Please give me free gardening advice
April 4, 2013 4:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a small porch and I would like to have some pretty flowers growing on it now that it's finally warming up. However, every time I've tried achieve this in the past, it has ended in dead plants and wasted money. I need help with this of the most remedial sort.

So, I want a pretty little container garden on my porch but I have the Thumb of Blackest Death. Gardening seems to have so many variables and to rely so much on intuition that it just flummoxes me. No advice you are able to provide will be too basic for me. Go ahead and talk down to me, gardeners! That said, here are the specifics of my situation:

-I live in Chicago and have a south-facing front porch. It is not screened in.

-I have a couple long boxes and various pot to work with.

-I would love some colorful flowers but am open to other ideas as well. Stuff that is useful (herbs, fruits, etc) would be an extra bonus but pretty is my top priority.

-I was told we have a "squirrel problem" by the previous tenant. What do I need to do about that? Is there a way to cohabit peacefully with my fluffy-tailed friends?

Additionally, if you could point me toward any extremely dumbed-down gardening resources, I would be forever grateful. Ever single book or website I've looked at seems to assume that you already have a plan and pre-existing knowledge of some type. I have neither!
posted by Jess the Mess to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Most flowers are seasonal and we rotate them through the seasons. Bulb like daffodils, iris and tulips bloom very early in the season. Then it's done. Then azaleas, you get them for a couple of weeks. Then the day lilies come out. Then Queen Anne's lace. Pansies, impatiens and such like are "color" and they last linger. Knock-out roses are long lasting, hearty and pretty. You do need to deadhead them and prune them back though.

Go to a garden center and learn a bit, then build your garden. Me? I have a chick for that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:45 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there a hose bib on or near your porch? If so, get yourself a cheapo timed watering system like this. It's magical how much better plants do when they're getting watered automatically on a perfectly regular schedule.
posted by contraption at 4:49 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, I live in an apartment, so I could probably use the "community" hose but not indefinitely.
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:02 PM on April 4, 2013

I really love the book, Easy Container Combos. It features ideas for planting pretty AND useful combinations of flowers and vegetables. It's true to the title, too -- easy!

Mint is pretty foolproof in a container. Get a few plants. Put them in your container, spaced apart. Water frequently. Mint outside of a container will spread like wildfire, overtaking anything in its path. Mint in a container just grows like WHEE, so trim it frequently and make a lot of mojitos.

I like basil as a container herb, too. Same procedure as above -- get a few little plants, leave space between them, prune the tops every so often, and keep them happy by watering every day. At the end of the season, take it alllll off and make pesto to put in the freezer for winter.

Good luck!
posted by houseofdanie at 5:03 PM on April 4, 2013

Oh, and this fantastic book has info on edible flowers. It's mostly about growing things like vegetables and other useful things in containers, but it's another great resource for beginners, if you decide to branch out.
posted by houseofdanie at 5:06 PM on April 4, 2013

Herbs can be really easy, if you pick the right ones; for the most part, they don't mind living in containers, and they aren't as susceptible to total destruction by weather, neglect, or animals as some flowers (flowers with bulbs in particular may be a thing you would really have to fight the squirrels over). Including some herbs in your garden may also actually be beneficial to your ornamental plants, as herbs can attract beneficial insects (like bees and ladybugs) and repel pests.

I would recommend starting with some mint and lemon balm. Those are nearly impossible to kill (in fact, if you ever move and wind up planting them in the ground, you'll have to watch out and make sure they don't eat your whole yard). You can eat both of them; they smell wonderful, and they do flower (though the flowers are small).

Tansy is another herb will do all right in a container, and though it's not used as a culinary herb anymore, it is reputed to repel insects as well as squirrels and rabbits (though it never seemed to have much of an effect on the rabbits in my yard). It blooms with small yellow flowers that are quite cheerful and attract butterflies.

As for flowers, in my experience, pansies do well in containers in the Midwestern climate, and they come in lots of varieties and colors.

If you'd like to grow fruit, you might try strawberries. I've grown them quite successfully in containers without much work; they do well in traditional strawberry pots or hanging pots. (But the squirrels will almost certainly eat most of them before you do.)

Make sure the containers you are using are actually large enough for the plants you intend to grow in them. Many, many first-time container gardeners make the mistake of planting plants in containers that are too small, which results in the plants getting rootbound / dehydrated and dying. If you are unsure about whether your containers would be adequate for a plant you'd like to grow, do some research -- ask someone at a garden shop (I mean a real garden shop, not Home Depot), or look up the plant on a gardening forum online.

You can also try calling the Master Gardeners at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis for advice. They take calls from all over the country (and Chicago weather is close enough to St. Louis weather that they should be able to recommend hardy plants for you easily).
posted by BlueJae at 5:09 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Really good advice for you here already. Especially that you hook up with some gardeners - I bet there's some gardeners' groups in the area. (Added benefit: Possible source of baby-plants...)

My two cents: Honeysuckle is a beautiful climber and it smells good (and I've never seen one killed by squirrels or deer).

On the herb-front: Rosmary is a useful and ornamental herb. You probably can't get it to survive winter outdoors. Just buy a new one in the spring and freeze the surplus in the autumn.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 5:18 PM on April 4, 2013

I've had great luck with mint and nasturtium. Both are edible and forgiving. Mint should make nice foliage and nasturtium is easy to grow from seed, comes in many colors, and has charming round leaves.
posted by quince at 5:28 PM on April 4, 2013

I always had big pest problems with container gardening. I thought it was my fault, but now that I have a real garden, I see it is not. I think a real garden supports enough of an ecosystem that one type of insect will eat another and the pests usually stay under control. With containers, as soon as one pest moves in, you are in trouble.

So my opinion is that you'll get the best results by paying very, very close attention to your container plants. Inspect them (under the leaves too) for pests every few days, and take action as soon as you see anything. The action you take will depend on whether the plant is edible (in which case you'll want to avoid pesticides, probably), and whether you are committed to organic gardening in general. But there are still plenty of things you can do. And you should think about companion planting for large containers. Even if you have small pots, you can plant a companion plant in a pot next to the one you want to protect.
posted by lollusc at 6:26 PM on April 4, 2013

> However, every time I've tried achieve this in the past, it has ended in dead plants and wasted money.

It would be really helpful to know what you'd tried in the past, and the approximate dimensions of your containers. (Sometimes the practices that keep a plant happy when it's growing in the ground are all wrong for growing the same type of plant in a container.)
posted by desuetude at 6:43 PM on April 4, 2013

Well, I killed a gorgeous fuschia plant in short order - I guess we aren't "full shade" after all. My mother in law planted some prairie grass (possibly not the right name for what I'm thinking of) and it died. We had some marginal success with impatiens. I think we tried some cornflower from seed and it grew but never flowered.

Also, I've just been informed that the containers we did have were given away by my husband, so I am no longer tied to specific dimensions. Because of the small size of the porch though, I'm thinking the largest container we could accommodate would be no larger than 2 square feet or thereabouts.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:02 PM on April 4, 2013

Oh and cilantro fared very poorly for us too.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:38 PM on April 4, 2013

Cilantro is very picky; it stops producing after a hot spell, even in very good circumstances.

I agree that mint is a great choice.

Also, don't buy plants from Home Depot or similar places, they're often in bad shape when you get them so they die quickly even if you treat them right. Find a local garden place or nursery - ask any gardeners you know where they get their stuff.

The most common mistake with container plants is over-watering, I think - so be sure you're watering them but not too often/too much. Test the soil with your finger, and ask the person at the garden place/nursery how dry it should be before you water.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:52 PM on April 4, 2013

You're planting in containers in zone 5, so there is no point in planting perennials (plants that come back year after year). Perennials will bloom once and then die in the winter if they are in containers. You want annuals, which will bloom all summer and into the fall. They will die at first frost, but in the meantime they will give you the most bang for your buck, and then you can get new ones next year. Your last spring frost date is April 20, so if you plant before then, keep an eye on the weather forecast and cover your planters with a sheet or blanket if it's going to get down to freezing overnight.

If your porch gets full sun, you should go for full-sun plants. A good nursery will separate their plants by sunny or shady. Impatiens are shade-lovers. Petunias are sun-lovers. Every plant should have a plastic label sticking in the soil that tells you its needs; make sure you pick plants that will thrive in the sun exposure you get. If you're not sure, get plants that like part shade and part sun (coleus, New Guinea impatiens).

For big containers (like the big wooden ones pictured), a good formula is to pick a thriller, a filler, and a spiller (there are plenty of ideas at that link). IOW, one plant for texture (like a grass or yucca) and vertical interest, one plant for filling in the pot with leaves and/or flowers (petunias, gazanias), and a spiller that pours down the sides of the pot (sweet potato vine, bacopas, nasturtium). Get one thriller, three-five fillers (all one kind or different plants), and three spillers for each pot. You can go wild with colors or choose plants with colors that contrast or complement each other (purple and yellow, red and green, blue and orange) or go for all one color.

Buy a bag of all-purpose potting soil to fill the pots with. Don't use dirt from the yard, and don't use the dirt that is already in there, if any. Fill the pots up with soil, water it, and let it settle. You should end up with soil to about 6-8 inches from the rim. Take your plants out of their pots and arrange them: thriller in the middle, then filler, then spiller around the edge, if your pots will be viewed from all sides. If your pots will be viewed from the front, you can place the thriller at the back, then filler, then spiller at the front. Fill in the spaces between the plants with soil. Press it down firmly around the plants. Sprinkle some Osmocote on the soil, then water.

Water the pots when they dry out to just barely moist (I am assuming the pots have good drainage - all this means is that there are holes in the bottom so the water can get out). Containers can dry out very quickly in hot weather. You don't need to invest in an automatic watering system, just use a watering can. Water until the water starts coming out the bottom. If you notice that the soil is staying moist without watering every day, you can water every other day. Just make sure the soil stays moist, not sopping. (I live in Denver, where the humidity is commonly in the single digits, so my watering needs are probably greater than yours will be).

For smaller pots, usually one or more of the same plant works best, but there are no rules. Get what you like and have fun with it. No one is born a successful gardener, it takes time and making lots of mistakes.

Here's a trick I learned from an ex-door neighbor who worked at a nursery: annuals are going to die in the fall anyway, so for maximum lushness and blooms, fertilize the heck out of them. I like Osmocote because it is nearly impossible to overuse it and burn the plants since it is time-released.

If one or more of your plants die, don't blame yourself. It happens to even the most experienced gardeners. Replace it (or not) and carry on.
posted by caryatid at 9:32 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think the biggest problem with container gardening is keeping them watered. Window boxes, for example (about 8"x8"x24") can need watering _every day_ in a hot spell, especially if they're in full or near-full sun. In fact, I was never able to keep one going until I got these self-watering windowboxes. Containers with much larger volumes (say 2'x2'x2'), or in the shade, do much better with manual watering.

Like others, I'd recommend starting with some annuals, which you can buy in flats of 6 from a garden center or even Home Depot. I have full sun so I usually go for petunias. Dwarf marigolds are also pretty bullet-proof. For part shade, impatiens is a good place to start.
posted by mr vino at 12:30 AM on April 5, 2013

If you are buying new containers, we like the Earthbox, even though they are pricy. The kit comes with everything you need except the soil and the plants. Herbwise, unless you are full sun, I would skip. Great advice upthread about a thriller, a filler, a spiller.
posted by Malla at 4:28 AM on April 5, 2013

As a minor counterpoint to caryatid's mostly quite good advice, I live in zone 6, which does have hard winter freezes, and I have absolutely had container perennials come back after being repeatedly frozen and entirely covered in snow. In fact I am looking out my window right now at a wormwood plant that's spent three winters in a container, and just survived a late March freeze.

It depends on the plant. Tender perennials won't make it, but hardy ones often will. I wouldn't not try to grow a plant just because it's a perennial; just keep in mind that you may have to replace it if it doesn't survive the winter. And since perennials for the most part don't cost significantly more than annuals, I wouldn't chose not to plant perennials I liked just because I might wind up having to treat them as annuals and plant them again in the spring. Just be prepared to replace them if need be.

Oh, and no wonder you got discouraged after cilantro! Don't grow cilantro unless you are prepared to replace it every six weeks. Cilantro WANTS to die. (No, really -- its natural habit in the wild is to flower, seed and die back right as the summer heat hits). And fuschia really does want to be in FULL shade-- as in, directly under a tree, or on a shaded porch on the north side of a house in the summertime, not the south side.

So you see, you're not a natural plant killer at all -- you just started off with the wrong plants.
posted by BlueJae at 8:41 AM on April 5, 2013

I live in a similar climate to you some of the easiest herbs to grow are chives and thyme, I have a pot of them just starting to pop back to life after a winter buried in snow and at one point buried under a 2 inch thick layer of ice that built up on the pot. Both are very pretty and hardy as anything and come back each spring. I've had some luck with mint too. Dianthas/pinks keep coming back year after year for me and come in some very pretty shades and are cheap to buy.

Things to look out for with container gardening, don't get cheap soil, you want a soil that drains well and on that note make sure your pots are raised a little so water can drain out but you want to keep the soil moist, pots dry out super easily but if you buy yourself a nice big watering can and check them everyday it only takes a minute or 2 a day to check the water and then just water as needed.

I can't tell if you want only perennials but annuals are fun and pretty and usually cheaper so you don't feel so bad if they die off while you are learning. Petunias are colourful, love the sun and look pretty hanging off the the edge of pretty much any pot, though it is a smidge early for them right now they are a great beginners plant, same with Pansies which are just coming into season for planting. If you have the money don't buy the cheap ones you see in supermarkets, go to a garden centre and pay a little more for better quality ones, I find supermarket plants seem to take a bit more tlc to get them looking good. Oh and Marigolds are pretty much full proof and add a nice pop of yellow.

If you go to a good garden centre you can often buy ready made up pots with a nice assortment of plants in, though if they are too pricey for you do what I do and rampantly steal the plant combination ideas or change up the colours or whatever and try to grow your own with seedlings/starts. Also most garden centre people really do love talking about plants so you can ask them for advice, if you are not sure if a particular combo will work in your situation.
posted by wwax at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2013

Thank you ALL so so much. I swear I will probably take every single piece of advice here. You've taken me from a feeling of certain doom to beyond excited to get my little garden started. Now I'm struggling with whether to save myself some trouble and wait until after last frost date to go to the nursery or give in to my poor impulse control and buy all the plants now!
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Actually, now that I think about it, I think I'll go to the nursery this weekend without any intention of buying and look around and talk the employees and thinking about what I need to get and then come back later in the month when my plan has congealed.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:15 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, with (some) flowers, they'll continue blooming if you deadhead them regularly (pinch off the spent/wilted flower heads). Talk to your nursery person about the basics of this. I agree petunias are a great choice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2013

And you can get a hanging basket of petunias, if you've got a good place to hang it on the porch, which is always nice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:01 PM on April 5, 2013

BlueJae is of course completely correct; some hardy perennials will do just fine in containers. I just didn't want to throw in a lot of qualifiers that can discourage a beginner. :-)

I am envious of your beginner status. You have so much enjoyment ahead of you. I regularly spend $100 or more on annuals for my front porch planters and hanging baskets, when I can afford it. My rationale is that they give me months of pleasure, so they are worth it.

One thing I left out is that when you get your plants and soil in the pot, there should be 2-3 inches from the top of the soil to the rim of the pot, so that you can water without having it overflow immediately. All of these measurements are approximate, so please don't go to the trouble of measuring. And don't be afraid to crowd the plants a little. They will fill in faster that way.
posted by caryatid at 2:21 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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