Container gardens
Todd Rigione displays some of the plants he has grown underneath the steps leading up to the Loft Bed and Breakfast just off Art Alley in Rapid City. (Seth A. McConnell, Journal staff)

Green thumbs are often trapped inside four walls. That's where container gardens come in.

People who love growing things but don't have a yard can direct their energies to far smaller plots of land - those found in terra cotta planters on porches, in a row of flowerpots along a windowsill or in window boxes outside a kitchen.

"It brings a touch of paradise to the alley," Rapid City resident Todd Rigione said of his container garden on the deck behind his downtown bed-and-breakfast.

In glazed pots of various sizes, Rigione grows rosemary, cinnamon, tomatoes and riotously colorful flowers to please both the palate and the heart.

He began about three years ago, starting an herb garden so he could use fresh ingredients when cooking.

"It's nice to go out there serving breakfast in the morning - maybe tomatoes and basil with some cheese - and be able to say it came off our back patio," he said.

But the gardening bug caught him, and his project has expanded exponentially ever since.

"I love putting plants with other plants and mixing it up and not having it look so formal," he said. "I just love the mixture of life."

Formerly of Seattle and California, Rigione has had to adapt to South Dakota's harsher climate, without Seattle's moisture or California's balmy, year-round sun.

"I get full sun all day long; if I don't water them, they let me know in three hours," he said with a laugh.

Twice-daily watering was at first a necessary chore, but with time, his routine became more of an enjoyable, meditative time than a task.

"For me, there's nothing better than going out and watering in the morning, and going out and watering at night," he said. "It's just a relaxing time for me."

He recommends that every apartment-dweller interested in gardening go ahead and start a little herb garden. Even if they don't cook with the herbs, just the smell of the growing plants will brighten the home, he said.

"Start small, because it will get you," he said. "Next thing you know, you'll be buying a few flowers."

Linda Markegard, a seasonal employee at Jolly Lane Greenhouse, says she believes there is a growing trend toward container gardening because of the lingering drought and water situation along with the pesky deer population.

"It's just easier to garden in containers," she said, adding that a lot of people are busy these days and don't have time to spend in the yard.

Container gardens, while convenient, also bring challenges. Container gardens have a lot of plants but relatively little soil, so fertilizing on a regular basis is crucial.

For the same reason, what soil there is should be the very best, Markegard said; it should be soil specifically for potting.

"A lot of people think if they buy topsoil, that's good, but it's too heavy to put in containers, and it holds too much water," she said.

Markegard tells people to think outside the box when it comes to container gardening - don't simply plant flowers and vegetables. Colorful leaves and varied grasses also can lead to a vibrant, interesting indoor garden.

"You can get just as much interest out of foliage as flowers," she said

Along with lettuce and herbs, bush cucumbers and varieties of tomatoes called "determinates" are ideal for container gardening. "They grow to a certain height, and they produce fruit at one time - they don't just keep growing and fruiting. They stop, so they don't get huge in containers," she said.

Vining plants such as peas and beans can be successfully grown using a trellis or cage. In fact, apart from extremely large plants like squash and corn - no growing watermelons on the kitchen windowsill - almost anything will work in a container garden, Markegard said.

Even aspects that one would expect to work against gardeners can be used in their favor.

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For example, if a porch or deck is very windy, Markegard recommends planting grasses in those areas. "They have so much movement, they look so pretty," she said.

There are some restrictions, of course. "Vegetables need sun, so if you don't have it, I wouldn't try it," Markegard advised.

She reminds shoppers to choose pots based on the plant's predicted mature height, rather than its size in the store.

Markegard also tells people to read the tag on plants to learn about its mature height and width, ideal soil conditions and sunlight requirements. She recommends pairing like plants in one container - plants that have the same requirements for water and sun.

Rigione, meanwhile, takes a completely different tack with his garden.

"I read as little as possible about the plant, and then I just kind of go for it," he said, adding that he likes to experiment with new things.

This year, Rigione's vision includes a new fountain to keep his garden cooler and more moist, as well as hanging flowers that will cascade joyfully down over the brick walls.

His neighbors, meanwhile, have been inspired to grow a few flowers, too.

And when Rigione Googled "Art Alley" recently, he discovered tourists had taken photos of his garden and posted them online along with pictures of the alley artwork.

"You inspire people that you don't even know and maybe would never know or hear about, just by putting flowers out," he said.

Contact Ruth Milne at 394-8329 or ruth.milne@rapidcityjournal.com.

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