Help me beautify my front yard.
May 14, 2009 7:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm a totally novice gardener. What should I plant in my flowerpots?

I live in the Chicago suburbs. We have four flowerpots (each about 1' square) on the north side of the house that are mostly in sun, and a 3' x 6' area on the ground next to the house that is almost always shaded. This area has wormwood and snapdragons that come back every year.

  • Widely available and inexpensive
  • Not much work beyond watering
  • Can stand up to violent thunderstorms
  • Not particularly attractive/tasty/poisonous to dogs/cats
  • Would be nice if they were attractive to butterflies, but not necessary
  • If it helps with the whole bee situation, so much the better
  • Does not matter if they come back next year, because we'll have moved by then
I would like to not put a ton of thought into this - I'd like a "grocery list" that I can take to the store, plant 'em and be done with it.
posted by desjardins to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
For the shaded part, I've had the best luck with impatiens.
posted by mattbucher at 7:39 AM on May 14, 2009

Impatiens, an annual, provide lots of color in shady spots. See some pictures here.

For sunny spots, I like Vinca. It's hardy and come in lots of colors. See a picture here.

Both are pretty inexpensive at the local home improvement store/local nursery/garden center. The people who work there may have other ideas, too.

Happy gardening!
posted by socrateaser at 7:48 AM on May 14, 2009

Potted plants are mostly for annuals. You could plant a tomato plant in each 10-12 inch pot. Fresh home grown toms are awesome. I would also pick up a 4 pack of marigolds as well. Put them in 6 inch pots around the toms. It'll look nice and keep furry pests away. I potted my cherry and yellow pear tomatoes as well as my herbs this way this year because I ran out of room in my garden. If you are looking for something that comes up every year you will need to dig up your 18 sq feet and plant perennials. But then again that would be too much thought. I'd stick with the toms and marigolds. They are very hard to screw up. Water them once a week and your set. Also get potting/vegetable soil for your pots. Don't use your soil from your yard. Lastly if you buy established tomato plants you should not have to worry about them getting too much sun.

So your grocery list would be:

1-2 bag of potting mix/soil - $5.00 to $10.00
4 pack of tomatoes - $1.50
4 pack of marigolds - $1.50
4 6 inch pots - Probably $1 each?

For about a 20 you can have tomatoes all season long with a pretty display of color from the marigolds.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:50 AM on May 14, 2009

One of many lists of toxic plants.

Thirding impatiens for shady areas. It's lush and gorgeous, but shrivels up like a condemned soul if it gets more than a few hours of direct sun. Mine have always done well in the backyard with a few hours of sun in the morning, but crisped up badly when out front with the same few hours of sun in the afternoon. It also bears up well under storms.

Some people love hosta for shade, so if you like the looks of the available plants, you can try that.
posted by maudlin at 7:53 AM on May 14, 2009

I cannot link for the life of me these days. Toxic plants.

Tomato greens are toxic to pets (and human) but my cats never went near them in the back yard.
posted by maudlin at 7:55 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Question about potting soil - we have (good quality) soil in the pots from last year - do we need to get new stuff or can we use the same stuff? (I told you I was a novice)
posted by desjardins at 7:56 AM on May 14, 2009

You could always go for some herbs. I'd go with rosemary, thyme, oregano, and either sage (hearty and difficult to kill) or basil (can be tempermental). Flowers are nice and all, but have you seen the price of fresh herbs? And there really is very little comparison between fresh and dry.

You could also give chili peppers a try, if you like spice.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:00 AM on May 14, 2009

I would replace the potting soil. Or at the very least, get rid of the top few inches and amend the existing soil with new. There might be nasties in the old soil that could affect the new plants.
posted by socrateaser at 8:03 AM on May 14, 2009

Toad lillies grow well in shade, similar to hostas. They're a little odd looking, but fun to grow and should come back every year. Impatiens are definitely the go-to annual for shade though.
posted by electroboy at 8:03 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: Y'all are assuming I cook, which is extremely generous of you.
posted by desjardins at 8:05 AM on May 14, 2009

Do you eat eggs? If you do plant tomatoes, crush up and dump one egg shell per plant before planting the seedling. The extra calcium helps you avoid blossom end rot. More on blossom end rot. Chicago climate is similar enough to Toronto that you do want to baby your seedlings for a while.
posted by maudlin at 8:11 AM on May 14, 2009

I would recommend replacing the soil. The stuff depletes nutrients pretty fast if there is not some symbiosis with a living plant. Also, hostas can be a little bland for my taste, check out caladiums as well.
posted by mattbucher at 8:27 AM on May 14, 2009

Caladium are gorgeous, but unsafe for pets. It probably wouldn't kill an animal, but it would make it very uncomfortable.

This ASPCA site on toxic plants is probably better than my earlier one, as it tells you more about how each plant affects animals.
posted by maudlin at 8:48 AM on May 14, 2009

Don't forget something to keep the slugs out. My SO has been planting and they seem to take consdierable enjoyment from her sweetpeas and geraniums.
posted by biffa at 9:03 AM on May 14, 2009

For an interesting accent in the middle of the pots, chard is a good choice--aside from being edible, it's tall and robust and comes in multiple stalk colors; you might try "Bright Lights" or the old stand-by, Fordhook Giant; I have seen these as plants at garden centers, but you can start them from seed, as well. Once that greenery gets going in the center of the pot, tuck a flower in each corner (you said these were square pots, right?), maybe one of the trailing petunias. Or mix it up with two lovely helichrysums and two petunias. I enjoy these mixed plantings, but they do need plenty of water and an occasional dose of natural fertilizer to keep them healthy all season.

(Hm. This maybe doesn't fit your "plant and ignore" requirement. Think I'll post it anyway, in case you can adapt some concept out of it.)
posted by miss patrish at 9:11 AM on May 14, 2009

I garden here in Chicago and my favorite and by far most successful flowers are Morning Glory and Cosmos. Both grow very quickly from cheap seeds available almost anywhere. The Cosmos are especially hardy would probably grow in asphalt and cigar butts.


Help me beautify my front yard.
posted by desjardins

posted by applemeat at 9:12 AM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you do any cooking? Basil and Rosemary are great potted plants. Just keep them trimmed back.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:20 AM on May 14, 2009

You must be getting some sun in that area if the snaps are doing well! For your part shade area, I recommend looking into nasturtiums. There are many varieties that do well in part shade, and they're absolutely gorgeous. You can buy varieties that tend to climb around the garden bed, filling in empty spots, or ones that stay quite compact and bushy. They are extremely easy to grow from seed. In fact, I think they're perfect for beginners because the seeds are so large and easy to spot, and they tend to germinate well. You can find the seeds in any home improvement store. Here are a couple examples. They're edible, too!
posted by theantikitty at 9:25 AM on May 14, 2009

Response by poster: eponysterical.

ha, I didn't even think of that.
posted by desjardins at 9:25 AM on May 14, 2009

Dwarf Marigolds - cheerful and easy
Petunias - masses of color, also easy
Impatiens - grow in shade, colorful, easy
Nasturtiums are colorful, and will trail over the side. Easy from seed or plants. Edible. I really like them.
Cherry tomatoes - need sun & fertilizer. It's nice to pick a few fresh cherry tomatoes every day
Lettuces- grow your own arugula, or loose leaf lettuce. Easy-peasy.
Herbs - Parsley is way easy from seed. Rosemary and sage from plants. Fresh basil from seed or plants, mmmmm.

Yard. Hosta and impatiens do fine in the shade. Probably not worth planting hosta for 1 year. You can get more pots, grow sun-loving plants on the steps, and put the pots in the yard for parties.

You don't have to replace potting soil in planters; just add some composted cow manure and mix it in. I used to have most of my garden in pots, and added home-made compost and composted cow manure every year, with good results. The cold seemed to kill any bad things. (The articles that say you have to replace the soil - the ad next to them is for potting soil. coincidence?)

Chard in pots? great idea. Kale is pretty, too, and a great addition to fall soups. Yay, Spring!
posted by theora55 at 10:32 AM on May 14, 2009

Oh, yeah, nasturtiums! My favorite is Empress of India with its blue-green antediluvian-looking leaves and vivid vermilion flowers. Those leaves are so cool after a rain when beads of water sit in them like pearls. When we were kids, my sisters and I loved to roll the beads around the leaves--the water seemed almost a solid substance. Cool.

For the shade, pulmonarias are attractive and low-maintenance--Mrs. Moon and Silverado are both nice. You can get color in the shade (aside from planting impatiens) with heucheras, the foliage of which runs the gamut from deep purple (v. Obsidian) to bright lime green (Lime Ricky) to red (Georgia Peach). Both pulmonarias and heucheras are perennials, too, so you don't have to replant every year.
posted by miss patrish at 10:49 AM on May 14, 2009

If you have sun for tomatos, then plant green onions or small marigolds around them. Bugs don't like their scent. And, put crushed eggshells where you have problems with slugs. Slugs won't crawl over rough things as it damages them. And, instead of insecticide, mix soap and water up with a whisk and use the whisk to spatter on the tomato plants. Soft bodied insects like aphids smother if covered with soap scum. You have to redo after every rain. Water the soil in the pots, not the leaves as you can get nasty fungal diseases if you don't have enough air circulation to dry the plants. Sounds like a lot of work, but it's really easy, cheaper than store bought, and not toxic to children or animals.

There's an impatiens that's been adapted for sun. It's bigger and the leaves are pointier, but you get the same lush colour and coverage. When you go to buy plants, check the little tags. They should tell you what's for full sun, partial sun, and shade.
posted by x46 at 11:09 AM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

For the pots in the sun, I'd recommend petunias. They have big, bright flowers and require only sun and water. I have a black thumb (kill everything), but I've got some nice flowering petunias growing in pots about the same size on my front porch. You can probably get away with planting more than one in each 1' pot. I crammed about 5 in mine, but it will depend on how big your plants are. They should come with a tag telling you how big they will get.

If you decide to go with herbs, even though you maybe don't cook, I'd recommend chives. I planted some last year, and this year they came back all on their own. Mine seem to like sun. They flower beautifully too, so even if you don't eat them they're nice to look at. The bees like them though, if that's a problem.

For the shaded area, I'd go with hostas. They're easy, like shade, and will come back year after year.

Question about potting soil - we have (good quality) soil in the pots from last year - do we need to get new stuff or can we use the same stuff?

From one novice gardener to another, I reused my old soil mixed with a little bit of new stuff this year and everything is growing just fine. I'd only toss the old stuff completely if whatever was growing in it previously was diseased in any way.
posted by geeky at 1:26 PM on May 14, 2009

Try planting some natives in your 3 X 6 area. They are very low maintenance, require little water once established, usually attract birds/butterflies, and naturally adapted to withstand the local climate challenges. Shade loving/tolerant natives in Illinois include bleeding hearts, Jacob's ladder, maidenhair fern, wild columbine, shooting star, joe pye weed, and foxglove beardtongue, among others.
posted by iceprincess324 at 1:39 PM on May 14, 2009

In my yard/containers (somewhat north of where you are) impatiens gets finicky about cooler temps. I plant it anyway. Likewise basil, which doesn't seem very happy when the temp is below about 50. I'll be planting basil in my plot this coming weekend.

Good, normal zonal geraniums are lightly scented and bloom for me right through frost. I keep them in containers every year. Very reliable.

The smaller, annual flowering salvias can be nice. Marigolds are pretty dependable. The newer 'wave' petunias that don't need so much deadheading and looking after are nice.

Older-style 'normal' petunias and lobelias tend to get scroungy on me by the end of the season.

Verbena is really nice looking in smaller pots.

Callibrachoa is becoming more common in garden shops around here. Lots of flowers, this is my first year dealing with it.

Coleus is a nice, small, inexpensive annual for continuing color, even if it looks a little like a 'grandma' plant.

I don't have good luck with herbs in pots for some reason. I have a patch of ground to plant them in that does fine for me.

I also dislike lots of watering/tending of plants. I have no pets, you'll want to check any of the above suggestions against previously posted lists to see if they're in your 'comfort zone' for you having them around animals in your neighborhood. For what it's worth, my neighbors have big lazy cats that sun themselves on my deck, these plants haven't been any problem for this unscientifically selected subset of cats.

Oh, except that I've planted saratoga/nicotiana (ornamental tobacco relative) intentionally, a supposedly noxious plant, hoping that it would deter digging squirrels. It didn't, I think the squirrels spent afternoons hiding behind the garage smoking it.

Overall, I think you'd be happiest with good-quality geraniums.
posted by gimonca at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2009

Oh, hey! After reading about gimonca's nicotiana-smoking squirrels--if you've got cats, why not plant a pot of catnip? It get big and bushy, has little lavender flowers and the cats that love it, REALLY love it; they'll sit under it nibbling a bit and getting totally stoned. 'Course, that would be contributing to the delinquency of a feline . . .
posted by miss patrish at 2:03 PM on May 14, 2009

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