Our writing is a labour of love, a way to share the fascinating world of horticulture with others through blogs, articles and ebooks.
The Virens blog is all about the best in modern gardening culture. Presented free of charge, as a way to build and foster gardening magic both in Vancouver, Canada, and further afield.
If you are interested in having your work published on the site, hiring us to write for other publications or re-print our articles, please get in touch. We love a good collaboration.
Sara-Jane & Alica at Virens Studio
ps You can also find us on Substack at virensstudio.substack.com
3 New Ways to Garden in Containers
Dec 17, 2021
Containers are great to fill otherwise empty spaces or add extra seasonal colour but why not try something a bit more challenging? They can also offer a unique chance to explore a different climate, grow your own medicinal plants or try out new things on a small scale.
World Exploration in a Pot
An empty planter is a unique chance to re-create a specific biome, different to yours, without disturbing an existing garden space. Their small scale and portability gives you a chance to control the conditions within reason. So why not go wild? pick an ecosystem that speaks to you and give it a go. It's a great way to experiment with an entirely new sensory experience plus increase biodiversity and wildlife habitat in an outdoor space that may not otherwise have any.
Getting started requires a bit of inspiration. You can,
Pick an ecosystem that brings you a certain feeling or reminds you of a favourite holiday.
Try checking out local nurseries and growers, theres bound to be a plant that is either new to you or, is something familiar that you can use in a new way.
Get to know gardening clubs/societies in your area, they're full of like-minded people that can not only offer fantastic and specific advise but also support and social connection.
Whatever your idea is, use it to inform the rest of your planter build. Begin by doing a little research before getting your hands dirty. Some basic information about the soils and climate that you're trying to replicate will make all the difference in the long run. It's the foundation that you'll build on.
Keep in mind that the farther away the chosen ecosystem is from your existing conditions, the greater the amount of energy and care that the container garden will need. So, match it to the amount of time and love that you want to give.
Even though planters are movable and somewhat self-contained you'll still need to do an area assessment. Note all the usual things just as you would for any garden space. Consider the climate, typical weather conditions and resource availability where the container will be placed and choose your plant material accordingly. You can adapt to some things, while others may not be possible depending on the situation. For instance, you can push your hardiness zone a few numbers by providing winter protection (moving the planter inside a garage or wrapping certain plants). However, if you can't manage that you may want to consider it a temporary planting, simply replacing material that doesn't survive. Or take a different tack by picking plants that are hardy in your area but give you the feel of a distant biome. It's all about your own creativity, perspective and the resources that you have access too. And how stubborn you want to be ;)
A few ideas...
A walk through temperate rainforest is soothing and cool so why not bring a bit of that home? These plants thrive in the protection of the tree canopy so pick a shady spot and a rich well-drained soil. Try to mimic nature by adding a piece of wood and a few rocks leaving some sizeable planting pockets in your composition. Small ferns are a great choice, plus mini hostas and woodland flowers like cyclamen and anemonella. There are even recipes for moss mixes that you can paint on areas to complete the look, or if you're patient, simply let nature do its thing.
Transport yourself to an entirely different world full of carnivorous plants! Any water tight container can be made into a boggy wonderland. Find a sunny open spot and go for an acidic low nutrient soil, think lots of peat moss. You can also add some pieces of wood, bark and extra sheet moss to finish it off. Pitcher plants and orchids of all varieties are a great choice, most local nurseries will have a selection including venus fly trap, sundews and butterworts from reputable sources (not taken from wild populations). And do keep an eye on weather conditions so that it doesn't either lose water or overflow.
Love the flow and movement of the prairies? then this container garden is for you. Most prairie plants are adapted to low nutrient, mineral based soils so mimic this in your planter. Look for smaller versions of larger favourites and fill the container up. Dreamy feather grasses are a good place to start. Then try some dwarf lavender, Eryngium and/or Sanguisorba. Also annuals like California poppy and cosmos are easily seeded and very inviting to pollinators. Bulbs that flower in spring or summer are great as well and will help change the look and feel of the planter through out the seasons. So try some Allium or grape Hyacinth to keep that natural feel.
Grow Your Own Medicine
Are natural health and beauty products on your list? You can grow your own. So many herbs are easily grown in basic well-drained garden soils and can be used in a variety of ways to improve your health. These plants can be harvested to make hand crafted beauty products, tinctures, teas and flavourful food. And no worries if you're short on time, even a simple sensory garden experience is worth while. A few leaves crushed between your fingertips will release plant oils. Take a breath and inhale, it may be just the mini break that you need.
Here are a few suggestions. And as always, be sure to check with medical professionals for potential side-effects or drug interactions before you partake.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
Herbal tincture or tea for motion sickness and sinus and stomach issues
Cold compress for headache or topical cooling
Scent has stimulating properties and gives an instant energy boost
Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Culinary use helps with stomach issues, depression and menstrual pain
Seeds (chew just a few) for digestion, gas and bloating
Scent has a calming effect
Tulsi /Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Culinary use helps regulate stress, give energy and increase focus. It's an anti-bacterial that can aid in the lowering of high blood sugar and kidney function.
Scent is calming and balancing
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Salves, washes and shampoo for skin rashes, healing of wounds and it's also anti-fungal
Essential oil can help bug bites, muscle spasms and fever
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Culinary use helps with infections and colds, is antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral
Trial in a Planter
When you're not sure how material will perform as part of a larger planting, containers are a fantastic space to try things out in a controlled area.
Is there a new bulb or seed selection that you've only seen in a catalogue or photo? Pictures are rarely true-to-life so buying a few to try out in a container is the way to go.
Unusual perennials and new plant combinations are also something that are worth trying for a season before you invest in a larger planting. It's not only important to checkout their visual impact but how plants perform and function together. I also love the idea of raised beds where individual pots can be shifted and changed without having to dig or disturb anything. It's an easy way to try out new combinations. You may be surprised by what textures, sizes and colours really sing when they're place next to each other.
Planters are also fantastic for trialing different soils, mulches and maintenance techniques. If you have a hunch that something may work better another way then trust that and give it a try. Setting up a little experiment to learn new things through trial and error is always a good idea because even if you prove yourself wrong, you're always learning. And you don't need a degree to use science-based techniques, it's easier than you may think.
Start with a question that you want to answer, consider what you think the answer may be and pick a simple way to prove or disprove it. For example, is rock mulch better at weed control than bark? I think it might be. So, I'm going to make two containers up, both with the same plants and soil but each with different mulch. Then all I have to do is check on them each time I'm already out weeding and keep track of which one consistently has fewer weeds. You may even track which weeds you see, one mulch may be more successful at controlling perennial weeds but not so much with annual weeds. Its worth it to check your results by monitoring over two growing seasons, as this allows for variations in things like weather and seasonal shifts from year to year. You set the parameters as they suit you and the more things you try, the more you'll learn.
Horticulture is an infinitely changing art and we should always be looking for a better way to work with nature to create amazing green spaces. So stretch your gardening comfort zone and try some new things with your container collection.
- Sara-Jane & Alicia at Virens Studio
We're ecological planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to build exceptional garden spaces and write all about it. Don't forget to follow us and stay in touch @virensstudio on instagram.
© Virens Studio 2022 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)
Recently I came across a study that confirms it, our street trees live fast and die young. The research shows, that urban trees (in comparison to their rural counterparts), experience (4x) accelerated growth and double the mortality rates. All of this means that we are experiencing a net loss in carbon storage, over time. According…
Why Planting More Street Trees Isn’t the Answer to Climate Change
We’ve written and designed a fun ebook! And we’ve decided to share a few select pages, so that you can see what we’ve been up to. Botanical Curiozine, Sunflower is a deep dive into the fascinating biology, history and beauty of Helianthus annus, one of the most beloved flowers in the world. Far from…
A Fun & Fascinating Sneaky Peak at, Botanical Curiozine – Sunflower
It’s always good to take a step back and see the world from a different point of view. So why not put aside cultural perceptions and traditions to view our gardening foes with fresh eyes? In this article, let’s take a relaxed look at some common weeds in a way. Exploring, why we don’t…