Photo: Saxon Holt
This trio of terra-cotta boxes overflows with candytuft and marigolds.
A potful of plants is the quickest way to extend your garden onto a porch, patio, or deck. Small trees and shrubs in planters can accentuate an entryway or steps — or even conceal the recycling bins. And containers are an easy way to add color and greenery where there's simply no place to plant. "The trick," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, "is finding the right combination of pots and plants to suit the situation."

Choosing a Container

A good pot is not only decorative, it protects a plant's roots from wind and heat and helps keep them moist.

Terra-cotta drains well and allows roots to breathe. Unfortunately, its natural porosity makes it dry out quickly in the summer and freeze — and crack — in the winter if left outside. "I love the look of terra-cotta," says Roger, "but it can be high-maintenance." Glazed ceramic and cast-concrete pots are less finicky. These containers retain water longer than terra-cotta, endure freezing winter temperatures, and come in a wide variety of colors and textures. However, they are heavy, a factor to consider if you like to shuffle the garden around occasionally. Box and half-barrel containers made from naturally rot-resistant redwood or cedar lend a nice rustic touch but are as cumbersome as concrete and not as durable.

Faux stone and faux terra-cotta containers made from plastics and other man-made materials are a truly lightweight alternative, weighing only a few pounds. They're also impervious to frost and are not porous. Roger concedes that these containers have gotten better-looking, but he points out that they're not as tough as their natural counterparts. "Watch where you're pointing your pruning shears or you might puncture them," he says. Whatever the pot's material, opt for one large container (14 inches or more in diameter) rather than several small ones if you can. Bigger pots stay moist longer and allow plants room to grow.

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