My uncle’s mother, Mary Ressler, was a thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch woman who lived by the words “a penny saved is a penny earned.” In spring she’d plant out red bedding geraniums along the vegetable garden fence, and in autumn she’d take cuttings to line her windowsills in winter. Like other gardeners of her era, Mary used well-washed tin cans and plain garden dirt to root her geranium slips. She kept the same plants going for decades—the ultimate in gardening on a budget. I often think of Mary, particularly how she couldn’t bear to waste a good plant or spend hard-earned money on its pot. In those days, I’m sure many farm women rooted cuttings in tin cans, sowed alyssum in leaky dishpans, or tucked hens-and-chicks into their husbands’ worn-out farm boots.
Containers are everywhere once we open our eyes to their possibilities. Restaurants discard numerous five-gallon plastic buckets that can be spray-painted fun colors and used to create playful displays. Grocery stores toss produce crates that make short-lived but intriguing containers when lined with plastic. Outgrown wading pools filled with soil become delightful children’s gardens.
Planning to hit the spring yard sale circuit? Scoop up surplus kitchen colanders to house aloes, echeverias, and other tender succulents. Or pot up a collection of Mediterranean thymes—these small plants appreciate the sharp drainage provided by colanders and smell fabulous when soaking up the heat on your porch or patio.
My friend Elissa is a gifted and creative gardener who thinks big when scavenging containers. She searches out old galvanized hot water tanks, then has a buddy who’s handy with an acetylene torch cut them in half lengthwise. The resultant containers are as weather-proof as any you can buy. Elissa’s make perfect bog gardens for her collection of pitcher plants and sundews.
For several years now I’ve created a summer sitting area framed by containers. I often fill thirty or more big pots. At first glance, you’d think I’m rich—all those Italian terra cotta and expensive glazed containers set out where everyone can see them. In reality, I have twelve great pots. The rest are faux terra cotta, produce crates, and other scavenged items. The trick to using inexpensive or odd-looking containers is to provide heavy camouflage with colorful vines. Fast-growing ornamental sweet potatoes, like chartreuse Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’ or tricolor ‘Pink Frost’, are well-suited to the task. Trailing petunias, Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ and cascading coleus like Solenostemon ‘Ruby Ruffles’ or ‘Red Trailing Queen’ are other good choices.
Don’t think that just because your budget is small you have to give up gardening in containers. I don’t know what my penny-pinching Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors would think about the big bucks I spend on plants, but they’d be proud to see that I know how to “make it do or do without” when it comes to what I plant them in.