Planting in the City

A green plant growing in a container
Photo: J.R. Blackwell

It seems like everyone is gardening these days. But if you live in the city, you could be short on space. Maybe you have a strip of land, a community garden, a pot on a stoop, or just a windowsill. Whatever your space, you can grow something if you grow something in a container.

We asked Andrew Bunting, Vice President of Public Gardens and Landscapes for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for tips to get started with gardening in the city. How can people with limited space grow something beautiful?

Flowers growing in a container
Photo: J.R. Blackwell

PW: How much space do I need to have a container garden?

Andrew Bunting: If you have any free space inside or outside of your home, you can be a plant parent. Almost any space will do. A front stoop, a balcony, a little bit of sidewalk, or just a cement pad in the back yard can accommodate pots of many sizes. For a statement in an outdoor space, fill it with pots in different sizes and designs for variation. If you have windows, consider a window box that will add beauty to the outside of your home while giving you visual interest from inside your home. If you are don’t have much space, try using your windowsill and some small containers of plants that will thrive with more sunlight.

PW: What supplies do I need to get started?

Andrew Bunting: It’s simple to get started with gardening in containers. A container such as a pot or a window box is the first step.  The container needs a drainage hole or holes so that the water doesn’t pool inside the pot, which can cause your plant’s roots to rot if its left in standing water. Then grab some potting soil and some seasonal annuals, tropicals, perennials that are widely available.

PW: What kinds of ornamental plants are easiest to grow in a city container garden?

Andrew Bunting: For larger containers I love summer tropicals like cannas, caladiums, banana plants, and elephant ears. Their large leaves and brightly colored flowers do great during Philadelphia’s hot and humid summer months.

For any container, I like to use the “thriller, filler, and spiller” method.  The “thriller” is your central feature plant like any of the aforementioned tropical plants or something that grows a bit taller and really stands out.  The “filler” can be something that lies a bit closer to the bottom of the container and has interesting texture, foliage or color contrasts like a coleus, abutilon, Madagascar periwinkle, Alternanthera or Persian shield.  Finally, the “spiller” is the plant that spills over the edge of the pot and gives it a beautiful cascading effect such as Bidens, verbena, Dichroa ‘Silver Falls’ or vinca vine. If you follow this method, you will have endless interesting combinations of plants.

PW: How do I know what my plants will need to grow?

Andrew Bunting: Before committing to buying your supplies, you should assess your location’s conditions. Pay attention to how much sunlight (full sun, shade, or part-shade) your location gets and match that to the plant you select so that your plant has the proper amount of sunshine to help it thrive.

Maintaining containers is relatively easy and there are just a few tips that will make your containers lush and vibrant throughout the summer and into the fall.  Typically, summer containers get planted in the spring.  A simple regime of watering, fertilizing, pinching, grooming and deadheading should make them look great right up to frost typically in October of November.  You don’t want to overwater, but you also don’t want them to dry out.  When the containers are planted add a slow-release fertilizer.  This will release small amounts of nutrients over the summer.  This can be supplemented with a liquid fertilizer every 3-4 weeks.  As the plants grow be mindful to pinch the new growth from time to time of plants like coleus, salvia, etc.  this will make these plants “bushier” and more full.  Also, remove any yellow leaves, broken stems or spent flowers (deadheading).  I try to “groom” my plants constantly so that the container plantings are always look fresh and vibrant.

To learn more about gardening, visit our website to get tips on all kinds of gardening or to learn more about how to contribute to the health and well-being of the Philadelphia region through gardening.

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