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Container Gardening for Biodiversity and Habitat

Using native plants in container gardens is a low maintenance and sustainable way to add biodiversity and create habitat in small spaces all year long. On my back deck I have a collection of terra cotta pots of all sizes that I’ve picked up from my neighborhood Buy Nothing group, friends, and estate sales. They’re filled with culinary herbs and native plants.

I've filled dozens of terra cotta pots with native plants, herbs, and a few vegetables to create a vibrant micro-meadow on my back deck.

When I transitioned from a cottage garden aesthetic of herbs, vegetables, and traditional flowers to a rewilded yard for wildlife I started growing my vegetables year round at a nearby community garden. I still grow some lettuce in containers which I let go to seed for finches, and I'm probably the only person I know who adds a few patio tomatoes in hopes of attracting tomato hornworm moths! The farmers market is where I can reliably get seasonal tomatoes without the drama of growing them.

Once my lettuce flowers and goes to seed goldfinches are not shy about visiting the seed buffet.

I dug up most of the herbs and put them in containers. Most culinary herbs aren’t native and some like peppermint are even invasive in Georgia. I grow the herbs for cooking, but they can complement native plants mainly as a nectar source (I just wrote about 18 herbs to grow for edible flowers and pollinators HERE). I decided to contain my herbs to make more room for native plant communities in the ground. (The exception is bronze fennel which is a perennial herb I have planted throughout my yard because it is a butterfly host plant, attract pollinators, has seeds finches love, and hollow stems for overwintering insects.)

My little kitchen herb garden is just outside my kitchen door. I let the herbs flower for pollinators and go to seed for birds.

I’ve been experimenting to see what native plants grow well in containers. The same way I have a dense tapestry of native plants in my small, urban, rewilded Atlanta yard, I’ve created a patio micro-meadow to extend the habitat for wildlife to include the impervious surfaces around my home. My back deck offers habitat all year long.

  • In the fall pollinators get nectar from the flowering container plants up until frost, Squirrels bury treasures in the various pots – often followed by chipmunks digging up the treats, and birds forage for insects and seeds on the plants,

  • In the winter birds peck at the dried seed heads and insects find refuge under the fallen leaves that blanket the pots.

  • In the spring I’ve seen birds taking bits and pieces of dried stems to build nests, early flowering plants like blue-eyed grass offers pollinators nectar, and birds check out the pots for emerging insects.

  • In the summer, the plants are buzzing with life and offer habitat for insects, birds, anoles and skinks. The plant saucers are even used as bird baths or a water source for chipmunks, squirrels, and birds (I have multiple bird so they don't get a lot of action).

My back deck container garden offers habitat for all kinds of wildlife! (clockwise from top left) Birds are often flitting around the pots, squirrels bury treasures for winter and get a quick drink from planter saucers, cardinals find plenty of insects - this blurry image is a cardinal capturing a grasshopper, chipmunks love digging up the squirrel's treasures in the planters!, caterpillars, butterflies, and moths find habitat on my deck (this white-marked tussock moth caterpillar appeared during our Memorial Day cookout), in the fall grasshoppers forage in the planters and maybe even lay eggs (there are no "pests" in my yard because it is a healthy functioning ecosystem.)

Switching from traditional gardening to habitat gardening is not complicated and just requires an openness to try a new approach. The change needs to include how we view and treat native plants as container plants which means not focusing as much on how they look as how they function. We don’t need to worry what color or shape they are but think about what pollinators or birds they might attract, or caterpillars they might host.

Last fall this one showy goldenrod (solidago speciosa) plant growing in a pot on my back deck flowered much later than the showy goldenrod planted in the yard - and was just covered with carpenter and bumblebees for weeks!

To loosen the grip the ornamental horticulture industry has on the way we view container gardens we need to do away with the dated concept of buying “thriller, filler, and spiller plants” promoted by the nursery industry to sell non-native annuals cultivated to be replaced each season. This cliched approach has been around in some form since the Golden Age of Horticulture in the 1800s when exotic ornamentals and hybridized plants became all the rage as a social status symbol. Trying to fit native plants in this model just perpetuates the ornamental value of native plants which is kind of missing the point about the reason for using native instead of non-native plants. I have small pots filled with native sedges, big pots filled with a dozen different native plants, a few pots filled with winter sown native plant seedlings from this spring, planters with native grasses, two strawberry pots planted with native plants, one strawberry pot planted with herbs, and a raised bed garden filled with a couple dozen kinds of winter sown seedlings that need more time to grow in a protected space. None of these fit the traditional container garden “rules” and all of them provide some sort of habitat value.

Container garden design rules are focused on form not function. Break the rules and add biodiversity and habitat to small spaces! (clockwise from top left) Large planters are filled with over a dozen native plants to create a micro-meadow, native plant seedlings are protected from critters but insects can still access them in a large standing planter, native plants and herb grow well in strawberry pots, water-loving sedge varieties can grown in smaller pots and like having their feet wet.

Container gardening with native plants is a low maintenance and more sustainable alternative to the senselessness of replacing annual container plants each season. The plants I replace are my non-native basil and winter sown native plant seedlings when they need to go in the ground. The rest of the native plants are perennials that come back every year, and annuals such as partridge pea that self-seeds. It's easy to change up plants when something is not working. I also use my container plants as a nursery of sorts and edit out plants when they get crowded to find new homes for them in my yard. One of my favorite reasons for using native plants in containers is every season and every year is different and brings unexpected surprises.

Partridge pea is a native annual that generously self-sows in containers and attracts pollinators like this common Eastern bumblebee which is becoming less common every year.

A new resource for finding keystone native plants for each ecoregion to grow in containers is the Homegrown National Park site. Of the eight plants suggested for my ecoregion, three grow five feet or more so you would need a large container for them. I’m still working on a post listing plants that I’ve found to work well growing in containers in the metro Atlanta area. It will include more information about the large planters in my front yard. Stay tuned for more suggestions 😊

I have a dozen blue planters on the slate landing of our front steps filled with herbs and native plants. In this image from last fall I can see basil, thyme, parsley, blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum), bidens alba, and scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea). I have more plant suggestions to share in a future post to be written 🙂

Note: There are no affiliate links in this blog. Please click the highlighted text throughout the posts for links to references, details, explanations, worthy organizations or businesses, or examples that I think might be helpful.



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sarah.gormley7
Jul 03, 2023

Eager for more suggestions as we have a spot in our yard with a whole old brick sidewalk underneath it where we’ve always put potted plants, and would like to turn it native :)

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