What You Should Know About Container Gardening in Calgary

Plus, products and resources that will get you pumped up for the gardening season, which for zone 4A residents kicks off unofficially on the May long weekend.

Photograph by Valvirga, courtesy of iStock.

So now your soil is ready, your confidence is up, and you’re sold on the fact that planting food and flowers in a pot is where it’s at. It’s time to go for it. Calgary Horticultural Society’s Kath Smyth (who formerly taught a course at the University of Calgary called, yep, The Art of Container Gardening) has a tried-and-true, knock-your-socks-off opening act she recommends to kick off planting season.

A devoted advocate for upping our gardening courage and joy index, Smyth suggests getting summer bulbs in a pot ASAP — try begonias, canna lilies or her favourite, butterfly gladiolas (haemanthus). “Plant them now, while it’s still spring, and then, as soon as possible, cover them with annuals, like pansies, or anything colourful you love,” she says. Sometime around the end of June or mid-July, the bulbs will find their way up and around the annuals. “I call these my ‘forgot-I-put-you-there’ pots,” says Smyth. “You’ll just suddenly see these strap-like leaves come up and then (if you planted butterfly glads) white flowers with purple eyes. It’s such a wonderful and beautifully fragrant surprise.”

Smyth also recommends scattering pots here and there throughout your yard, perhaps in places where a perennial didn’t survive or in a spot where you haven’t yet decided what to plant in the ground. “Just toss in seeds of colourful, old-fashioned favourites such as bachelor buttons or zinnias.” Voila!: simple, cheap, exuberant. “You just need to feel the joy, that’s what this is about.”

The art of perfecting a container “recipe” is a fairly loose, gratifying and always-illuminating endeavour. Be weird, be wild. Don’t be afraid to put plants and seeds side by side; veg and flowers together; trailers or climbers with anything. A solid but unexpected combo that Smyth returns to time and time again in a shady part of her yard is rainbow chard seeds (and/or beets) planted alongside begonias. Edible and unexpectedly pretty is always the high watermark in container gardening (Calgary’s bulletproof garden-darling, kale, grows well with everything). Smyth is also a fan of flowers from the daisy family paired with early small cucumbers, which will climb fetchingly over the pot. “A daisy-shaped flower like a gerbera will attract pollinators,” she says. “The bees then discover that the vegetable is there flowering as well, so they’ll pollinate the cucumber plant for good success.” Smyth also said something about a boy flower and a girl flower, but this is a family magazine.

At the heart of all of it, of course, is that urban gardening here in Zone 4A, or any zone for that matter, should be approached with both passion and a light touch, and regular watering. (About that, give hanging baskets a miss if you don’t like daily, or twice-daily watering). Gardening should be a conversation starter, a source of pride and relaxation, an annual experiment, a wonder. You don’t have to spend much, nor strive for a 100-per cent success rate, to be astounded and delighted by what comes out of a pot of dirt.


Grow Your Excitement

These products and resources will get you pumped up for the gardening season, which for zone 4A residents kicks off unofficially on the May long weekend.


Think Globally, Act Locally

The global bucket was developed as a low-tech system for fighting malnutrition around the world by making growing food cheap, easy and water-efficient. These self-watering containers are typically made by stacking a couple of five-gallon buckets and adding a bottom reservoir. To make one check out the dozens of YouTube how-tos online.


The Medium is the Message

Think twice before spending $500-plus on a fancy ceramic pot big enough to overwinter a VW. Left out in winter, it’s at risk of cracking due to moisture in the soil. Go a couple of sizes down so it can be wheeled into the garage or under a carport until spring.


The Fabric of Our Plant Life

Fabric planting containers can be planted in-ground or used like typical pots. Designed to improve and insulate a plant root system, the breathable fabric allows roots to grow outward in a natural pattern that’s not possible with a plastic or metal container.


Turn On, Tune In

Donna Balzer’s podcast Helping Gardeners Grow is a chatty, informative mix of tips and tricks and other gems to thrill gardeners and armchair gardeners alike. Find it on the usual podcast channels, or subscribe at donnabalzer.com.


Contained Within These Pages

Kath Smyth of the Calgary Horticultural Society has a long list of favourite gardening books whose origins are both local and further flung, but her pick of the moment is Edible Container Gardening for Canada, a sturdy softcover by Edmonton-based expert gardener Rob Sproule, that is a practical and inspiring source of container recipes and helpful tips.

This article appears in the May 2020 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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