Even if you don't have a large yard or a surplus of time to spend gardening, you can still have a lovely, thriving garden on your patio. Container gardens provide many benefits: they can attract birds and butterflies, add colour, fragrance and texture to your outdoor space and create a restful backdrop. When choosing plants and trees for your patio container garden, match species with similar light, soil and water requirements. If you live in a cold climate, take measures to keep plant roots from freezing over the winter.
Potted trees need at least 2 cubic feet of soil for every square foot of tree canopy. For the best results, choose small, semi-dwarf or dwarf varietals and slow-growing species. The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a small, slow-growing tree with brilliant red or green foliage. This tree requires well-drained soil and protection from direct sun. The Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora "Little Gem"), a slow-growing evergreen, produces large blossoms in spring and is extremely heat- and drought-tolerant. Other notable trees for containers include Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana), crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei) and purple leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera "Atropurpurea").
Choose dwarf and slow-growing shrub species for the best results. Slow-growing shrub species require less maintenance and don't need to be repotted as often. The holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), which grows up to 18 inches tall, is a hardy evergreen that grows slowly and thrives in cool shade and well-drained soil. Dwarf bamboo (Bambusa sasa pygara) is a winter-hardy plant that grows up to 1 foot tall. An evergreen, dwarf bamboo can thrive in sun or shade. Other small, slow-growing shrubs include aspidistra (Aspidistra elatior), aucuba (Aucuba japonica), dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum "Nana") and fatsia (Fatsia japonica).
Ornamental grasses add texture and height to your container garden. For the most pleasing aesthetic effect, choose varieties with symmetrical and arching growth. Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron"), which grows up to 2 feet tall and has green stems with brilliant red tips, grows well in containers. This hardy, drought-tolerant grass thrives in sun to partial shade and moist soil. Other good container species include blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), creeping sedge (Carex siderosticta "Variegata") and fountain grasses (Pennisetum spp.).
Not only do vegetables provide attractive foliage and blooms for your patio garden, you can eat the results of your work. Almost any vegetable can grow in a container, but it's important to choose the best variety for your particular space. Varietals that thrive in containers, as recommended by Texas A&M University, include Packman and Bonanza broccoli, Thumbelina and Little Spike carrots, Early Pik and Crispy cucumbers, Jalapeno and Red Cherry peppers, Dixie and Zucco squash, and Patio, Pixie and Tiny Tim tomatoes. Also, almost any variety of spinach or turnip can thrive in a container.
Herbs can thrive in containers and provide the added benefit of fragrance and culinary use. Group several small species, such as sage, oregano, thyme, chives, marjoram, cilantro or chamomile, in one large container. Plant large, spreading species such as mint, rosemary, lavender or bay in their own containers.
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- Virginia Cooperative Extension; Trees for Problem Landscape Sites -- Trees for Landscape Containers and Pots; Bonnie Appleton et al.
- University of Tennessee; Trees to Plant in Containers or Wells; Donna Fare et al.
- Ohio State University; Gardening in Containers; Jane Martin
- Texas A&M; University; Vegetable Gardening for Containers; Joseph Masabni
- Texas A&M; University: Small Shrubs
- North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension; Imperata Cylindrica var. Koenigii; Erv Evans