Native container gardens are much easier to put together than full sized gardens. If you are new to gardening or have limited space, natives in pots are a gateway to sustainable gardening on a larger scale. Placed alone or in groups, containers are versatile little packages that can be moved around at will and easy to take care of. The color palette of natives is more subdued, like nature, and you will find that you will appreciate the foliage more of many of these plants, than the flowers.
Gardening for wildlife and designing landscapes that mimic nature are being embraced by gardeners and design professionals everywhere and you can do this on a budget with little time invested in creating a container. One caution: Never dig wild plants from the woods. Grow them from seed or buy plants from a reputable nursery.
Beauty Made Easy
My first requirement for a beautiful native container is a large expansive (at least 15-17” deep and 19-20” wide) container. Large, because you want to give your plants a good soil run, and they require less frequent watering. Less crowded plants also will display better. Start simple with one to three plants and use a tall plant, a plant that fills the pot, and then a filler that spills out over the edge. Using this simple recipe, you can have an attractive and pollinator friendly container in no time.
Hints to Get Started
Make sure your container has large drainage holes as often the drainage holes get clogged up with roots over time. This happens when you have plants in containers for several years. I often drill additional drainage holes in the container (if it is recycled plastic) or make the existing ones larger. In a pinch, you can use a threaded rod and puncture your root mass from the bottom up. I only do this when I don’t want to disturb the existing plants, but I can see that it isn’t draining properly.
Once your container is established, keep the dead foliage picked clean, but I leave the flowers on to produce seed for the birds, so don’t deadhead (remove spent flowers).
I usually include some kind of grass in a native container, as the silhouette of grasses are so different from other perennials and gives the pot textural interest. Mostly low maintenance, grasses are often overlooked as a great native plant choice. There are many native grasses to pick from: Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), and Carex Pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge), are just a few examples to try.
Think also of your foliage colors as they appear in the late season. Narrowleaf Blue Star (Amsonia hubrichtii) is a great example of producing wonderful star-like blue flowers in the spring that attracts butterflies (mostly swallowtails) and the foliage turns a bright gold in Autumn, which is almost more striking than the flowers. So, it is important to think about if a plant has a multi-season interest.
Shady situations will require more use of colorful foliage plants, especially ferns and grasses. These plants can stay in a container for at least 5 years until you need to dig and divide. Fertilization is important after the first year when many nutrients will become depleted from growing for a full season. I use a solution of water and liquid fertilizer mixed up in a watering can for easy application and water this in to give the plants the needed nutrients. Make sure you use a winter hardy container so your plants can winter over without cracking the pot. I have had plants get so root bound that some of my pots have split apart. That is the time to dig and divide for sure!
For my shady container, I used Ostrich Fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), sub Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) as the focal plant. The grass is Carex pensylvanica), sub Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), and finish off with Coral Bells (Heuchera americana), sub Wild ginger (Asarum canadensis). This combination will carry you though for many years and remain beautiful for most of the year.
Containers in the sun will definitely require more frequent watering than a shady container. The plants will also grow more quickly and need more fertilizer, so keep an eye out for wilting plants for your signal to water thoroughly. When the plants are a couple of years old and become root bound, watering tends to slide down the sides of the root ball, instead of penetrating. That is the time to split up and divide.
For my sunny container, the focal plant is Aster laveis ‘Bluebird’, sub Beardtongue ‘Husker Red’ (Penstemon digitalis), Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), and Wild Pink (Silene caroliniana) sub Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). This combination will flower at different times during the growing season to give you something in bloom all spring and summer which will extend the period of interest for pollinators.