Potting for Pollinators

I’ve been a part of the plant community for a few years now, but since this is my first year renting a place in Waterloo, I wanted to try my hand at outdoor plants this summer. I’ve worked at a nursery in my hometown for the past two summers, so I have a good understanding of basic gardening principles. However, I want to be mindful and conscious about the plants that I’m growing, and how I’m doing so. 

Since I am only renting my home currently, I do not have space to dig and grow a garden. This means I am restricted to a potted garden, which works well for a variety of vegetables and annuals. That being said, I want to plant species that support pollinators and native wildlife in my area, which means I need to plant native perennials in pots. This plant challenge is outside of my knowledge of expertise, so I reached out to a fellow coworker to pick her brain about container gardening.

Sara Clark, Reep’s Customer Service Lead, has been gardening from her balcony for 6 years at this point and has gained a lot of knowledge over the past growing seasons. Here is the discussion I had with Sara about potting plants for pollinators; 

Syd: I want to know about the location, where is your garden situated and what are the climate conditions in your location?

Sara: I live in a high-rise apartment in downtown Kitchener. I have a large, shady balcony that only gets morning sun.

Syd: What are you planting and growing in your garden? With that, what are you growing them in? What are the containers like?

Sara: I grow a little bit of everything! I have a garden bed made from cedar that I built last spring that I use for growing herbs and veggies. In my shady spot, it’s mostly a salad garden with different leafy greens and beans. I also have some hanging baskets from my railing specifically dedicated to a variety herbs like chives, dill, and parsley. And I have a wide variety of different pots where I grow a mix of annuals and perennials which include lots of ferns! I tried my hand at planting a witch-hazel shrub last fall, but he didn’t make it through the winter, because I didn’t insulate him very well from the cold.  

Syd: What is the upkeep and maintenance like? With potted plants you have to replenish nutrients manually. What are the care requirements like?

Sara: Watering is one of the biggest challenges in an apartment! Containers are much more susceptible to the elements. It’s important to be watering every day in the heat of the summer. I specifically pick plants that are suitable for my conditions, and in my case, it’s important to go for plants that are drought tolerant, because I don’t have access to an outdoor hose or rain barrel

I’d say it’s also important to be refreshing your soil every spring, because the nutrients are easily stripped from soil in containers. I use a light potting soil and amend it with something like perlite and compost to help with water retention. I also add a slow-release fertilizer when I am potting my plants to help them with those nutrients.  

Syd: What challenges have you had planting perennial plants in containers?

Sara: One of the first things that I ran into with my perennials was that they outgrew their pots so quickly. So again, making sure that you’re thinking about their mature size and selecting pots accordingly.  

Another common challenge comes down to overwintering perennials planted in containers, like I mentioned with my witch-hazel who was not insulated properly over the winter. Containers are extra susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles, so do make sure that you’re tucking in your containers over the winter so that they’re staying cozy and warm. I usually do this by tucking in all of my containers together.  

Syd: A large portion of nurseries and garden centres don’t grow or sell native plants, where do you find your selection of native plants?

Sara: It can be challenging to find native plants. They’re starting to become more common in our more generic nurseries and garden centres. But even still they can be hard to find, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the other pretty things in those garden centres. I know that’s my biggest struggle whenever I go plant shopping.  

But there are a few great local suppliers I’ve found: Origin Native Plants is based out of Guelph, and they do online ordering for native plants. And there is also Bee Sweet Nature Co. They’re out in Puslinch, and they collect all of their own seeds for their plants. They’re a small but mighty family-owned business. And Ontario Native Plant Source is another option for online ordering. 

Syd: Lastly, do you a final piece of advice for someone like myself, trying potted perennials or native gardens for the first time?

Sara: Mainly to get out there and experiment! I’d say there are a few key factors to consider:

  1. Observe the sun requirements that you’re working with.
  2. Understand the moisture requirements you’re working with; so again, making sure that you’re looking for plants that are drought tolerant when working with containers.
  3. And lastly, if you’re gardening to support pollinators and wildlife, think about the intentional design for them by planting multiple plugs of the same species together in groups. This creates great big blooms that not only provide more visual interest for us, but also makes them nice and noticeable for our pollinator friends.

With the gardening season being a few weeks away, I’m happy I got to talk to Sara about how to set myself up for success growing native plants in containers. I am hopeful about trying my hand at outdoor plants this year, hopefully the plants I pick will thrive and support the wildlife in my yard.

I wish you all the best of luck with your gardens this year!

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