Containers make sense for gardeners who live in apartments or in houses with either scant open ground, or rocky or lousy soil. But it might seem odd that homeowners with more than a quarter acre of good, fertile soil would spend – waste? – extra money on potting soil and sometimes expensive pots to put plants in containers.

In fact, many gardeners with great outdoor spaces, my wife Nancy and I included, spend a lot of money and effort growing plants in the artificial, relatively small enclosed environment of containers.

Over the winter, we grow a lot of houseplants, for the greenery and pleasure they give us at a time of year we can’t be outdoors with plants. But from late May through late September, most of our houseplants get an outdoor vacation. There, they can enjoy the summer breezes and natural rain, while we enjoy how they spruce up our patio.

Some tender houseplants, sensitive to breezes and cooler temperatures, don’t like the change from indoor to outdoor conditions. You may want to harden such plants off for a week or so before leaving them outside, as gardeners do with vegetable seedlings. Set these houseplants outside in the middle of  the day, and then, come evening, move them to a garage or shed to protect them until they are acclimated.

Even if your garden has lots of room, there are good reasons to supplement with plant in containers. They look nice, and if you’re so inclined, you can harvest vegetables early. Shutterstock/Gardens by Design

At least two of our taller house plants – a banana tree and the red puffball Calliandra haematocephala – get some agricultural ornamentation during their summer vacation. Both plants require large pots to accommodate their extensive root systems. Because their roots don’t reach the surface of the soil, we’ve got a planting opportunity. We often buy small, expensive seedlings of perennial plants intended for our ornamental gardens. But if we plant them in the garden in their first year, the seedlings get lost. Instead, we let them grow for a year, as sort of a groundcover, underneath these larger plants.

Other times we just want extra beauty – who isn’t seeking that during the trying times we’ve had for the past few years? – so we stick annuals, such as zinnias or pansies, in with the banana and puffball. For this, Nancy especially likes sprawling and trailing plants, which can conceal the sometimes unattractive sides of the pots. One of her favorites is violas – little Johnny-jump-ups that she transplants from our vegetable garden, where they appear all over the place.


Pots are also useful as a way to harvest vegetables from your garden earlier in the season than usual. Last year, I tested Patio Delight tomatoes, which were bred specifically for containers. Because our patio is mostly shady, we put the container on our front steps – which, as is typical in Maine, nobody actually uses for entering the house.

The front steps get sun from about 11:30 a.m. until sunset, and also benefit from the heat that is absorbed by the bricks and reflected from the light gray shingles on our house. As a result, that plant gave us ripe tomatoes in early July, about four weeks before the vegetable garden did. We’ll be planting front-step tomatoes again this year, and probably a second container. We might add peppers and summer squash to keep them company. That way, we can enjoy several very early summer crops.

Vegetables aside, we also plan to grow the traditional pots of pansies, petunias and such to decorate outdoor tables and other prominent spots.

A reminder: Except for pansies and violas, don’t put any of these plants outside now; it’s too early. But dreaming is nice and making plans early is even better.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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