Container growing

coloradobirdJuly 5, 2006

Have another question for you experts. . . now that I've seen how many beautiful grasses there are, and how limited my space is. . . do any of you grow them in containers? If so, will they survive a zone 5 winter outdoors? If not, what do you do with them?

And, which varieties are best suited for container growing?

I think I've got the bug. . . (now if only I had more sunny spots in the yard).

Thanks so much for all your help offering suggestions for my garden over the past week or two. So many beautiful choices!

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donn_(7b-8a)

Probably the biggest single problem with container growing is winter hardiness. The general rule of thumb is that a plant loses 2 zones of hardiness if wintered over above ground in a container. In your zone, the entire contents of the pot will freeze solid. You can overcome this problem by burying the pot in the ground. Otherwise, you have to bring the pot into a frost-free space like a garage or basement. I winter some containers under my house in a crawl-space, and others in the wheelhouse of my boat. The engine compartment is heated, and keeps the wheelhouse frost-free.

Water needs are another issue in containers. They tend to dry out much more quickly than a comparable amount of soil in the ground, so you'll have to pay close attention, particularly in summer sun and in windy situations.

Apart from that, there's no reason why you can't successfully grow grasses in containers. I'd probably avoid the biggest varieties, because they would require pots big enough to require a mortgage and a zoning variance. There are enough smaller grasses to do some very interesting containers. Once they mature a bit, I will be trying some Deschampsia in containers. I have a 3' diameter plant in the ground, that is so perfectly round, it would look great in a container. I started 16 more clumps from it's seed this year, and some of them are destined for containers. I also have a fat young clump of Calamagrostis brachytricha in a 12" terra cotta pot, which may be too small after the first year. Other new starts that will go into containers include Carex comans 'Bronze,' Carex muskingumensis and Nassella Tenuissima (an annual for your zone*). Beyond those, I'd say that any small and most medium stature grasses would work well in containers. You'll have to plan on either dividing or potting them up every couple of years, but the same applies to a lot of in-ground grasses in restricted garden locations.

* Don't ignore annual grasses. They have lots of uses and are every bit as satisfying as perennial grasses. I have two 24" pots of Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' which are just starting to get impressive. They'll go out front beside the driveway soon. I also have three 2-gallon pots of Lagurus ovatus "Bunny Tails" which are almost ready to go into the garden in accent spots. Annual grasses are great for containers. You can start them from seed in late winter, enjoy them all through the season, and then relegate the entire contents of the pot to the compost bin when they no longer look good. Most will have 3 good seasons of interest, lasting well into winter.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2006 at 6:35AM
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donn_(7b-8a)

If you have the space and budget for it, you could put a giant grass in one of these and have a real traffic-stopper:

    Bookmark   July 6, 2006 at 6:51AM
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coloradobird

Ha! I'm sure I could fit one of those little pots on my 10' x 8' patio! (There just won't be room for anything else--including me.) They are beautiful, though--I love the black one.

Thanks for the ideas for containers. I'm not sure I want to dig a big hole and sink the pot, and my garage is heated, which wouldn't work I presume (I imagine grasses need a cold period, like other plants?). Annuals are looking like a very good idea.

Thanks for your help (again).

    Bookmark   July 6, 2006 at 3:58PM
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achnatherum(z4or3 Ontario)

Actually, your heated garage might just work. Many people grow grasses in the warmer climates and although the temps don't get all that cold the grasses still go through a dormant period (the non-evergreen ones). I keep several of my potted grasses in the garage over the winter. We heat ours to keep it at or slightly above freezing (32F).

I have been very successful with all size grasses in containers. The larger the container the more likely the grass will survive the winter outdoors. Of course the container has to survive the freezing & thawing as well!

In 1/2 and 3/4 whiskey barrels I have grasses such as;
Miscanthus purpurescens (needs to be divided evey 2 or 3 years)
Calamagrostis brachytricha
Pennisetum orientale
Eragrostis trichoides
&
that invasive blue dune grass whose name escapes me at the moment.
All of these grasses survive outdoors in their containers

Others in ceramic pots are overwintered in the garage.
Still others are slipped into decorative pots for the summer but are actually planted in large black nursery pots. These are dug into the veggie garden in the late fall.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2006 at 10:38PM
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coloradobird

The lowest setting on the thermostat in the garage is 40 degrees, and that's where we keep it. Is that too warm?

Do your grasses in the whiskey barrels survive the winter outdoors? I have a couple of whisky barrels sitting around here--they must be the 1/2 size (I imagine the 3/4 size means 3/4 of a barrel, and therefore, would be deeper?)

Thanks much.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2006 at 9:54AM
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achnatherum(z4or3 Ontario)

Yes they survive outdoors just where they are all summer.
As for the garage ~ I think 40 degrees might work. It would certainly be worth a try. You would just have to water more often than I do (which is only 2 or 3 times over the whole winter).

Donn,
I love those pots ~ gorgeous!! Wouldn't I love one in my garden ......

    Bookmark   July 11, 2006 at 10:35PM
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coloradobird

Oh, another question for Donn or Achnatherum, when your grasses are inside for winter, I imagine you water them every once in a while?

Just thinking. . . if Donn keeps his in a heated wheelhouse, I imagine my 40 degree garage might work (or, I could always change that thermostat, which would also help with the heating bills).

    Bookmark   July 11, 2006 at 10:38PM
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achnatherum(z4or3 Ontario)

coloratdobird,
I just have to ask (with a smile), Do you actually read our replies to your questions??
In my last post I made a point of say that you might have to water more often than I do which was 2 to 3 times over the whole winter.

And yes, I think I would be tempted to set your thermostat down a couple of degrees. You will be able to keep many of your container plants alive and happy under those conditions.

As an added hint. Plants that are cut right back can be stacked to save on space. Similar sized pots are stacked with pieces of plywood between to provide a steady stack and to protect the crowns of the plants on the layers below. As you can guess, I bring in quite a few pots.
A.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2006 at 8:55AM
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coloradobird

A,

At least you asked with a smile. I do read the posts, of course, I'm just a little stressed right now, and rushing too much--not paying as close attention as I should. Sorry about that. (What a goofball I can be--I imagine you must've been rolling your eyes when reading my last post.)

Good idea about stacking. After all, space is limited.

I really appreciate all the help you and others (especially Donn) have given me over the past few weeks. It's been fantastic. Now if I could only catch my breath. . .

So, do you water over the winter? . . . (good thing I'm a long way away).

    Bookmark   July 12, 2006 at 4:37PM
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coloradobird

A, in my (belated defense) I notice that the time on our last posts was only three minutes apart. I actually hadn't read your last post when I submitted mine (I was probably typing it while you were submitting yours).

I am a goofball, but I'm not THAT bad.

Thanks again for the help and advice. I do really appreciate it.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2006 at 4:42PM
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achnatherum(z4or3 Ontario)

Good point! I hadn't noticed that we had posted so close together. Goofball status rescinded :o) My apologies!

Actually you have asked some good questions so it was a pleasure replying.
You are going to LOVE your grasses.

A.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2006 at 11:00PM
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coloradobird

A,

Glad to be at least partially ungoofballed, though I still admit to rushing too much, even though I wasn't really guilty in this particular incident.

WIth the helpful advice of several people in this forum, I've now bought and planted Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal', Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Overdam' (well, this one wasn't really recommended by anyone, but I like the size and look), Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' and Chasmanthium latifolium.

They are all looking good so far (needing water every day--it's in the upper 90s and expected to be 100 this weekend).

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2006 at 3:14PM
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donn_(7b-8a)

Cool! Don't forget, we require pics.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2006 at 3:21PM
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coloradobird

Pics?. . . well somebody very kindly helped me learn how to post them, so I'll do just that. :)

Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' and Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Overdam'. I planted a couple of 'Baby Gold' Goldenrods in front of them, which look a little ratty, but I think they'll pull through. This bed is still being renovated (probably always will be!).

New perennial bed with two Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'. As plants get bigger, I'll probably have to move some things out (but not the grasses!).

Chasmanthium latifolium in the small, usually shady, bed (a breeze came up just in time to make it wave for the photo).

And for my first container grass, I plan to put it where the Dwarf Alberta Spruce is in the little yellow pot (but in a bigger pot). I'm thinking I might try one of the Pennisetum orientale varieties. 'Shogun' looks good to me, as does 'Karley Rose.' I also really like the look of Calamagrostis brachytricha. I think something taller would look good there. Another possiblity would be a taller annual. (Oh, btw, I e-mailed Bluestem about overwintering in the garage, and they said it would be too warm at 40 degrees--it should be five degrees cooler, so I will have to stick with an annual or change that thermostat).

Thank you again for all your help.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2006 at 5:54PM
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donn_(7b-8a)

They all look great! For the pot, I'd definately suggest trying an annual, just for the experimentation value.

Last year, I grew a clump of a mystery grass, from seed labeled as "Tall Foxtail Type." It turned out to be Setaria faberi, AKA Giant Foxtail. It had great germination, and literally grew like a weed (which it is). This pic was in July, and that's a 4' rule leaning up against it:

It eventually hit 5-6' and had 8" seedheads which looked like this:

Since it can be so invasive in my zone, I chopped it off early, before the seeds could ripen. The thing was so hearty, it grew back to 3' tall, and sent up new seedheads!

This year, I have a couple of pots of Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty' Ornamental Millet growing on the bulkhead. They're just starting to get some good growth (heat lovers) and the foliage is starting to purple up. I'll post pics of them in a few weeks.

For smaller applications, I love Lagurus ovatus, AKA Bunny Tails. They're a lovely annual grass with fantastic seedheads. Easy as pie to grow from seed, and they make quite a statement, either as standalones, edgers or masses.

Ahhh... I love grasses!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2006 at 6:35PM
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coloradobird

Donn,

I like the look of your Giant Foxtail. It looks a bit like Northern Sea Oats, but taller.

The idea of growing some of these from seed appeals to me (save some money!). I think I'll try fitting in some Bunny Tails next year. Should I put the seed out in the fall? I think you've mentioned in the past starting seed indoors? I think I'll also grow some more Northern Sea Oats, since I've got the plant with seeds already.

I see why you love grasses. They are certainly very beautiful.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2006 at 1:48PM
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donn_(7b-8a)

Bird..I use winter sowing techniques, which, briefly, is starting seeds outdoors, in mini-greenhouses made from recycled containers like water jugs. Seeds that need a cold spell to germinate can go straight outside in the winter, and seeds that don't can go outside later. The containers protect the seeds from critters and washout from rainstorms while they germinate, and then you plant them where you want them.

Sea Oats and Bunny Tails don't require cold stratification, so you can sow them in early-Spring. Don't harvest those Sea Oats until they're ripe, which is still a couple of months away, at least.

If you want more information on winter sowing, check the FAQ at the Winter Sowing Forum.

Here is a link that might be useful: Winter Sowing Frequently Asked Questions

    Bookmark   July 16, 2006 at 2:37PM
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coloradobird

Wow, that is an excellent article. I think I will try winter sowing. What a great idea.

Since Sea Oats and Bunny Tails don't need the cold stratification, I'll do as you suggest and start them in March or April.

You've been a great help. Thank you for all your suggestions and insights.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2006 at 1:45PM
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pezhead

In regard to hardiness of grasses in containers: I grew over 600 grasses of 30 varieties in 1 and 2 gallon plastic containers and all plants overwintered outside virtually unprotected this past winter. Among the grasses were varities that were hardy only 1 or 2 zones colder than our zone and despite all containers freezing as solid as blocks in a couple of very cold periods we had this past winter, all survived. Tough plants! If one is concerned about plants surviving over winter, piling up branches and/or leaves against pots may help insulate as well. The more soil in the pot the better (bigger pot is better).

    Bookmark   July 30, 2006 at 12:05AM
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coloradobird

Pezhead, thanks for your input. I am glad to hear about your overwintering success. Thank goodness they're tough, because I'm not the best with fussy/tender plants.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2006 at 1:45PM
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spingo

Hello all,
I'm the webmaster for Desert Blooms, the business that makes the large Native American pots. Here are their website links:

http://www.nmpots.com

http://www.desertblooms.biz

They have really neat SW landscaping art and are really nice people. Also, the pots are hollow and would accept a tree or plant.

Here is a link that might be useful: spingo portfolio

    Bookmark   May 9, 2008 at 11:35PM
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