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There was a time not so long ago when planting a container for the porch or patio meant sticking a trio of geraniums in a terra cotta pot with a spike in its center and some vinca vines spilling down its sides.

These days, container gardeners are sweet on sweet potato vines. Loving lysimachia. Digging diasia.

And not just seasoned gardeners.

In recent years, the popularity of container gardening has spread faster than crabgrass.

"It's gone from the esoteric gardener to the mainstream gardener," said Jeff Leyonmark, of Lockwood's Greenhouses, 4484 Clark St., Hamburg.

And while professionally planted containers are available to those who don't like to get their hands dirty -- Lockwood's sells a 14-inch European patio pot filled with six different plants for $39.99, for example -- people have become more interested in digging in and doing it themselves.

"The passion for creating people's own containers and European window boxes has increased three-fold with my customers in the past two years," Leyonmark said.

Why the peaked interest in pots?

Through workshops and other educational means, people have gained the confidence to choose plants, prepare pots and care for their container gardens.

There's also the ever-increasing awareness of containers, their beauty and what a fun part of the garden scape they can be, Leyonmark added.

"Southern Living, Martha Stewart Living, the horticulture magazines and even Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens are replete with container gardening articles," he said.

And with an aging population moving to condos, patio homes or apartments, container gardening is a natural choice.

It's also appealing to flower-lovers of all ages with limited space, limited free time, or limited physical abilities which prevent them from crawling around flower beds.

Not that container gardens don't need attention. Anything but.

"One drawback is that you have to monitor them on a frequent basis," said Wendy Zuch, of Menne Nursery, 3100 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst.

You have to fertilize them a lot and water them frequently, she said.

Consider, too, that the last few years have seen an effort from the industry to market newly developed plants to consumers interested in container gardening.

Leyonmark's advice: "Find plants you've never seen and try them out."

Today's array of containers is vast as well, including styles that make an artistic or architectural statement in the garden or that echo trends in home furnishings, such as the current rage for Asian-inspired decor. And more and more container materials are offering much in the way of durability without sacrificing looks.

Also appealing to today's container gardeners are foliage plants available in a wide variety of interesting colors and textures.

"There's increased interest in foliage. People are not as dependent on flowers; foliage takes on more importance as well," Zuch said.

In addition, people play around with ornamental grasses such as red fountain grass or purple millet. And many experiment with combining perennials with annuals.

"A single hosta adds a quiet element to all the colors," Zuch said.

Container gardening can be spotted at this year's Decorators' Show House, a biennial event co-sponsored by the Junior League of Buffalo and The Buffalo News.

Linda Boldt, of Arthur's Home Furnishings in Orchard Park, turned to containers to create a 45-inch-square Japanese-style garden on the 20-by-25 terrace. Included is a Japanese maple in its container accented with rug junipers.

The garden covered an unsightly grate and also warmed up the massive terrace, Boldt said.

"I put down a sheet of plywood, and used curved stones to build two tiers high. Then I put down a sheet of plastic, set down my plants in their containers, covered them with bark and put white play sand in the middle," she said.

She also added a Chinese lantern and some gardening tools. Following Japanese principles for this type of gardening, "you play in the sand to encourage tranquility," Boldt said.

Elaine S. Friedhaber, a floral designer whose garden has been featured in the city's Garden Walk since the annual event began nine years ago, likes to integrate containers into the rest of her garden for several reasons.

When her perennials lose color during the season, she can always fill in the space with something planted in a container.

If a plant looks unhappy, she can move the pot into more sun. Or, if need be, more shade.

"In that sense, you have more success because you can give it the conditions it needs," she said. When she travels, she can group the containers together and ask a neighbor to water them without much effort.

And there's another reason she likes having some containers around.

"For outdoor dining, you always have an instant centerpiece," Friedhaber said.


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