GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Gardening might seem like a difficult challenge, but with the right tools and knowledge, anyone can be successful. Even if you don't have a yard to work in, everyone can garden. Bill Bird, a successful gardener and employee at Jonkers Garden, shares some of the things that help him be successful when it comes to container gardening.

Carefully assess your sun. The first thing you want to do is determine just how much direct sunlight your containers will get. How long will they be getting light each day? Make sure to do this at the right time of year. The sunlight in the winter is very different than in the summer. Different plants like different amounts of light, so determining the amount of sun your containers will get will help determine what you can plant. 

Choose a container. Use the biggest size pots possible. This helps if you forget to water one day, or if you make a mistake of two. 

Make sure your container has enough drainage. If you need more, you can usually drill another hole or two to help. This will keep your plants from drowning in water that is stuck in your pot. 

Get good potting soil. There are a lot of major brands that sell potting soil, and all of those will work just fine. Bill prefers organic soil without any fertilizer already in it, but that is up to you. Even if your soil does have fertilizer in it already, you will likely have to feed your plants as the growing season continues anyway. 

Choose the right plants. Pick plants that will thrive in the amount of sun your container gets. Most nurseries have high sun requirement plants in one area, and shade plants in another area. For those plants that are part sun or part shade, you can find them throughout. 

When picking plants, you have a lot of options. If you are creating a mixed container, make sure your plants not only have the same sun requirements but the same water requirements as well. 

When it comes to how to design your plant/container combos, there are a number of philosophies, but the simplest for beginners is "thriller, filler, spiller." That said, don't be afraid to only have one kind of plant in a pot, as those can be stunning as well. 

Planting your container. To plant your new garden, carefully take your plants out of their nursery pots by turning them upside down and pushing them through the holes. If it is stuck, run a knife around the edge of the pot, or squeeze and squish the pot. Separate the roots so they don't continue to grow only in one small area over and through each other. Arrange the plants in the way you want keeping in mind the way your pot will be facing. 

Dig a hole for each plant deep enough so that the top of the soil of the plant in its nursery pot will be an inch or two from the top of the pot. Don't cover the area where the stem meets the roots with soil, and make sure you have enough room so that when you water, it won't splash out of the pot. 

Keeping your plants alive. Now comes the hard part -- actually making sure these new plants stay alive. Watering is key. Not just giving your plants water, but the right amount of water. As a rule, your soil should be kept damp, but not wet. To determine if you need to give a plant more water, push your finger down to the second knuckle in the soil in the pot. This will give you a better idea of how dry or damp it is, and if you need to water the plant more. If the soil feels moist, you can probably wait to water. 

However, watering can be tricky because there are a lot of factors in determining just how often you need to water. You may need to water more than once a day during hot summer days, but on wet spring ones, you may only have to water once. Wind and the sun can make it so you will need to water more often, and a quick gentle rain could make it look like you don't need to water when actually it is just the surface of the soil that is wet, but the rest is very dry. 

Bill Bird works at Jonkers Garden in Holland. 


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