BACKYARD GARDENER: Grow your own container garden with shrubs

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Kristopher Fante

Gardening Columnist

Gardening with containers can be enjoyable and gratifying, and there is no easier way to bring rapid vast amounts of color and style from spring through fall to help enhance your landscape. But, if you’re like me and you have a good amount of pots to fill, the cost of annuals can quickly get out of hand. That’s where the use of shrubs along with some perennials can really help out with the cost, labor and time of container gardening.

Shrubs in containers are not difficult to grow and can carry over for many years with the correct plant choice and a little care. You can choose to go with an evergreen tree or shrub to give a more formal look to your pot, or go with a deciduous shrub that can add color and flair. How about planting an ornamental grass in a pot? That’s one way to add a privacy screen on a deck or patio which adds functionality plus beauty. If you like that idea, try a native grass like little bluestem, the fall color is remarkable.

When it comes to pricing, I have actually purchased shrubs for less money than the cost of an annual at a big box store. You can get a small shrub for as low as $2.99, and if you choose one that grows fast like weigela “spilled wine,” you’ll have a nice-size plant in the first year. Additionally, with it recurring for many years, you just can’t beat that for garden savings.

When selecting the shrub size, make sure your container can support the shrub for at least a few years. The container needs to be at minimum two times the width and depth of the shrub’s root size. After a few years you can either remove the shrub and plant it in your yard, give it to a friend, or aggressively trim the roots and the shrub and replant it back in your pot. Though, not all plants can handle the roots being cut back severely, so ask your local garden center or use the internet to research it beforehand. Typically, plants that grow slow like a little-leaf boxwood or Dwarf Alberta spruce won’t need any roots cut back for a very long time, but fast growing shrubs like a forsythia will every few years. Generally, if it grows rapidly, aggressive root cutting won’t likely bother it at all.

Furthermore, when selecting a shrub for container gardening, get one that is rated to be cold hardy 2 or more zones lower than zone 6, which is what we are here in Nelson County. This will aid in the shrub being able to make it through a bad winter if we were to have one. If you choose one that is just rated for zone 6, it may not make it to the next spring, so check the label to be sure.

One vital chore that can’t be skipped is not forgetting to water pots during the winter, pots can dry out during the winter really fast without rain. Most of us think about watering containers in the summer, but it’s easily forgotten during the winter months. Think about how dried out our skin gets from the cold, windy, dry winter. Plants can experience dryness from these conditions as well, so keep that in mind so you don’t lose your shrub to a lack of moisture. Drainage is also key, be sure to add some gravel below the soil to prevent standing water and root rot, and a layer of landscape fabric between the soil and rock to prevent the soil from running down and clogging the drainage holes in the container.

Likewise, choose a high quality container that can handle the freezing temperature. It’s best to pick a concrete pot or a frost proof ceramic pot that can take the fluctuation in temperature change and the snow and ice as well. Do not use the terracotta style pots, they will crack and fall apart within a year of being in the elements. You may be able to find a high quality plastic container, just verify its frost proof. If you can find an aluminum pot that’s painted black to mimic wrought iron, those are wonderful. I have several of these that I’ve had for over 10 years, and I’ve had no issues. Just a little touch up painting every few years and they look brand new.If you live in a windy area, you can move your pots to a more sheltered area to help with the wind and freezing elements or you can wrap your pots in something to insulate them, either one is a good idea.

In one of our larger pots, we like to use a red twig dogwood shrub. Since I don’t have very many variegated plants around my patio, I used this opportunity to add a variegated shrub to help add color, texture and winter interest to my backyard. During winter when the landscape looks boring and bleak, the bright red limbs on this shrub add color and it gives us something interesting to look at from our kitchen table. Along with this shrub, I add some annuals for color pop and also a few perennial groundcovers (creeping Jenny) that also have returned from the previous year. Remember the container planting design rule of thumb, you need thrillers, spillers and fillers. The shrub acts as a filler, the annuals are the thriller and the groundcover are the spillers. The subsequent year the shrub is already in place and maybe the groundcover as well. All you need now is to add a few annuals and your pot is complete.

Container gardening is fun and easy, and it creates a charming compliment to any garden. It allows you to add style, color and texture to much needed areas of your yard instantaneously. With the correct choice of plants and beautiful bold pots, you can save money, time and labor by following this method of using shrubs, perennials and annuals. Give it a try, you’ll love it for years to come.