Space is at a premium in Marjorie’s garden, particularly for sun-loving annuals and vegetables. Over the years many of the vegetable garden’s beds have been turned over to cultivation of raspberries, strawberries, grapes and highbush blueberries. Small fruits are Marjorie’s passion.
We always find space for garden peas, tomatoes, and onions, and a trellis or two of cucumbers, hills of summer squash. And an entire bed for sweet peas, a passion we share.
Self-sown annuals pop up in different spots every year and some are allowed their space in the sun. Calendula seedlings emerge with the germinating peas in spring, and there are always nicotiana seedlings. And always mullein plants, some in their first year as seedlings, others flowering in the final year of their biennial life cycle.
When all of the sunny beds are filled with plants or plans, we plant to containers. In a typical summer there are twenty or more pots scattered about the garden. It is madness without cure. In October, as we put all of the pots away for winter, we pledge never again, no more lugging the watering can about the garden on hot July afternoons. But every May they all come out from storage, scattered across a patch of grass to be scrubbed clean for the new season. And they have multiplied over winter, Christmas gifts and such.
In early June, we buy a bale of potting soil from the local feed and seed store, either Pro Mix or one of the Fafard mixes. We find these two brands to have the best water-holding capacity; many other packaged potting soils hold too much water, denying plant roots the oxygen they need.
We mix the potting soil with composted goat manure (any aged compost works fine), 3 parts potting soil to 1 part compost, and then fill a few of the pots before visiting the nursery. On the way, we promise to be conservative.
The shopping list begins with pansies for pots on the porch rail, a garden tradition. Stopping there we might have kept our promise, but instead we take the grand tour through every greenhouse, envisioning beautiful combinations of color and texture, designing specific plantings for each of our favorite pots.
The rest of the day is spent around the wheelbarrow potting up our purchases, mixing more soil and compost as needed. Before filling each pot with soil, we cover the bottom drainage hole (don’t use a pot without one) with a chard of clay saved from a broken pot. A small rock will do as well, one that will cover the hole but not plug it, allowing excess water to drain away but not the soil.
At the end of the day, there are pots of basil and parsley on the porch steps. Joining the pansies on the porch rail are glazed bowls of petunias in full bloom and a large terra cotta pot of yellow daisies and deep red nasturtiums. In a small bed at the edge of the garden, beneath the fringe tree, sits a pot painted with dragonflies and planted with seeds of a blue morning glory; in July the leafy branches of this small tree will support sky blue flowers on slender twining stems.
Other containers of morning glory seedlings sit at the edge of the garden’s deer fence and under the tall iron stake that holds the hummingbird feeders. In the sun of the perennial garden sits an old clay pot, weathered to a patchwork of green paint and raw red clay, planted with a combination of twinspur, purple-leaved sweet potato vine, and an annual grass with arching wiry leaves.
Other pots extend the vegetable garden into the perennial bed and up the porch steps, pots propped on rocks and rotting stumps, any level place in full sun. Container-grown vegetables become portable color in the garden. A large pot filled with a mix of ruby red and green lettuces, is a feast for the eyes as well as the table.
If you are new to container gardening, know this: like children and pets, potted plants are demanding. You can’t go on vacation without a sitter. On the other hand, they extend your time in the garden, always a good thing.
(This week’s column is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “The New England Gardener’s Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, to be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/negardener.)