Yes, you can! Native plants grow in containers just as well as exotic plants do, we just aren’t used to seeing them there. Patio and balcony owners, go ahead; fill those pots with natives instead of geraniums. You will benefit wildlife just like a yard owner, and enjoy a much more interesting show as well.
I have been experimenting with natives in pots for several years, and this year I ran a trial on a second story balcony. I decided to try as many different natives as I could fit in my row of pots. Here is my short list of tips for pot-growing:
- use as big a container as possible
- fill it with high humus, organic soil, and add a bit of fine mulch to help it drain well
- do not use a layer of gravel, but do place something like a coffee filter over drainage holes
- be prepared to water your pots everyday
Plants in containers dry out much more quickly after watering than plants in the ground, so the more soil the plant has, the better. But even in a big pot, it’s possible your plant will need water every day. Also, the size of your pots will control the size of your plants. So bigger is better. I get good results from using only worm castings or shredded leaf compost for fertilizer, which is a boost to the mycorrhizae. All the plants in these photos were fertilized this way. I raised the pots up on runners to try to decrease the temperatures up there, which ran ten whole degrees hotter than temps at ground level. Last summer when it was 99 degrees on the ground, it was 109 up there.
You may have heard of the formula “fillers, thrillers, and spillers” for planning a container, and I included some of each of these in my experiment, although not in specific combinations as you would for aesthetics. Little bluestem, (Schizachyrium scoparium), prairie dropseed, (Sporobolus heterolepis), common sedge, (Carex pennsylvanica), and mountain mint, (Pycnanthemum muticum) did well as “fillers.”
A very young American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) grew well, twined without help around the posts, and will turn into a “thriller” next year.
Blanket flower, (Gaillardia) was a great “thriller,” and I noticed that while at a nursery full of mostly exotics recently, blanket flowers were covered with a blanket of bees. The exotics were bare.
Even common milkweed grew happily in a container, and made “thriller” status. If I were going for aesthetics, I would plant a couple together in a pot. This one was subjected to high winds with nothing to buffer it.
The last “thriller,” which of course means either a nice tall plant or a very dramatic color accent, is bee balm. Some call it spotted bee balm. Or dotted bee balm. Or spotted or dotted horsemint. For years I thought those were all different plants. The monarda drew a whole slew of pollinators.
Two native “spillers” worked well in my container trial. Creeping phlox, (Phlox stolonifera) and hog peanut, (Amphicarpaea bracteata).
This plant list should get you thinking! When the pot planning begins next spring, think native. Small trees and shrubs also do well. One friend of mine grew a winterberry (Ilex verticillata) happily in the same pot for seven years as an accent near her front door.
Your natives will bring beauty and comfort to you and your guests.
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