Pot Luck: Adventures in Urban Container Gardening

A pollinator finds downtown Durham’s newest urban container garden. (Image credit: M. Heigel)

By Deborah Pilkington, EMGV

Welcome to this new series of articles about container gardening in urban settings.  Container gardening brings a unique set of challenges not found in in-ground gardening.  Add to that an urban setting offering relentless sun or lots of shade, blasting heat and freezing cold, wind and storms, city pollution, and very different water needs and it’s enough to challenge even the most seasoned gardener.  And did we mention construction?  But container gardening is important–for the people who enjoy bringing the beauty of nature to their homes, and for pollinators who benefit from the urban plantings.

“If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener.–J.C. Raulston

In these articles, we’ll bring to the table our experiences in container gardening at the Cocoa Cinnamon shop at the corner of Geer and Foster Streets, in Durham.  We’ll tell you about our successes, failures, and the lessons learned.  About the things that went well and the kinks we’re still working out. And the things that have brought joy to all the folks who frequent Cocoa Cinnamon.  In doing this, we hope you will learn from our challenges, mistakes, and successes, and can bring that home to your own balcony or patio where you garden in containers.

Here’s the back story…

Rus in urbe

About a year into the pandemic, in the spring of 2021, a chance visit to Cocoa Cinnamon revealed the bereft state of their unique metal containers.  After meeting with the owners, we understood why.  Committed to keeping their shops open, their workers employed, and offering the locked-down community a place to come see a friendly face day after day, something had to give—and it was the containers.  Their dream was a Rus in urbe, an enveloping countryside where their guests could forget, while there, that they were in a city.

Their dream and our opportunity to learn led to a wonderful partnership allowing Extension Master Gardener Volunteers the chance to dive deep into urban container gardening while helping a business that is very generous to the surrounding community.

Images of metal containers at Cocoa Cinnamon’s downtown location in spring of 2021. The industrial-style planters are all constructed of metal from local Durham businesses and facilities. They made for some extreme conditions for growing plants and pandemic pressures compounded the challenges. (Image credit: Deborah Pilkington)

Location, Location, Location

Red arrows indicate areas outside the shop where the great urban planting experiment would begin. (Image credit: Leon Grodski Barrera, published with permission)

The containers are in a T-shape pattern, running parallel and perpendicular to the front of the building, creating an enclosure for seating, and an area for parking.  The building faces south, meaning the containers are in relentless sun all day long.  The containers are metal—meaning host to extreme heat in summer and ice cold in winter. They had to be hand watered.  Some had shrubs whose roots totally filled (were root bound) the containers. The type of soil in the containers was unknown, as was the available drainage. There are two streets and much traffic nearby. And now, construction ongoing across and up the street, so lots of noise, dust, and traffic pollution.  So, here’s where we started.

Durham County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers putting in a special soil mixture and initial plants to kick off the project this spring. (Image credit: Deborah Pilkington)

In the ensuing blogs, we will describe the many steps we took to take the containers to where they are today and how you, too, can use these methods for your containers.

The container gardens transform the urban landscape into an oasis of color and life this July. (Image credit: Mary Knierim Photography)

We invite you to visit Cocoa Cinnamon at 420 West Geer Street in Durham and check out the container gardens, perhaps sip some coffee, and contemplate the possibilities.  And stay tuned for more adventures.


References and Additional Resources

This University of Georgia Extension factsheet takes a deep dive into container gardening for ornamentals, herbs, and vegetables.


The North Carolina Extension Gardener’s Handbook also provides a comprehensive guide to growing plants and vegetable in containers.


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