Mini gardens in outdoor pots

I thought I would plant the big pots on my deck this past weekend, but it turned out to be 50 degrees and raining, so that didn’t happen.
But in order to have pots that look like this later in the summer:

it’s time to put in the little plants soon.

With about 4 hours of sun daily, I’ve found that shade loving plants are the most successful for me.  Over the years I have tried lots of things that didn’t really work and have accepted that full-sun lovers just are not in the cards for this spot.
The exception in the picture above is the sweet potato vine which took over the deck by the end of the season last year – four hours of sun seemed to make it quite happy.

What you see above that really thrives in a mixed sun/shade environment is:
Coleus – all the taller foliage in back. It gets purple spiky flowers late in the summer, which I pinch off to keep the foliage from getting leggy and thin. It comes in lots of colors and leaf shapes so you can out different ones.
Begonia variety – the star shaped leaf in the middle left. This was a tiny $3 specimen from Home Depot which I planted in June; the picture above was taken in late September. There are many wonderful varieties of begonia, the least interesting of which are the little waxed begonias, IMO. I like the more unusual ones. Angel wings are also nice.
Below the begonia is impatiens, a trusty shade lover which comes in many shades of white, pinks, peaches, oranges and reds. And below that, a vine with with tiny round green leaves, is creeping thyme, also bought from Home Depot. It did so well that I brought it in over the winter, so it will have a head start this year.
The big elephant-eared pink and green leaves are a variety of caladium – yup, Home Depot. The bulbs can be saved year to year so you don’t always have to purchase new ones.  The small purple flowers on the right are a streptocarpus plant that my mom gave me and it just loved it on the deck last year. It doubled in size and I brought it in to overwinter it; it wouldn’t survive outside and I couldn’t just let it die. It’s been flowering inside all winter in a sunny window.


The bigger the pot, the fuller it will look at maturity, and the longer it will go between waterings. The pots I use vary between 14″ (top diameter) and 22″. I got some of them on Freecycle, and some on Craigslist, as well as purchasing a few. But they’re expensive, and I’ve definitely scrounged around for free and cheap ones. Group them together for a lush look.

Make sure the pot has a hole for drainage. If it doesn’t, make one with a hammer and a chisel or something that will poke a hole through the bottom.

Start with rocks or gravel in the bottom to add an extra layer of drainage. A couple of inches will do.

I used bagged soil – you guessed it – from Home Depot. Not topsoil; that’s for garden beds and is too heavy. The biggest bags of potting soil I can get do the trick. Bags that say “professional” on them are usually a high quality mix.

Leave space between your little plants – they will get lots bigger! I usually leave a radius of 4-5 inches around each plant. That way the pot fills in well, but the plants have room to grow.

The rule of thumb for watering is that when the soil feels dry about an inch down under the surface, it’s time to water. Stick your finger in to feel the soil.  When you water, water thoroughly so the plants get a good drink, then wait until the soil dries out again. Caveat: in the high summer when it’s really hot day after day and it doesn’t rain often, you’ll need to water more often, possibly every couple of days. As the plants get more mature, the root systems are bigger and their water needs increase.

I have no compunction about taking out plants that don’t do well and replacing them with something else. Don’t be afraid to edit what you’ve done. Playing around with it is the way to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what you like. It will give you confidence. Have fun!