Planting for Small Spaces
by Jenny Kamm, Community Engagement Services
As someone who loves to plant flowers and grasses but has little backyard space, I’ve learned to become a fan of container gardening. It might seem that these constraints would rule out enjoying the benefits of native perennials, but it’s quite the contrary.
Native plants are one of the best things for any garden, even one in a container. They require fewer herbicides and pesticides than nonnatives, making them easier to maintain. They’re cost-effective, too, because they return year after year, a fact that offsets any extra investments made up front. Aesthetically, they create a beautiful homage to the bountiful prairie lands that once dominated this region.
When considering this type of garden, the container is the most important part. Fortunately, you don’t have to break the bank or reinvent the wheel to find the right one; you just need to keep two things in mind. First, any pot you use should have drainage holes, be deep enough for long native roots, and be wide enough for growth. If a pot’s deep and wide enough but lacks drainage holes, simply add a few yourself. You can also promote healthy drainage by placing rocks at the bottom so the roots don’t get soggy in standing water.
Second, give thought to the material of the container, especially if you plan on moving it. Wood or porous clay pots can be attractive, but metal or plastic ones are usually more durable and weigh much less. To further reduce weight you can displace some of the soil with artificial fillers, such as cut-up pool noodles or empty water bottles. Fill the bottom quarter of your container with these items and then lay a sheet of landscaping cloth on top before adding the soil. And don’t be afraid to get creative. Last spring I turned a 30-year-old wheelbarrow into a bed for shallow natives!
Selecting what soils or other elements you’ll use to fill your pot is next. Check your plant label for soil needs. Soil compacts over time so a mixture is a good option for container planting. For instance, if a plant requires sandy soil, add coarse builder’s sand into the mix. In any case, avoid peat; it breaks down into carbon dioxide and water, not ideal conditions for plants.
And a word about fertilizer. Fertilizers aren’t always necessary with native plants but can be helpful if natives are mixed in with annuals. Too much fertilizer, though, can kill a plant.