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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July To Do in the Garden

The potted hibiscus in full bloom this July.

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

July in North Carolina.  Is it going to be hot?  Do bears…, well you know.  Of course they do and it will be.

And rain will be spotty at best, and lots of folks will complain.  Welcome to summer.  Find a cool spot, a cooler beverage, and a good book and enjoy.

Or you could come over and help me spread the 20+ cubic yards of chipper chips I inadvertently was graced with last week.  (Long story.  Bring lemonade or ice cream.)  So, the Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) is now casually attired in wood chips as is right much of the rest of the yard.  20 yards is a lot of anything.

The ACG looks good now.  There are numerous (OK, 12 or 15) different plants in bloom at the moment.  Here’s the list.  Sunflower (Helianthus annus ‘Ring of Fire’), Zinnia (Zinnia elegans ‘Canary’), Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Day lily, dark red with yellow (Hemerocallis hybrid), 2 different Asiatic lilies, (Lilium x ‘Corsica’ &  L. martagon, a Turk’s cap variety), Balloon flower (Playcodon grandiflorus), Liatris (Liatris spicata), Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Straw flower (Helichrysum bracteatum), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), Blanket flower (Gallardia pulchella) plus the Knock Out® rose and potted hibiscus.

The ACG (Accidental Cottage Garden) bursting with summer color. Are your big bloomers flopping over with all the new growth and abundant flowering? There are many options for supporting your plants but they don’t have to be expensive or fancy. (Bottom row) A simple strip of cloth or twine loosely tied around a grouping of plants can do the trick. (Image credit: Gary Crispell)

Now, for those of us who just can’t kick back all summer here’s all the authorized sweat-producing activities for you to pursue.


PSA!! Let’s just get this out of the way now, and I won’t harangue you with it anymore (this month).  SOIL TESTS ARE FREE THROUGH NOVEMBER.  Get the stuff (sample box and information sheet with instructions) from the Extension Office at 721 Foster St., Durham.  The results from NCDOA will tell all you need to know to optimize your soil for whatever you intend to grow.  It ain’t hard.  Click HERE for more info on soil testing.


Fertilize any warm season grasses (Bermuda, zoysia, St. Augustine) that have been previously neglected.

Mow the same by removing no more than 1/3 of the blade length.

Mow cool season grasses (fescue, perennial rye, non-banjo bluegrass) no lower than 3”.

Treat lawns for grubs after the 15th.


This month should be the last time you fertilize landscape plants (trees and shrubs) until 2023.


For the perpetually procrastinating people, planting pumpkins is perfectly permissible provided plenty of preparation precedes planting procedures. 

One can also plant tomato (plants), broccoli (plants), beans (seeds), brussels sprouts (plants) and carrots (seeds).

Competitive types can get a jump on the fall garden by planting cruciferous seeds (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) in flats to be transplanted to the garden in mid-August.

Pot up (move to a larger-size pot) or transplant overgrown house plants.


Last chance to prune landscape plants.  Pruning later will stimulate new growth that may not have time to harden off before winter comes (and it will come).

Coniferous plants (seeds are produced in cones) can be pruned lightly now.

Bleeder trees (leak a lot of sap when cut) such as maple, elm, birch and dogwood (Acer, Ulmus, Betula and Cornus) can be pruned in July.

Blackberry and raspberry fruiting canes can be whacked to the ground, but not until after the final berries have made it into a pie.

Many perennials will rebloom if you clip off the spent blooms before they set seed.


There are several pancrustacial hexapodial invertebrates of the class Insecta (bugs to those of us without entomology PhDs) for whom you might feel enmity and who are out and about this month feasting on your favorite flora.  As they are not innocent,  no attempt will be made to protect their names.  The suspects are bagworms (most of whom are now ensconced in their bags).  You will have to pick them off and dispose of them in any manner you see fittin’.  Leaf miners (Beware some of them carry little pick axes.), spider mites (I know, technically they are arachnids, not insects—get over it), aphids (which are ubiquitous), lace bugs, the bane of rose and grape lovers everywhere—Japanese beetles all of which can be treated with a variety of insecticides.  There are several organic (not long-carbon chain organic, but less-harmful-to-pollinators organic) and as always, read the label and follow the instructions.

(Left to Right) July is scouting time for garden and landscape visitors and their handiwork: bagworms (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis), aphids (too many types to list all their scientific names here), and common damage caused by leaf miners, which often appears as distinctive winding tunnels within the leaves’ walls. (Image credit aphids: Debbie Roos)

Watch for tomato blight.  It is a fungus.  Treat as necessary.

Maintain any rose, fruit tree and bunch grape spray programs.

Vegetable pests of the month include cucumber beetles, flea beetles on tomatoes and beans and eggplant and the afore mentioned aphids on everything with suckable plant juice.


If you’re feeling especially ambitious you can always build cold frames and greenhouses to over-winter your tender and semi-hardy plants.

You can always spread mulch.

Personally, I’m going to take the grandkids to the lake twice a week and hang out in the shade the rest of the time (after I spread all those damn chips).

Happy summer, y’all.  Enjoy.  It’s waaay better here than Arizona or Houston.


Resources and Additional Information

North Carolina State University’s Garden Planting Calendar for Veggies, Fruits, and Herbs provides an excellent resource whether your are succession planting now or planning ahead with seed-starting for fall crops.


Check out North Carolina State’s publication on everything pertaining to your lawn, including breakdowns on care of cool-season and warm-season turf.


For more information on tree and shrub fertilization, see “A Gardener’s Guide to Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs.”


Learn more about common summertime insects who love your garden as much as you do with University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture’s feature which includes great photos to help you with proper insect identification.


Understand the difference between organic and synthetic pesticides with Virginia Cooperative Extension resources.

Clemson’s Cooperative Extension’s factsheets on pruning trees and shrubs are handy guides.


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Learn With Us, July 2022

Durham Garden Forum – Agronomics: The Economics of Land Use
July 19, 2022, 7 – 8:30 PM

with Delphine Sellers, retired director of the Durham Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Via Zoom. Registration Required: durhamgardenforum@gmail.com. Dues for the 2022 calendar year are $25. (Another option is to pay $10 to attend one lecture.)

Are you interested in becoming a Master Gardener? Durham County’s 15 week training program will begin in January 2023, and interest meetings will be held this summer. Contact the Master Gardener office at mastergardener@dconc.gov for more information or to be added to the interest list.

Check out Triangle Gardener‘s list of area lectures and other learning opportunities.

Stay hydrated and cool while you are enjoying outdoor spaces, and keep learning!

Help Native Pollinators With a Bug Hotel

Our native bees and pollinators are out in full force, providing a great show in the garden and providing an invaluable service for local ecosystems. Of the nearly 600 species of native bees in North Carolina, nearly 30% nest in aboveground cavities or tunnels. These mostly solitary bees are not aggressive, and some are said to pollinate even more quickly than honeybees!

Mason Bee on Flower (Image Credit: Mason Bee_US Dept of Ag_CC BY 2.0_Flickr)

Within a short window of time each spring (often just 4-6 weeks), many species of solitary bee will emerge, mate, and need to find a suitable spot to lay their eggs. For cavity and tunnel-nesting bees, this often means the remains of old twigs, reeds, and other plant parts. One easy way to provide habitat when pruning back the garden is to leave long, 8-24” stems above ground on plants with hollow or pithy stems. Some common examples include hibiscus, sumac, raspberries and blackberries, black-eyed susan and other species of Rudbeckia, elderberry, goldenrod, and bamboo. Brush piles can also make attractive habitat for pollinator and wildlife species beyond bees, including many beetles.

A fun (and kid friendly!) way to add solitary bee habitat is with the creation of your own bee hotel. While many pre-made options are available, bee hotels can easily be created with supplies from around the yard, and your new tenants will appreciate them just as much. The main goal for any bee or bug hotel is to provide a diversity of cavity sizes to suit different species (a range of 2-12 mm is recommended), all of a length of at least six to eight inches. Solitary bees such as mason bees lay each egg in an individual cell within the cavity, placing food in each cell for the future bee larva, and finally capping the cavity with mud. Many bees place female eggs at the back of the tunnel, so if tunnels are too short only male bees will emerge the following spring.

Cavities can be a collection of pithy or hollow stems from your own yard, small bamboo pieces, cardboard, or even ordered supplies. Paper and plastic straws, while tempting, are not recommended, as they can lead to mold and parasite problems. It’s important to provide an external cover to protect from predators like woodpeckers, whether that means arranging materials in a coffee can or even a large piece of bamboo or pvc. Cavities should also be closed and protected on one end, but open on the other for bees to access. A slight overhang on the open end can help protect against excess moisture. Collections of less than 100 cavities seem to be best for keeping bee parasites to a minimum.

Once you have completed your bee hotel, find a south or southeastern facing spot in your garden and mount the hotel three to six feet above the ground. Orienting the hotel properly will help the bees warm earlier in the day to be able to begin foraging. Be sure to also clear any vegetation from the front of the hotel so that it’s easy to for bees to access. With that, sit back, and start welcoming your new guests. You’ll be amazed to see the little holes start filling with mud, and can feel good knowing you’re helping our native bees and pollinators!

Assorted Styles of Bug / Bee Hotel Left to right: Two wood enclosed bee hotels at Geer St. Learning Garden. Bug hotel placed on the ground at the Guilford County Extension Demonstration Garden. House style hotel with brush section on top. (Image Credit Ashley Troth)


Excited to learn more about bee hotels and their inhabitants? Learn more from these excellent resources:

The Bees of North Carolina: an Identification Guidehttps://content.ces.ncsu.edu/the-bees-of-north-carolina-identification-guide Wonderful publication from NC State University that will help you figure out just who’s visiting your garden! Very detailed with beautiful pictures.

Building and Managing Bee Hotels for Wild Beeshttps://pollinators.msu.edu/publications/building-and-managing-bee-hotels-for-wild-bees/ Comprehensive resource on building bee hotels from Michigan State University Extension.

Give Mason Bees a Helping Hand: Build a Househttps://www.buncombemastergardener.org/tag/mason-bees/ Further resources from the Master Gardener℠ volunteers of Buncombe County.

How to Operate a Successful Bee Hotel This recording from the Plants, Pests, and Pathogens series by Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt and Meredith Favre of NC State University discusses what insects benefits from bee hotels (minute 14), and how to build your own (minute 44).

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Be Mindful About Watering

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Summer of 2022 marched in like a lion yesterday, and the forecast reads hot, hot, hot as far the eye can see. While the greater Durham area isn’t currently experiencing drought, NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System (https://www.drought.gov/states/north-carolina) currently shows large areas of North Carolina experiencing extreme dryness, moderate drought, and even some severe drought. Of course, scorching temps and lack of rain have major implications for your garden and landscape. These tough conditions make EMGV Andrea Laine’s 2018 article below on watering a must for your summer reading list!  


logo nature.The good news is there are currently no drought advisories in North Carolina. The southeast received an average of 7.05 inches of precipitation in May, way above normal. So, we entered June strong. But with the heat index pushing temperatures way past 90°F this week, gardeners do need to be mindful about watering.

Here are helpful reminders:

  1. During periods of extremely hot weather, a plant can lose water through transpiration faster than its roots can take water from the soil, which is why we see wilting on hot days even when we’ve had ample rainfall. Learn more about the hows and whys of wilting.  https://durhammastergardeners.com/2016/08/25/why-plants-wilt/
  2. Watering deeply once per week will generally do more for a plant’s sustainability than shallow watering more frequently. Make the most of your irrigation with wise watering tips. https://durhammastergardeners.com/2015/08/06/wise-watering-tips/
  3. If your garden contains recently planted trees or shrubs, keep a close eye on them during extreme weather conditions. Check out this article on best practices for these newly-panted specimens. https://durhammastergardeners.com/2017/10/22/best-practices-planting-trees-and-shrubs/
  4. Plants grown in containers will likely need more frequent watering during hot weather; twice a day (early morning and later afternoon) is not unusual. Avoid watering anything after sunset. https://durhammastergardeners.com/2018/04/25/best-practices-for-container-gardening/
  5. Don’t overlook the lawn. Turfgrasses are unable to photosynthesize (produce food from sunlight) without water. North Carolina State’s “Water Requirements of North Carolina Turfgrasses” is an excellent resource to help water your lawn effectively.  https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/water-requirements-of-north-carolina-turfgrasses
  6. Even warm-season vegetable plants have their limits and will temporarily stop bearing flowers or fruits during heat waves. Read about the effects of hot temps on your vegetable yields. https://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/06/hot-weather-reduces-vegetable-yields-2/

Knowing when to water, how to water, how much, and how often to water can make or break your garden. Follow these reminders and keep your plants happy and healthy despite the heat.

Additional Resources and Information

North Carolina Sate University Extension’s tips on how to water your garden during heat waves can help your plants survive extreme summer temps.


Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center has a thorough list of drought tolerant plants for hot and dry conditions.

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