By Amy Wenk

Easy to maintain, portable and changeable, container gardens offer a great alternative to traditional gardening.

Even in the smallest of spaces, inside or out, growing plants in containers allows you to enjoy beautiful blooms, vegetables and herbs all year. Since you are controlling the soil, water and light conditions, container gardens are easy for the beginner or experienced gardener.

There are unlimited locations to place this type of garden. Container gardens can spruce up a lackluster deck, balcony or terrace.

“Especially for the urban gardener, it is a great way to have an exciting combination of plants and really deck out your outdoor space,” said Jeff Jones, manager of Smith & Hawkin at 2395 Peachtree Road in Buckhead.

If your house lacks curb appeal, try placing a few container gardens on your entryway. Individually, they can be focal points in the garden; in groups, they can be used to define and create spaces.

No matter what you choose, container gardens offer a flexible approach to gardening, allowing you to move or change plants without making major revisions to the landscape.

Before you get started, consider the following tips on container gardening.

Picking your container

You have a wide variety of pots, flower boxes and hanging baskets to choose from. Pick one that matches your style and complements the space where it will sit. Also, consider the material and make sure the container has good drainage holes.

Jones recommends a porous material like terracotta, which allows plants to breathe. Such containers are versatile and affordable but can break in cold weather and dry out plants on hot days.

“If a porous material is wet and freezes, it is going to crack,” said Jones, suggesting pots be brought indoors during the coldest times of the year. “You want to protect your investment.

“For large containers, you do have alternatives to bringing them indoors, like taking something as simple as bubble wrap and wrapping the outside of the pot. It’s the cold wind that can be so damaging to the plant, pots and containers.”

Francesca Battista, landscape design consultant at Hastings Nature and Garden Center at 3920 Peachtree Road in Buckhead, recommends Vietnamese glazed containers for outdoor use.

“Glaze will keep in moisture vs. the regular terracotta,” Battista said. “They tend to be a little more expensive, but you will have them for your whole life. They are wonderful.”

There is a trend toward a mixture of natural and man-made materials, Jones said. Fiber-clay and fiber-stone containers are lightweight and frost-resistant.

Other choices include concrete, fiberglass, ceramic, plastic foam, resin and plastic.

If in doubt, select the biggest container that will work in the location. It will appear more abundant, and the plants will benefit from a larger reservoir of moisture and nutrients.

Selecting a soil

Soil selection is an important component of the container garden. Be sure to purchase soil that meets the needs of the plants you want.

Jones suggests a soil with time-release fertilizer and an element to help with moisture control.

“I would look for a soil mixture that has coconut core in it,” he said. “Coconut fibers absorb water and then re-release them slowly.”

Battista recommends lightweight, organic soils that combine peat moss and vermiculite.

“The best products are ones that are actually almost soilless,” she said. “They are very, very lightweight and easy to use in all containers.”

Many landscape stores sell soil specifically made for containers, as well as blends specially formulated for plants like cacti and succulents, which require more gravel or sand.

Arranging your materials

A feature of container gardening is its versatility in design options.

“You can grow anything in containers,” Battista said. “You can put specimen trees, like Japanese maple. You can put vegetables. You can put herbs. There are unlimited designs with containers.”

A good rule of thumb is to select one of each of the following elements: tall and/or spiky plants; medium-height plants; low and/or spreading plants; and trailing plants.

“You want something tall, something mounding and something trailing,” Jones said. “Any of the three can be blooming or just interesting foliage.”

Also, be sure to choose plants that require the same kind of light, whether it is full sun or shade.

When you are arranging the plants, place the tallest plant in the middle if the container is to be seen from all sides, or put it in the back if the container is placed against a wall. Begin with the foliage plants, then add flowers to complement the colors in the foliage.

“We don’t like to overcrowd too much because then you create a container that needs daily watering or something that is a maintenance nightmare,” Jones said.

Maintaining your container

Plants, of course, require water. In the heat of the summer, container gardens need to be watered every day.

“You can use gray water for containers,” Battista said. “You can catch it in your shower, from your air conditioner, even from your sink. Mild soap is fine for watering.”

Be careful, however, not to overwater your plants. Drainage is an important aspect of container gardening.

Also, if the potting mix does not already have fertilizer, use time-release granules for easy feeding all season long.