You can grow almost anything in containers. With the right size pot and the right conditions, most plants that are typically reserved for garden beds or backyards will thrive (some even more than if they were grown in the garden). There are even varieties of plants bred specifically for growth in containers.
But, while you have almost unlimited choices in what you can grow, your garden conditions will still limit which plants will grow well. These are a few things to consider in picking your ideal container plants.
Local temperatures dictate which plants you can grow and how well they will grow. To assess the climate in your region, you need to understand the climate type. In South Africa, we have a wide variety of climate types, from lush subtropical to arid desert and almost everything in between. If your containers are going to be placed outside without protection, you need to ensure the plants chosen are suitable for your climate first.
Where indoor gardeners use terms like ‘bright light’ or ‘low light’, outdoor plants are distinguished by the terms full-sun, partial sun, and shade. Full-sun plants need over six hours of sunlight per day (some need more), partial sun between three and six, and shade plants under three hours. Other descriptors you may see are morning or afternoon sun, which speak for themselves. You will need to limit your choices to a certain range of plants whose light requirements match your outdoor conditions.
Other conditions like humidity and wind can influence a plant’s growth but can also be managed to meet the plant’s needs. Humidity can be altered with the same practices used indoors – grouping plants or placing them on a tray. Wind, which damages weaker plants, can be blocked with screens or shields.
The two conditions you are unable to control are climate and light, so start there. When you purchase a plant from the nursery, it should indicate the plant’s conditions on the label, but you can also ask someone for help to find the perfect plant for your conditions.
When choosing plants that will share a pot, consider plants with similar conditions that are known to grow well together. When combining plants in the same pot, they are sharing light, space, and most importantly – soil. Any maintenance you do will apply to all plants simultaneously.
Before grouping plants together, ensure their desired conditions are matched, so one plant does not survive at the expense of the other. For example, when planting a herb container, thyme and rosemary will grow well together as they have similar needs, but sage will die because it has different water requirements. Similarly, mint tends to dominate any pot and is best planted alone.
After considering the plants, don’t forget to consider yourself. You, as the gardener, will be committing time to care for whatever plants you choose and some are more demanding than others. Like any good relationship, you should understand the level of commitment required before jumping in. Plants in containers need to be watered more often, checked for pests regularly, and need more plant-specific care than those left to their own devices outdoors. Decide how much time you want to spend on plant care and which difficult plants you are willing to deal with before you buy.
While making your choices, don’t forget that they are not set in stone. Container gardens, unlike established backyards, are made to be tweaked, changed, and played with until you settle on what feels right. In fact, you don’t have to settle on anything at all. Container gardens embody variety, change, and experimentation. Embrace those factors, learn along the way, and you will master choosing the right plants and container gardening in no time.