October 27, 2014: Container Gardening for Pollinators

~by Virginia Rhys Anson, OFS

A selfish intent–must I admit–prompted this column. I have officially become a lazy gardener. Having created a few wildlife gardens in various domiciles in the Midwest, I have tired of fighting weeds—and suffering the loss of many battles. Yes, a less than honorable reason to create a container garden, but true nonetheless. I suspect that others suffer, likewise, from shun-the-weeds syndrome. However, on a more altruistic plane, I just love the look and variety of container gardens. Butterflies and their fellow pollinators can sup with equal relish among colorful pots, planters, and boxes.

Laziness is likely not the main impetus for a gardener’s desire for containers. Most can likely charge limited or lack of space for this decision. Others, poor soil.

Container gardens find homes in a multitude of locations. A potted garden offers a natural decor for any deck or porch, regardless the size. The portability of pots and planters allows the gardener artistic freedom to arrange as the mood suits. Tired of your design? Rearrange your pots or situate them in another corner of the deck. No deck? The front doorway landing, patio, walkway, and even rooftop easily accommodate a movable garden. Lack of time to spend on gardening? Did I mention greatly reduced weeding?

Containers, containers, and more containers. Such a wide array. Oh, so much fun in the search. Which containers to use—clay or plastic, wood or metal, round or oval, or just plain usual. Do you want ready-made pots or homemade wooden planters? Do you want tall or short or mid-sized or an artistic mix?

If the intense desire to build your own wooden planters consumes you, wood choice is critical. Woods such as redwood and cedar are less prone to water damage. Regardless of the variety that you choose, a word of caution. Avoid lumber treated with CCA (chromated copper arsenate), which is a carcinogen and is toxic to plants, animals, insects, and humans. Opt, instead, for lumber treated with ACQ (ammonial copper and quaternary ammonia).

Pots and planters can take the form of shallow rounds or ovals, troughs, wall hanging ceramic and bag containers, trellises, large ceramic jar-like pots, wooden barrels, recycled tires, or really off the wall items—just about anything that will hold soil and plants. Only the imagination limits the election and variety of potential receptacles. However, the container size must be appropriate for the type of plant or plants that will dwell therein. It is necessary that you research the mature size of the plant and the depth that its roots prefer to travel. Then choose your planters accordingly.

Containers, being confined areas, can be prone to flooding after a rainstorm. Precautions must be taken to prevent overflow from rain or over watering and, thus, root rot. To allow excess water to drain, drill holes in the bottom of the pot. The holes should be large enough for water to escape without taking soil with it. Placing small stones, or gravel, or even recycled aluminum cans—rinsed well, of course–in the bottom of the pot before adding soil will help ensure that the dirt will remain in the planter.

It may happen that you misjudge the planter size or acquire a gifted plant from a friend that requires transplanting. Root bound plants may beg you to transplant them to a larger home. Testing a plant to determine root boundness is quite simple. While bracing the plant, carefully turn it upside down and gently dislodge it from its pot. Roots that are crowded along the edge or on the bottom will thank you immensely if you give them a larger space to stretch and grow. The pot that you choose for transplanting should have a circumference that is about two inches larger than the root bound pot.

The base of the transplanted plant should rest about two inches below the top of the pot to prevent soil loss during a rain shower. Place a layer of soil in the bottom of the pot deep enough to allow the pant base to rest at the two inch from the top level. Place the plant in the center and fill in with soil. Lightly pack the soil.

Speaking of soil—and placing the cart before the horse–soil type is determined by the plants that you select. No, not all soils are universal. A cactus requires a mix that retains moisture, perhaps one with a bit of sand. Woodland plants prefer soil that drains well. Again, a bit of research, or a visit to a local nursery, to determine the environments that feed your flowered companions is necessary.

Location choice. Not just a willy nilly decision. Container gardens, being essentially portable, can be located just about anywhere you desire, including inside the house—which does defeat the purpose of a pollinator garden. A prominent spot in the yard away from more heavily trafficked areas would be my first choice. A sunny versus shady area will influence your flower selection, as will the specific pollinators that you wish to attract.

Sometimes a spot is chosen based on present landscaping, slope of the land, or the dog’s favorite bone burial site. If, however, various sites are summoning you, choose wisely. If wisdom temporarily eludes you, no worries. Remember, your garden is portable and can be changed if the location ends up being less than desirable. Your choice will, as was previously mentioned, be determined by the type of plants that will inhabit in your containers. Sun, shade, partial shade, or a mix. Fairly level terrain would be much preferred for a multitude of obvious reasons.

Location and containers chosen, tis now time to have a blast—plant and flower selection. Research is, once again, key. Lady Bird Johnson’s website, www.wildflower.org, is a well-researched resource for plant investigation. But you may just be forced to also visit a nursery once again. Drat. What a sacrifice.

Yes, native plants are preferable as they have adapted to your environment. Personally, I prefer a mix of native and non-native—heavier on the native. It is, likewise, so pleasing to choose plants that bloom at varied times of the year so that you have blooms nearly year round. Of course, you will want to choose plants that attract pollinators, especially butterflies and hummingbirds.

I won’t dwell on plant choice, but would like to refer you to two archived Meandering columns: “Butterfly Gardening”—March 2014and “The World of Pollinators”—May 2014.

Proper watering, quite logically, is all-important for the health and beauty of your plants. Because the space in individual containers is limited, your garden will relish more frequent watering—more frequently even, than your house plants. Actually, a daily drink, especially during dry spells. Potting soils specifically designed to retain moisture may allow waterings to be spaced out a tad more. To further ease your watering task, a drip system may be well worth the investment.

The need for more frequent watering necessitates the replenishment of nutrients that escape with the water. Fertilizing is essential. Adding a natural, organic fertilizer, such as compost or manure, replaces the lost nutrients. Fertilize when you first plant and at the beginning of the growing season and then about every month during this season.

The dormant season brings on harsh, cold to frigid weather. It is then time to winterize your plants. Fragile plants will welcome a respite indoors during the winter months. Flowering annuals will, likewise, enjoy the indoor warmth. They will then reward you with longer bloom periods, bringing your garden indoors while you ignore the howl of a blizzard outdoors.

Delicate plants and annuals are best moved indoors before the night time temperatures dip below about fifty degrees. This allows the plants to acclimate to the indoor environment before you turn on the heat, which usually tends to have a drying effect on the air.

This column has merely perused container gardening. More enchanting information can be gleaned from the resources tagging behind this column.

Gardening for wildlife is a win for you and a win for pollinators–butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, honey bees. Their ability to thrive will increase due to the efforts of those who are intent on replenishing the habitats that are all too quickly disappearing. Moreover, unbeknownst to our insect guests, their visits to our yards present us with hours of enjoyment and peace watching their flits and sups and glides. So totally enjoy. And happy gardening.



Daniels, Gloria. Growing Flowers in Containers. Gloventures. 2014.

Lewis, Eleanore. Container Gardens. Better Homes & Gardens, Des Moines. 2001.

Murray, Alice. Container Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide to Successful Container Gardening. Amazon Digital Services. 2012.

Richardson, Fern. Small Space Container Gardens. Timber Press, Portland. 2012.


American Horticulture Therapy Association

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

National Gardening Association

National Wildlife Federation—Garden for Wildlife

North American Butterfly Association


Virginia Anson grew up in the shadows of Sandia Crest in New Mexico. Family camping trips may have sparked her passion for nature. She holds an A.S. in Electronics Technology, a B.A. in Writing, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and a certificate in Wildlife/Forestry Conservation. Her book, Mother Earth’s Caretakers, targets middle school youngsters and is published as an e-book for Kindle. Virginia is a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and her volunteer endeavors see her as a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sacristan in her parish and as a habitat steward for the National Wildlife Federation. She especially cherishes her life in the Secular Franciscan Order, following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

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