Container gardens: A practical option this time of year

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Summers in the South mean high temperatures and dry soil, but a July climate does not have to stop those at Maxwell from turning their yards into lush landscapes with colorful garden containers, according to Jane McCarthy, base horticulturist and director of Maxwell's greenhouses and landscapes.

"It's hard to start things in July. We're on the cusp right now where everything should be in the ground and well established," said McCarthy. "So the trick is creating a container with good potting soil, lots of water applications, light fertilizer and going to the farmers' market to see what they've got."

McCarthy says buying a good, light soil is essential to a plant's life expectancy, and containers create a perfect controlled environment for multiple plants. Money may be saved in other areas such as the type of container used, the fertilizer and even the types of plants.

Mulch is also important to spread around each plant to keep weeds under control, keep moisture in the soil and moderate temperatures. McCarthy uses pine straw mulch around Maxwell's landscapes.

As long as plants are planted in a container, there are a myriad of different greenery to choose from, including flowers, herbs and vegetables, many of which she has on display at the base greenhouses.

McCarthy's favorite plant for containers this time of year is cherry tomatoes and she usually plants two crops: one in April and one in July.

"It's purely a personal decision," McCarthy said. "I absolutely love cherry tomatoes; little round Super Sweet 100s are my absolute favorite. The thing is they never get into my house, because as you're out there, you're just going to pop them into your mouth."

Tomatoes and cucumbers need a lot of water, but both will thrive in containers through August and last until the first frost. A support structure like a pole or wire fencing in the middle of the container will help both crops grow upward and allow for easy harvesting.

In case of vacations, one should choose plants with low water requirements, such as peppers, that survive well in high temperatures and low rainfall.

"You can grow peppers, green peppers, red peppers, hot peppers, sweet peppers, it doesn't really matter," said McCarthy. "The hotter and the drier, the better they are. Now they still need to be watered but they are the ones that thrive when the temperatures are 85 degrees."


When looking at garden centers or farmers' markets for decorative or functional plants to decorate yards or entryways, McCarthy has some tips for what to look for.

"Buy the best looking plant that is on the display and don't ever buy one that is wilted or pot-bound," explained McCarthy. "Often times when you buy the wilted one, it has been stressed and it will struggle."

This is the case for annuals that only last one season. If their color or vibrancy appears weak, they may be drought-stressed, meaning they have not received an adequate amount of water and will take a month to six weeks to recover.

McCarthy also suggests checking to see if the roots appear pot-bound, or tightly wound inside before making a purchase. This signals they have not had enough room to grow. If such a plant is transferred to a bigger container of soil, its roots may go into shock and will not last the season.

However, when McCarthy shops for perennials, plants that bloom each year, she will scour sale tables and clearance items.

"Perennials are a little different," McCarthy said. "I will buy perennials when they are marked down because I know they are not going to look really wonderful this year, but I know there is a good possibility they are going to recover and look good next year."


For families settling into housing this July, McCarthy suggests finding a flowering hanging basket plant and transferring it to any outside container to brighten a home's porch or yard.

Some other suggestions for garden containers are begonias, an annual flowering plant that comes in two different varieties. Those with green leaves prefer shade, those with bronze or red leaves require full sun.

Vinca, or periwinkle, is a heat- and drought-tolerant annual flower that comes in pink, purple or white. Zinnia flowers are perennials that are easy to grow in hot, dry climates and require little maintenance. Marigolds flower in either orange or yellow, require full-sun and can grow in hard soils.

Sweet potato vine is a popular foliage option for container gardens, though it requires a lot of water. McCarthy said. It grows small tubers and their larger leaves come in a variety of colors.

Herbs such as parsley, rosemary, chives and oregano are another option for container gardens that can grow outside among flowering plants or in separate smaller containers just inside a windowsill. McCarthy suggests either starting herbs from a seed or purchasing them on display at garden centers or grocery stores where they have already sprouted.
Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., the Maxwell greenhouses on March Street by the firing range offer a free plant table of extra interior and exterior plants to choose from. McCarthy is also available to answer questions, give advice or provide tours.