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How to Start a Native Container Garden

I live in the southwest Houston neighborhood of Willow Meadows. We have a typical lot for the area, about 9,500 square feet, with about 2,500 square feet of backyard. There was a mature pecan tree along with a fig tree, citrus trees, a hibiscus, and a palm tree I had planted before I learned about the importance of planting native plants.

I knew from a short-lived experiment with raised bed vegetable gardening that gardening requires constant attention and maintenance, so for my next project I wanted to create a landscape that was interesting, easy to manage, unlikely to be ruined by dogs or children, and of course bird-friendly.

Enter: container gardens. Containers are great because it's easy to change plants out, keep weeds down, and add color and texture to your landscape. You don't need as many tools to plant in containers and native plants will do fine with any organic potting soil available in bags at the hardware store. 

PLANNING
I wanted the containers to sit on gravel, so my husband removed the grass around the perimeter of our yard and we used landscaping fabric, gravel, and metal edging to create a border for our containers. 

I observed the border at different times of day and noted which parts received full sun, morning sun, afternoon sun, or were shady all day.

Next, I chose containers. I wanted to group them in pairs or threes to have a nice variety of plants near each other.

It is crucial to have planters with drainage holes. Many planters are sold with solid bottoms for use indoors with a plant in a plastic interior pot.

While you can drill holes in the bottom of planters, it's messy and time-consuming. It's better to seek out planters with drainage that are designed for container gardens.

Planters can be heavy and expensive. Look on local Buy Nothing Facebook Groups and garage/estate sales for planters. Plastic planters are cheaper but will fade and crack over time in the Houston heat.

My favorite selections were at Buchanan's, Cornelius, and Maas Nurseries. The Lowe's and Home Depot stores in the suburbs (esp. Sugar Land) have larger gardening departments with affordable planters. Their inner loop cousins have less variety. 

Use Ups-a-Daisy planter inserts to create a false bottom in large planters so you don't have to use as much dirt. This also keeps the planter lighter in weight.

Finally, only plant in spots you can water easily. To make my garden work I bought an extra-long hose.

CHOOSING PLANTS

Afternoon sun is the hottest so I chose plants that tolerate heat and drought well for those spots.

To keep the garden low-maintenance, I limited my list to perennials. The Wildflower Center has an advanced search where you can look for native plants by size, sun and water needs, and lifespan. This is how I learned that flowers are classified as herbs!
Much of the advice for designing container gardens is geared toward aesthetic goals. Remember that your container garden's primary function is as a habitat. Plant fewer plants in each container and don't be afraid to repeat the same plant in multiple containers. It is better to supply a few kinds of birds with an abundance of resources so they become reliable visitors.

The adage with container gardens is to choose plants that "thrill, spill, and fill". I originally tried to put 2-3 plants in each container and they quickly outgrew the space. Because most of my planters were on the smaller side, it was more successful to have one plant in each planter and group plants with a similar function for birds. 

If you have a large planter - like a wooden barrel - a simple "recipe" to attract hummingbirds and butterflies would be planting native salvia, Black-eyed Susan, or Indian blanket to thrill, Texas lantana to fill, and Carolina jessamine to spill over the edge. All of these plants are commonly available in nurseries and big box garden centers.

Vines are a great way to increase your plant variety in a container garden or small space. Insert a wooden lattice into a container for your vine to grow up.

Dwarf yaupon holly and Turk's Cap are two commonly available shrubs that can thrive in containers.
Milkweed is a crucial part of any bird-friendly garden. It feeds caterpillars, which in turn feed birds. I bought my milkweed from Houston Audubon's Natives Nursery to make sure it was the right species for our area. One of my container groupings is just devoted to milkweed.

OTHER BIRD-FRIENDLY IMPROVEMENTS

I added feeders and birdbaths to the yard to attract more birds. In one area of the yard, I have a platform feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seed, a suet feeder, and a ring for holding in-shell peanuts.

In another area, I have a finch feeder for nyjer seed, a tube feeder with a multi-seed mix, and a hummingbird feeder.

I added two birdbaths with this solar fountain to create movement and prevent mosquito breeding.

I hung a small bird house on the fence along with a house for mason bees I had found at HomeGoods.

RESULT 

Before making bird-friendly improvements, my yard only got the occasional mockingbird, cardinal, blue jay, and house finch. 

Within a month of planting my container gardens I noticed many more butterflies and moths in my yard, including large swallowtails!

A mockingbird pair built a nest in a hibiscus tree and laid four eggs. Unfortunately, they were all eaten by predators before hatching.

A house sparrow pops in and out of the bird house but I haven't seen evidence of a nest yet.


The mason bee house has yet to be discovered.

A year after making these improvements I regularly have 12-15 species visit every day. Some highlights include: a black-chinned hummingbird, a brown-headed cowbird, red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, and monk parakeets. 

By Catherine Lee Clarke, Houston Audubon 2021 Young Professionals Advisory Council 
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You can purchase native plants at Houston Audubon's Natives Nursery at Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary. 

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