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Container Gardening Basics

If you’re not convinced about growing in containers, we're here to persuade you otherwise. No matter what your gardening challenge, it's very possible that container gardening is the answer. Bad soil? Limited space? Small yard? No yard? No worries! You can grow just about anything in a container – veggies, herbs, annuals, dwarf evergreens, perennials, succulents, and more. Not only will containers add color, they can also provide a focal point in the garden, or tie in the architecture of the house to the landscape. A pair of matching containers on either side of the front walk serves as a warm welcome to guests, while containers on a deck or patio can add ambience and a punch of color to outdoor gathering areas. Whether you want to grow tomatoes, enhance a porch or patio, or attract hummingbirds to your deck, all can be easily accomplished with a little container gardening know-how. Follow these simple steps to make your very own container:

Pots and containers come in a multitude of sizes, shapes, and colors. Choose one that fits your style and space. Select from terra cotta, ceramic, stone, wood, cement, metal, or plastic. Be aware, however, that porous material such as terra cotta will dry out a little faster. Also, check to see that your container has a good drainage hole, since insufficient drainage can cause plant roots to drown. If your container doesn’t have a drain hole, drill your own or line the bottom of the container with several inches of small rocks.

TIP: Window boxes are ideal for those living in an apartment or those who have a balcony. These can provide the space necessary to grow plants, flowers, or herbs even in the smallest of spaces.

Invest in your soil from the start to encourage a healthy environment for your container plants. A quality potting soil helps plants retain moisture, provides enough air for growing roots to breathe, and supports your plants by providing anchorage for the roots. It’s important to use a potting soil in containers. Other soils are heavier and thicker and can clog the drain holes causing plant roots to drown. Some potting mixes also contain granules of dry, slow-release fertilizer, which is an added bonus. McDonald organic or traditional all-purpose potting soils are formulated specifically for Hampton Roads and are ideal for use in containers.

Choose plants that go together not only by color but also those that need the same growing conditions. Annual packs are one of the easiest ways to add color and are available in both sun and shade-loving varieties.

  • Sun to part sun plants need six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Choose from dianthus, verbena, petunias, marigolds, begonias, salvia, celosia, portulaca, and zinnias.
  • Shade to part shade plants require less than four hours of direct sun. They should also be placed in an area that is protected from the hot, afternoon sun. Choose from coleus, impatiens, dusty miller, and polka dot plants.

Get more annual ideas from The Summer Annual Cheat Sheet by Kate Karem of Monrovia.

TIP: Use hanging baskets for a quick and easy way to fill a container for instant enjoyment.


  1. To get started, fill your container with enough soil so the base of the plant (where the stem sprouts from the soil’s surface) is about one inch from the top of the pot- this will make it easier for you to water later. If your potting soil doesn't contain fertilizer, sprinkle a handful over the soil and mix in.
  2. Next, carefully remove plants from the container by gently squeezing around the sides to loosen the root ball enough to slide out.
  3. Loosen plant roots slightly and gently place in the fertilized soil mix.
  4. Once all your plants have been arranged, fill in around plants with potting soil. Lightly pack the soil around the plants to help prevent air pockets and to help establish a good root to soil connection.
  5. Once you’ve planted your container, water it thoroughly. This will hydrate your plants and firm the soil around the roots.

Rapidly growing plants need plenty of nutrients, and container plantings need more frequent fertilizing, since nutrients run through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot when watered. Fertilize containers every two to three weeks with a granular or liquid fertilizer. McDonald Greenleaf fertilizers are developed specifically for plants in Hampton Roads and are a great, general all-purpose fertilizer. Greenleaf releases nutrients slowly, keeping container plants healthy and strong. In fact, it’s what we use to fertilize our plants.

Follow these watering guidelines to ensure your plants stay hydrated and healthy all season long:

  • Water in the morning.
  • Water roots not the leaves.
  • Water deep and less often.
  • Water less in cooler temps.
  • If your plants and flowers look wilted during the hottest time of the day, it doesn't always mean they need watering. As long as the top of the soil is moist, you probably don’t need to water. Wilting is a self-protective mechanism to prevent too much moisture loss from the root area. Wait and see if the plants perk up after the sun goes down.

TIP: Does my container need watering? Do the finger test - Insert your finger down into the soil. If the soil is dry from the tip of your finger to your first knuckle, it’s time to water.

Find more on watering here.

Keep your container plants looking their best throughout the growing season by pruning leggy stems back and removing damaged foliage. Deadheading flowers will help your plants stay disease free and will also encourage new flowers to form. Cut back plants if they get too wild in order to keep the desired shape and form.

You will be amazed by just how much you can grow in containers! With a little creativity and imagination, you can create a container garden for your specific interest or simply to add color. Here are a few ideas for container gardens.

Pizza Garden Container – A pizza garden consists of herbs and vegetables used to make pizza. It’s a great way to show kids where food comes from and how it can be used to make delicious meals. Use tomatoes, peppers, onions, spinach, garlic, oregano. parsley, basil, and cilantro.

Mosquito Repellant Container – Why not make a container that not only looks great, but deters mosquitos naturally? Use marigolds, lemongrass, mint, and citronella geranium.

Tea Garden Container – Served hot or cold, herbal teas are a delicious way to experience the refreshing flavor of herbs that can be grown in your very own garden. Use lavender, mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, ginger, thyme, and chamomile. For more on Tea Gardens click here.

Cocktail Garden Container – Create and plant your own cocktail garden to ensure a fresh supply of ingredients for all your favorite cocktail creations. Use mint, basil, lavender, sage, and rosemary.

To view our video on Gardening for Small Spaces click here.

Nurture Nature - Composting at Home

What is Composting? In simple terms, it's a controlled breakdown of biodegradable garden or kitchen waste. All organic matter will, in time, break down through the interaction of soil microorganisms and become and excellent soil conditioner and nutrient supply for better growth of your plants, shrubs and lawn.

As communities across America become more environmentally conscious, we will want to make composting a part of our everyday life. Why wait to be forced to do something that could be so beneficial to our flowers and vegetable gardening? Composting not only makes use of our unwanted wastes, it provides us with rich organic matter that can change even the most unproductive soil into a medium that allows us to successfully grow anything we wish. And, composting keeps waste materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

When plants, animals, and insects die, their waste is returned to the soil. Soil microorganisms decompose them so that their nutrients can again be used by plants. Technically, composting is taking place all around us all the time. By organizing and utilizing these waste materials, we can speed up the composting process and thus become better stewards of our environment.


STEP 1: Choosing the Location. Choose a site on open ground - no pavement - that is well-drained, shaded and conveniently located near a garden hose and to the garden area to avoid hauling waste long distances.

STEP 2: Building the Bin. The compost bin should be 4-6 feet square and allow you to pile garden wastes about 4 feet high. The bin needs to have openings in its sides so that air can penetrate the pile so that the fungi and bacteria that are doing the composting can get enough oxygen.

STEP 3: Combining the Ingredients. Begin your compost pile with a 4-6inch layer of organic matter. This layer can include straw, sawdust, leaves, garbage, twigs and branches, weeds, shredded black and white newspaper - in short, you can use any organic material except human fecal matter, diseased animals, and toxic materials. Avoid bones, meat, dairy products and grease because these may attract animals to dig in your compost bin. If you shred the material first, it will compost more quickly. A lawn mower will shred most material easily.

Cover this layer with 1-2 inches of good soil or well-rotted compost. Sprinkle a small layer of composting organic matter (such as Natural Guard Compost Maker) according to label instructions. This will speed up the process by introducing the microorganisms needed for decomposition. The surface of the pile should slope toward the center, forming a basin to collect water. Water well and repeat the layering process. Every 3-4 weeks, stir the contents, making sure you bring the outer edges to the center.

The interior of the compost heap will heat up to about 140 degrees F. as the microorganisms do their job. Also, the pile will gradually shrink in size. Fully mature compost resembles suppression, a light, rich loam that has a sweet, earthy smell. Congratulations! You have now turned trash into treasure!


Yard Pile - among the most popular outdoor composter options is the yard pile; which consists of compost materials, including leaves, twigs, weeds, grass clippings, and kitchen waste.

Tumbler Composter - is another popular type of composters because of its ease of use. Instead of needing to manually turn the compost pile, the tumbler design makes it easy to regularly mix the contents of your composter for faster decomposition.

Worm Composter - uses worms to recycle food scraps and other organic material into a soil amendment called vermicompost, or worm compost. Worms eat food scraps, which become compost as they pass through the worm’s body. We recommend using the red wiggler, also known as trout or manure worms.

To learn more about composting and other ways to go green in the garden click here.

Heuchera, Spice Holy-Moly
Heuchera, Wildberry

Made for Shade - Heucheras NEW for 2020

Heucheras, also known as coral bells or alum root, are shade perennials known mostly for their striking, robust foliage. Heucheras begin to bloom in late spring and produce clusters of small blooms on spindly stems, typically in a magenta pink (hence the name coral bells). New cultivars and hybrids are being introduced regularly, giving gardeners stunning new colors choices that range from silver and gold to lime, burgundy, chocolate brown, purple, green and more. Its foliage may be evergreen or semi-evergreen, depending on the climate. This easy-to-grow, low-maintenance plant blends seamlessly with most other perennials in the landscape and does well in rock gardens, beds and borders, and under trees, shrubs or perennials. They grow moderately well in containers and provide great fall and winter interest. Heucheras can take full to part sun, but prefer a cooler and drier site in well-draining, humus-rich soil. Check out these two NEW, gorgeous heuchera varieties for 2020:

Heucherella Pumpkin Spice-Holy Moly - offers a sweet taste of fall in spring. Bronze-red leaves emerge in late spring with color into early summer. Four-inch lobed leaves have deep mahogany centers. Dark red stems with cream flowers appear in early summer with evergreen foliage in winter in most climates. For best foliage color and performance, plant in an area with filtered sun or afternoon shade. ‘Pumpkin Spice’ is naturally more heat and humidity tolerant and also has greater vigor than some other heucherellas.

Heuchera Wildberry - features large, scalloped, vivid purple leaves that keep their purple pigment for much of the season. Charcoal veins accent the leaf color making the leaves pop. Dark stems hold rosy pink calyxes and white flowers. Because of their low, mounding habit, they are often used as edging along paths or in containers.

What's the differences between Heuchera, Tiarella and Heucherella:

Heuchera provide lots of color and a maple-shaped leaf that can be ruffled with veining, etc. Flowers are bell-shaped and bloom on tall or short stems.

Tiarella have lobed or heart-shaped foliage, which is typically green with maroon barring in the center. Its flowers are star-shaped and are usually clustered together at the top of the stems.

Heucherella are a result of crossing the two genus together (heuche + rella) and gets qualities from each of the two genus. The color usually comes from the heuchera and leaf shapes and markings from the Tiarella.

Images provided by Walters Gardens, Inc.

Garden for Health and Wellness

Gardening during COVID-19 is one way to boost your all-around well-being and help to minimize the negative impact that stress and anxiety have on your health. From a mental aspect, gardening can be a great way for adults and children to cope with boredom and help families gain a sense of security. Bottom line- gardening is good for you and your family.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, moderate intensity activities such as gardening for 2.5 hours each week can reduce the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer and premature death. Here are just some of the benefits you can reap from gardening:

It Clears Your Head - the benefits of gardening go well beyond physical health. Working and being in green spaces provides cognitive rest that can help reduce feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. In other words, if you’re looking for ways to relieve stress, look no further than your own backyard. Many people who garden do it because they enjoy it and say that gardening helps them to relax and escape from daily stresses. The psychological benefits of being outdoors and working in the sunshine and fresh air are also clear. Studies have shown the beneficial effects of simply being in nature for decreasing stress. In much the same way as a beautiful painting elevates the mood, looking at a summer garden, soaking up the colors, smells and sounds can help overall wellbeing.

It's Heart-Healthy - any activity that is brisk enough to leave you slightly out of breath and raise the heartbeat counts as moderate intensity exercise, which, according to the experts, can help protect against heart disease. Like any other form of exercise, you need to be active for at least 30 minutes for there to be a benefit. So, if the sun is shining what better incentive do you need for getting out into the garden and digging in the dirt?

It Burns Calories - losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you consume, and the amount of weight you’ll lose gardening depends on several factors including your size and the work you are performing. When it comes to burning calories, digging and shoveling are at the top of the list followed by mowing and weeding. Spend a half an hour doing any of the activities below and expect to burn between 100 to 250 calories (examples provided by Iowa State University):

  • Digging and shoveling: 250 calories
  • Lawn mowing: 195 calories
  • Weeding: 105 calories
  • Raking: 100 calories

It Tones You Up - not only does gardening burn calories – it strengthens and tones muscles as well. Gardening is a whole-body workout utilizing legs, buttocks, arms, shoulders, neck, back and abdomen. For example, hedge trimming helps shape your biceps while raking and mowing will all help to strengthen the arms and shoulders as well as tone the abdominal muscles. Lifting bags of mulch, pushing a wheelbarrow and shoveling also provide resistance training, which leads to healthier bones and joints. To get the most out of your gardening workout alternate gardening tasks to make use of different muscle groups.

It Provides Good Nutrition - gardening is a simple way to get more nutrients in your diet. When you grow your own vegetables, herbs and berries you have more control. Don’t have a green thumb, no worries. Plant things that have a high sensory appeal like herbs. You can appreciate the smell, watch then respond to your nurturing and use them in cooking.

It Promotes Learning - don't forget to make kids part of the planting and growing process. Gardening helps kids engage their curiosity, learn to be resourceful and gain self-confidence. Exposure to fruits and vegetables may also encourage them to eat more of these beneficial foods.

It Brings Families Together - family gardening is a great way to plan and create something together and gets the whole family outside for some well-needed fresh air and physical activity.

The great thing about gardening is that it can be both energetic and relaxing at the same time. And there is nothing better than being able to stand back and admire the fruits of your labor while improving your health and wellbeing at the same time.

Warm-Up the Kettle, Make Your Own Tea Garden

With its appealing aroma and burst of flavor, it’s no wonder why people go crazy for a cup of tea, and we don't blame them. Served hot or cold, herbal teas are a delicious way to experience the refreshing flavor of herbs that can be grown in your very own garden. Tea is traditionally known for its calming effects and many of us turn to herbal teas to help unwind after a long day. Furthermore, herbal tea has been used for centuries as an at-home remedy for common ailments, such as headaches, stress, bloating, and nausea.

Herbs not only make wonderful teas, they also provide texture, shape, and color in the garden. Tea herbs can be incorporated into mixed borders and beds or planted together in a themed bed of their own. Don’t have a lot of space- no worries! If your growing space is limited, herbs can easily be grown in pots on the patio or deck. A sunny or partial sunny location are typically best for most herbs, however, be sure to follow the herb seed pack or herb label for planting instructions for growing success. Choose herbs that will grow best in accordance with your climate and available space. Above all, never spray herbs that will be used for culinary purposes with any type of pesticide.

Growing herbs in the garden is one of the easiest things to do. Whether you’re new to growing herbs or a seasoned expert, here are few herb growing and harvesting tips to help you to enjoy a delicious cup of tea:

  • Harvest herbs regularly to encourage them to generate more growth and to keep them from going to flower, since most fresh herbs are at their peak just before they bloom.
  • Harvest early in the day, after the dew has dried, but while the herbs are still lush and temperatures are typically cooler.
  • Use herbs fresh or air-dried and be careful not to tear or crush the herbs until you are ready to use them. You don't want to waste any of the essential oils.
  • Dried herbs are best stored in airtight plastic bins or glass herb-storage containers and kept away from direct sunlight.
  • A few of our favorite herbal teas flavors include lemon balm, spearmint, lemon verbena, sage and chocolate mint.

To learn more about growing herbs click here.