Planting in containers may go back farther than you think

Story by Dan Gill

April is a great month to move container plants that spent the winter indoors outside for the summer. The weather in Louisiana is warm and settled and the chance of freezes ends this month for the entire state.

Have you ever thought about how odd it is that we grow plants in containers? Who originally came up with the bright idea to put a plant in a pot? Perhaps the first reason plants were put in containers was to transport them from one location to another. Once that was done, it was an easy step to realize that plants could actually be grown in containers.

Growing plants in containers is a very old practice. The ancient Egyptians were apparently the first to commonly utilize containers to cultivate plants. According to Jane M. H. Biglow, in an article on ancient Egyptian gardens (The Ostracon: The Journal of the Egyptian Study Society; Vol. II, No. I Spring 2000), plants in pots were set in the courtyards and along the façade of the houses of wealthier individuals. In large gardens, such varied plants as flowers and fruit trees were planted in mud or brick containers. Ancient Greek, Hindu, Roman, and Chinese cultures also grew plants in containers.

The next time you are tending to your container plants, remember that you are carrying on a gardening tradition that goes back thousands of years.

Evidence indicates that during these ancient times, the plants grown in containers were primarily useful in some way, rather than purely decorative – herbs, fruiting trees, or food crops. Plants with attractive flowers had some medicinal or religious use in addition to being pretty.

Container gardening is virtually universal these days. I mean, think about it. I imagine every person reading this is growing something in a container somewhere, in the house or outside. Although vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees are still commonly cultivated in containers, it is decorative or ornamental plants that dominate this practice today. Indeed, mixed container plantings that combine several kinds of ornamental plants in one pot are very popular right now.

One important reason we grow plants in containers is that it allows us to grow plants indoors. And again, have you ever thought about how peculiar this is. Why do we grow plants indoors?

One reason is that plants not hardy enough to survive outside can be brought indoors during the winter to protect them from the cold. This allows us to grow tropical plants that that are not winter hardy in Louisiana.

The other reason we grow plants indoors, I think, is simply that we enjoy having them around us. The indoor environment is made more pleasant (comforting, attractive) by the presence of containerized plants. If you don’t think that having plants indoors makes us more relaxed and happy, look around the next time you’re at the mall. Malls go to considerable trouble and expense to install and maintain those lush plantings you commonly see. Perhaps the idea is that relaxed, happy people will spend more money.

Nature, however, never created a houseplant. Plants are adapted to grow in a natural habitat, not inside our homes. We do our best to choose plants to grow indoors that are adapted to mild year-round temperatures, moderate to low humidity, and rather low light. Even so, plants grown indoors rarely thrive like those growing outside, and that’s a big reason we place container plants outdoors for the summer.

When moving indoor plants outside for the summer, don’t put them immediately out in direct sunlight or they will burn. They must be gradually acclimated to the increased light – generally a period of two or three weeks. Place indoor plants in a completely shaded location at first, gradually moving those plants that like sun to sunnier spots.

The next time you are tending to your container plants, remember that you are carrying on a gardening tradition that goes back thousands of years. And although the plants we grow in containers these days tend to be more decorative than useful, the basic reasons are the same: convenience, mobility, and the ability to grow plants where planting in the ground is not an option.

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