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Container Gardening – Beyond Bonsai

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Container Gardening – Beyond Bonsai

By Joseph Monte, Wildwood Farms, Kenwood 

How long can I keep it in the container?

That’s the first question people often ask about growing plants in pots.

The easy reply is ‘forever’.

Which leads to, “will it be a bonsai?”

Here the issue becomes a bit more nuanced.

Let’s look at a redwood tree as an example. In the ground, a ten year redwood can easily be twenty feet tall.  In a five gallon container, a ten year redwood could be ten feet tall, spindly, completely root bound, and yellow from lack of nutrients.

The above scenarios involve minimal adult supervision.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bonsai redwood. An in between scenario - where it is neither a meticulously manicured twelve inch bonsai nor a half dead ten foot tall pencil – is a happy one. It’s the area where 80% of the container gardening public lies. In this area, pruning the branches once a year and repotting the plant every few years is realistic.

This level of a work can produce a plant that has award winning looks. It is important to keep in mind healthy container plants will likely be smaller than their in-ground counterparts. That’s fine because they often have less space to grow.

Choosing a plant that is smaller in stature helps. A Japanese maple, versus a redwood, puts a gardener on the road to success. Choosing a maple that has open branching structure is another smart choice. A grafted maple has built-in characteristics - all one has to do is follow and enhance them.

Two grafted Japanese maples that respond well to container growing are Baldsmith, with multi-toned leaves, and Red Dragon, with striking red leaves. They have two things in common: lace like foliage that creates a soft, appealing flow and branches that reach outwards creating fantastic silhouettes.

Semi-dwarf maples like Rhode Island Red or Mikawa Yatsubusa have a natural architectural shape.  A little snipping and clipping every season highlights their form.

One unique benefit to container gardening is the ability to turn the plant. One side looks odd? Spin it. Or one branch might be totally out of place. Bonsai it! Oops there it is – the b word.

Just don’t tell the plant what it is. It will grow up to be just fine.