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Globe Magazine

Seven tips for planting a flourishing container garden

Brighten things up for the season in whatever space you have available.

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Gardens are sprouting all over New England during this pandemic season, and you can still make the most of your outdoor space — even in a small city apartment — by planting a container garden on your balcony, front stoop, or windowsill. While cultivating a small garden might seem daunting at first, rest assured that it’s not as hard as you might think. I’ve been working with plants since I was a little boy, and I can often be found in the garden before sunrise and well after sunset with a flashlight in hand, weeding and watering. My garden has been a great source of comfort and calm to me during this anxiety-ridden time.

Some plants are more forgiving than others, but growing flowers and vegetables in containers isn’t any more difficult than raising them in a plot of land.

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Even though June is in full swing, it’s not too late to start your container garden, or to freshen up an existing one. Here are my recommendations for what to plant this year, including statement flowers that will brighten your balcony view, sturdy vegetables you can plant with the kids, and types of greenery that will even thrive in a shady spot.

1. Choose containers and soil.

If you’ll be growing outdoors, and you don’t already have containers, my favorites are self-watering composite ones with reservoirs at the bottom. If you forget to water for a couple of days, your plants probably won’t succumb to the heat. They can be expensive — some cost more than $100 — but you can also find less expensive planters for $20. Many can be left outside all winter, and you can plant some small evergreen plants, like a small picea or arborvitae, that will survive the frost. I’m not a big fan of clay pots for anything other than succulents because they dry out very fast, which means you’ll have to water them twice a day.

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Fill your pots with bags of container soil mixed with fertilizer. If you’re growing vegetables, make sure to use a soil mix specifically made for edible plants.

2. Short on space? Plant everything in one pot.

If you only have room for one container but want to grow an edible and some flowers, here’s a quick suggestion: Combine a rosemary plant with a geranium and some lemon grass, which can all tolerate the heat. The lemon grass can be used for iced tea on a hot afternoon, and the rosemary will be there in the fall when you want to start cooking heartier dishes.

3. Don’t forget about native plants.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention native plants as well. Sweet fern, aster, bee balm, bearberry, black-eyed Susan, and narrowleaf mountain mint can all be grown in containers, and many provide the added benefit of offering habitat and food to our local population of insects.

4. Plant vegetables according to container size.

You can grow almost any type of vegetable if the container is large enough. Lettuce and spinach work well in smaller containers that are about 5 inches deep and 6 inches wide, for instance. I plant determinate tomatoes, which grow to a fixed size and then stop, in containers that are about 18 inches wide and 20 inches deep (a plum regal tomato is a good one).

For a fun project that the kids will enjoy, put a couple of small organic potatoes in a container (any size will work) and cover them with about 6 to 8 inches of soil. After your plants emerge, continue to water regularly, keeping the soil evenly moist. Eventually the plant will flower and, in late summer and early fall, will yellow and die. This is when you can harvest. Turn the container over and empty the soil. Presto! You’ll have some potatoes for dinner.

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5. Annuals will bloom all summer.

Unlike perennials, annuals must be replanted each year because they won’t come back once the winter sets in. But their flowering time lasts months, not weeks. Try a hanging basket of lobelia and nemesia flowers. Newer lobelia varieties don’t stop flowering in the heat. One of my favorite annuals to use in containers is the petunia. Try the gorgeous magenta-and-yellow queen of hearts variety or the velvety, eye-catching crazytunia black mamba. Some petunias are bred to stay more compact, while others trail more than 4 feet. These versatile plants are perfect for hanging baskets and large containers.

If you’d like to attract hummingbirds, one of the best annual flowers are the salvias. You might have the perennial salvia in your garden that blooms in late spring and early summer, but the annual ones are more tropical in nature with their tubular throat, an ideal magnet for the ruby-throated hummingbirds. This flower comes in stunning blue, magenta, and other colors.

6. Make a statement with tropicals.

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If you’re looking for something thrilling and tall in the middle of a container, I like to use tropical plants. Our New England summer climate is similar to the tropics, with frequent humidity in warm weather. Try planting a banana plant, a simple palm tree or a variegated canna in a larger container. I like planting dahlias around these containers because the tropical plant keeps interest all summer and into the fall, when the dahlias begin to bloom.

7. You can grow plants in shady spots, too.

If you don’t have much sunshine, Heuchera plants, which come in a variety of colors and textures, do really well in dappled shade. Their multicolored leaves give the impression of flowers. You can mix these with impatiens or begonias.

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Dave Epstein is a meteorologist, avid gardener and frequent contributor to the Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.