Open Spaces: Beyond the Container | Open Spaces: Signs of Spring at the Farm

Open Spaces

Beyond the Container

Small Garden Spaces Make a Positive Impact


Story by April Anderson

Container gardens offer opportunities to grow native plants, herbs, fruits, and vegetables in small spaces while adding beauty, habitat, and access to fresh produce. They bring the beauty of nature closer to home and make fresh produce more convenient for those who don’t have time or room for conventional gardens.

Because containers are placed on top of the ground, the plants they hold face unique challenges when it comes to drainage and temperature fluctuation. Patio planters lack the insulating qualities that plants in the ground receive from the soil around them, and containers not placed directly on the soil may not always have a hole in the bottom for drainage. Raised beds less than 12” tall need to have the grass beneath them killed to prevent infestation, while “soilless mixes” are recommended to promote drainage.

Soilless mixes marketed as “potting soil” are different from the soil in the backyard because they are a mixture of peat moss or coir, perlite, vermiculite, and compost. Peat moss holds moisture yet allows excess water to drain. “You can add topsoil to [potting] mix to make it a little more moist, but I wouldn’t recommend adding clay,” says horticulturalist Heather Moister, Garden Center Manager for The Barn Nursery who recommends a 1:3 ratio of topsoil to potting mix.

What can you put in a container?

Once a location has been selected and growing media put in place, containers can be designed to attract pollinators, provide herbs, or furnish healthy snacks. “Container gardens are fun because you can pop them in the middle of your garden for an added splash of color,” says Marilyn Lageschulte, Council of Barrington Area Garden Clubs president. “[By] Planting orange, red, and dark pink flowers, I see butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees every day.” Sun-loving little bluestem, showy goldenrod, and butterfly milkweed are native plants Lageschulte recommends for containers that can be transplanted into prairie gardens later in the growing season.

Native plants

“Many people feel that natives look weedy and unkept, [but] planter boxes are one more way to take natural-looking plants and make them look a little more formal,” says Barrington High School horticulture teacher John Ardente, identifying purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and butterfly weed as native plants that have been used in landscaping for many years.

Last May, Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT) Director of Community Engagement & Education, Susan Lenz, together with Ardente, biology teacher Justin Stroh, and students from two of their classes created two 100 sq. ft. Monarch Waystations in raised beds using over a dozen species of native plants to provide nectar for butterflies as well as food for monarch caterpillars visiting the grounds of Barrington High School.

For BACT Executive Director Lisa Woolford, shade-tolerant lady ferns thrive in much smaller containers on her covered porch. Near the end of the growing season, Woolford transplants them into the woodland she is restoring behind her home. Growing native species, Woolford is able to enjoy seeing plants she has carefully cultivated return and reproduce, improving the scenic beauty and ecological integrity of her backyard.

Native plantings in containers contribute to biodiversity, providing habitat for bees and butterflies in small spaces. “If you have limited space, container gardens filled with blooming plants could make all the difference for our hungry pollinators,” says entomologist and author Douglas Tallamy, “especially if everyone participated!”

Growing herbs

“The more diversity of texture and color the better!” says Lagechulte who suggests spicing up containers with oregano, chives, parsley, rosemary, and sage.

At The Garlands of Barrington, Chef Nicola Torres uses one of the site’s 26 raised bed gardens to cultivate herbs for cooking while members enjoy filling the rest with their favorite combinations of herbs, flowers, and vegetables. In 2017, basil and thyme were some of the herbs Torres most frequently used from this garden.

Container-raised basil needs a lot of sun, and should be watered only when soil is dry to the touch. Lavender and rosemary are herbs that grow well in containers with a soilless mix since backyard soils can be too heavy. Aggressive herbs (such as mint and lemon balm) can be kept from taking over the garden if left in containers and carefully trimmed to reduce flowering.

For those looking for herbs to deter mosquitoes, Moister suggests incorporating “anything with a citrus fragrance,” including sun-loving citronella-scented geraniums, lemongrass, lemon balm, and lemon verbena.

Raising produce

“Produce can be more finicky,” notes Moister. “Peppers don’t mind being a little on the dry side, [but] if a tomato dries out, the bottom of the tomato will rot.” For edible container gardens, Moister suggests combining a patio tomato with a basil plant and cherry pepper for color and interest.

Smaller growing areas demand greater efficiency. Compact bush varieties of beans and cucumbers take up less space than vines. Pink-flowered Tristan strawberries have few if any runners. Thornless “Bushel & Berry” raspberries and blackberries look more like boxwoods than backyard brambles.

“I think the biggest misconception people have is that they aren't good with growing plants,” says Ardente, emphasizing the minimal time it takes for rewarding results with container gardens. Containers invite both novice and experienced gardeners to nourish themselves and their neighbors with beauty and healthy food.

Gardening wisdom

Gardeners using containers to raise produce and herbs for food should select containers carefully. What works well for native plants may not be appropriate for cultivating edibles. Higher density plastics (#1, 2, 4, or 5) are considered more stable than plastics that can be compromised by sun, water, and changes in temperature.

Natural clay pots are breathable and durable, while glossy ceramics may contain lead oxide. Arsenic from pressure-treated wood processed with copper, chromium, and arsenic (CCA) can build up in soil over time, and planter boxes painted prior to the 1980s may be coated with lead plant. Untreated cedar provides an alternative that resists rot.

From clay pot to raised bed, container gardens offer multisensory avenues to reconnect with nature while providing precious habitat for pollinators. They are tiny sanctuaries that welcome everyone to plant, watch, care for, and celebrate life.

Every plant that contributes to ecosystem function counts, no matter how large or small.

Douglas Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home.

Getting Started: What You Need

Know the light and water requirements of the plants you select, in addition to height, color, and length of bloom cycle. “Since most native plants don’t bloom all season, grasses offer longer seasonal interest,” says Moister. “The #1 mistake I see people make is selecting a full-size tomato,” says Moister, who is quick to mention compact “patio tomatoes” and “tumbling toms” are developed to be successful in containers.

Design with a thriller, filler, and spiller

The “thriller” is one tall plant or focal point, the “filler” is a medium-height plant that mounds or fills in around the thriller, and the “spiller” is a trailing plant that flows over the side of the container. For example, Moister suggests combining native thrillers like little bluestem or blazing star with butterfly weed and purple poppy mallow.

Use a soilless commercial container mix

Fill your container to within one to two inches from the top with soilless container mix, position your plants, and dig holes deep enough that the place where the stem meets the root is about one inch below the soil line. Gently press the soil around the plant and water thoroughly.

Think ahead

Remove native plants from containers and put them in the ground by the end of September. Experiment with growing some of your herbs indoors. Compost annuals. Place fruit shrubs in an unheated garage and keep them moist. Use straw bales or mulch to insulate containers too large to move.


Vegetable gardening in containers


Native plants in containers


Butterfly gardening


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April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at