, but it’s best to start over with fresh mix every three years. Espoma Tomato-Tone is my go to fertilizer for tomatoes, but it’ll work on everything else too. Have a great weekend.

  7. Tom Peters says:

    Hey Paul, I have a rabbits foot fern. Because of the thick concentration of rhizomes on top it’s impossible to to top dress the soil. How often should I repot it, it’s been about 2 years since the last time I repotted it into about a gallon size pot. Thanks for access to the famous James Gardener Brain.

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