Creating Instant Garden Pizzazz is Easy!
Gardening in containers isn’t just about putting plants where they wouldn’t normally grow, being able to move tender plants inside during the winter, or growing plants that would struggle in your indigenous garden soil. The joy of growing in containers is this and more – having the freedom to move a plant at whim or the enjoyment of having plants at nose or eye level.
Versatile, eco-friendly, and creativity inspiring, container gardening is adaptable to any type or size of garden. It is simply growing plants in a receptacle that is not fully open to the garden soil. And containers can be much more interesting than an ordinary clay pot. Consider growing plants in a holey boot, rusted wash basin, enamel tub, stone sink, or leaky livestock watering trough – the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
An overflowing container full of diverse textures and colors at the Dallas Arboretum
Today, half of all plants bought in garden centers and nurseries end up planted in containers. The attraction? It makes us feel good to have some of our favorite plants close by where we can view them frequently and care for them easily. This means plants near the front and back doors, hanging from window sills and sitting on the patio.
Using containers in the garden is a great way to add diversity and flexibility. Containers are my solution to coping with an inhospitable, gravelly, lean soil and unforgiving, intense sunlight. With containers, I can grow the plants that I like and I grow them where they thrive best – instead of being restricted to growing only the plants that will survive in full sun on droughty soils. In my case, thanks to numerous containers, I garden under a large oak tree, on the patio, and under the front porch overhang. I can now grow fresh herbs: basil, mint, coriander, and dill; showy flowering plants like the pretty mini petunias called Calibrachoa; try a new dwarf butterfly bush shrub, and have success growing Iresine ‘Blazin’ Lime’ with its tender but pretty foliage colors, all that I would not have been able to grow in garden beds.
Having fun with unusual plants and containers can lead to some really creative pairings.
Containers make gardening happen … anywhere. For people that like to rearrange the furniture, containers make quick work of filling in a blank spot, adding pizzazz to a dull area, hiding an unsightly object or just creating a new spur of the moment accent.
The uses for container plants are quite varied; to move tender plants outside for the summer, to grow specialty plants that require a different soil mixture, to restrict plant growth through bonsai or penjing, to control invasive plants such as the notorious mints, to create small-scale water gardens, and they really are the best way to display weeping or trailing plants. Container gardens are also an economical way for a new homeowner or beginning gardener to get started, they require no digging and little weeding, and are easy to change the soil or plants from year to year. Best of all, if you become really attached to your plants and have to relocate, like I have done – your container garden can move with you.
It’s not all easy gardening though – containers do take a bit of planning so compatible plants are selected. Not all plants are suitable and many full-sized vegetables are better grown in the ground. Containers limit the ultimate size of plants too. So if you are planning to grow the world’s tallest tomato plant, don’t settle for anything much smaller than the world’s largest container either. Container gardening takes more of a commitment than in-ground growing, often requiring rigorous watering, fertilizing and pruning routines. Miss one watering during a critical hot, dry day and the result could be stressed out plants. Hot, summer winds also cause plants to dry out faster in containers and mature plants have a tendency to blow over when the soil dries out. There’s also the possibility of salts building up in the soil and the need for leaching to flush this out. And lastly, it’s easy to overwater plants if drainage holes get plugged.
Easy Designing Tips
First think about your garden style. Try to match your container to the style of your garden. Is it formal, informal or cottage style, new American garden style with masses of native plants and ornamental grasses, or is it a garden of reclaimed objects with a tractor tire planters and bottle trees? After matching the style, consider the number of different materials (stone, brick, wood, metal, glass, plastic) that are being used in the hard landscape and try not to exceed more than three or four types including the containers.
Often containers are just as important to the overall visual display as the plants they hold.
Containers provide structure for living plants and should be included as part of the hard landscape plan. Don’t have so many “hard” features that they detract from the plants and steal away the impact. A garden is for plants, right?
Consider the balance or scale of the container to the plants. Avoid a top heavy or bottom heavy design. Use trailing or upright plants to get the right scale. The size (weight or mass) of the container should be equal or ½ of the collective volume of the plants. Generally, balance is achieved by following a 1:1 or 1:2 pot to plant height ratio rule.
Relate the size of the container to the number of plants that will comfortably grow to fill the space. Think two months down the road and give them enough room to grow. Yes, the container will look a bit sparse at the start but the plants will be healthier this way. I haven’t seen any ready-made containers at the nursery that weren’t planted too full and wouldn’t need serious “editing” two weeks later. Don’t fall into this trap too.
Choosing suitable plants can’t be stressed enough. Conditions are tough for plants growing in a container so don’t pick wimpy plants that need tons of pampering (i.e.: watering twice a day during the summer) to survive. Also make every plant count in the container. Since space is limited every plant must contribute, be it for texture, contrast, foliage color, flower power, scent or seed pods. The smaller the space the more critical good planning about plant selection is!
What colors are preferred? Do you like restful and harmonious (blue, purple, pink) or hot and bold (orange & red) colors? Also consider the dramatic effect of contrasting leaf textures, shapes and sizes.
Consider how your community of plants will react to each other. Are all plants compatible? Are they all shade loving, like moist soil, or acidic soils? The more they tolerate similar conditions, the happier they will all be in the container.
Terra cotta is a traditional container material that might be hard to use in the garden but with the right complementary plant foliage colors, a dramatic display is possible for the patio.
Next think about the maintenance requirements of your containers. Are you willing to water 3x a day, which may be required if growing a large, thirst plant in a small pot? This is important! Plants in containers require more attention than plants growing in the ground. Here are several good tips to consider if you aren’t willing to commit to watering containers at least once a day during the hottest part of the summer. Use extra large containers, add water-holding polymers to the soil, use mulches, add more compost to the soil, install drip irrigation, garden in the shade or semi-shade, and using glazed containers will help conserve water so that containers won’t need such frequent watering.
About Selecting Containers….
Consider the size. Can it be moved? Larger containers hold moisture longer, but they do get heavy. Two recently watered, large containers ended up being too heavy for me to move into the garage ahead of plummeting temperatures last fall and I had to take my chances that the plants would survive snug against the house (luckily they did). Larger containers have more room for root growth which means healthier plants. Don’t skimp on container size, even shallow-rooted vegetables like lettuce, radishes, beans, and peas should have at least 6” of soil and will often grow much better in deeper soil.
Consider container stability. Does it have a narrower base and will be blown over in the wind? Watch out for tall, top-heavy plants that will make the container even more unstable.
Is drainage needed? For all plants except water gardens, drainage holes are critical. Plan to have at least one hole (>0.5 inch) for every 6 inch base. It is recommended that a 30 gallon container have at least eight drainage holes (of 1 inch diameter).
Pot feet or bricks are used to raise containers above the ground and help significantly with soil water drainage. They also decrease the chances of soil pests entering the container and the risk of rot with wood containers or decks.
In hot environments, the color of the container should be considered. Is it light colored and will reflect, or dark and absorb heat?
Scour flea markets, garage sales and antique stores. There’s no reason for boring planters. How much fun would it be to create a garden in a rusted out wash tub? Terra cotta stove tiles are also a great container material, or a beat up mailbox, leather boot or wooden shoe, leaky aquarium (now technically a terrarium), rusted out watering can, weathered straw garden hat … well the possibilities are almost endless.
Soil for Containers
Look around and you may find tropical plants like this asparagus fern that are perfect for your next moveable garden. Many other tropical plants, flowering annuals or perennials and even compact vegetables work well in containers. Add some dramatic impact to your next garden plans.
When I plant a container, I have yet to find a packaged soil that I don’t feel I have to modify. Either they are too peat mossy and need some compost or they are too heavy and need sand or vermiculite to lighten them up. So I end up mixing up my own recipe. My advice, mix your own too! For organic growing, unless you know and trust your supplier, you are better off making your container mix with your own soil. Here’s a basic recipe: finished, sieved compost (4 parts), coarse sand (1 part), vermiculite, perlite or turface (1 part) and a recommended amount (from the label) of slow-release, granular organic fertilizer. This recipe can be adjusted with additional of peat moss or shredded coir, ground limestone, superphosphate, kelp, etc. depending on soil tests and the type of plants being grown.
Container Material Choices
- holds moisture
- some look cheap
- some realistically look like stone
- light weight and might blow over
- might break down over time from UV rays.
- versatile and available in many sizes and colors
- traditional container material
- sometimes a design challenge because of its color
- with age will develop mossy look
- might disintegrate if exposed to freezing and thawing (particularly thin, lightweight types)
- prone to rot
- needs repeat painting
- easy to use for larger scales and unique sizes or shapes
- longer lasting teak/cedar expensive
- wood preservative toxic concern
- for lime loving plants only (or needs leaching)
- color additive expands opportunities
- strong & can be overwintered
- can make it age faster with moss and yogurt
- copper will oxidize to a patina color
Edible Plant Suggestions for Containers
Herbs: mint, basil, chives, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill, cilantro, lavender, rosemary, horseradish, sage, parsley
Vegetables: lettuce, some tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, chard, pak choi, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, garlic, cucumber, onions, cabbage, beets, kohlrabi, green beans, spinach, turnips, some squash. Check out the new mini vegetable cultivars for containers.
Fruits: strawberries, grapes, blackberries, gooseberries, olives, figs, raspberries
Don’t overlook mixing vegetables and flowers together and the benefits of companion planting.
The qualities of a good gardener are a bit like a fruitcake recipe. The type that takes half the grocery store and involves days to make it from scratch. By mixing many small ingredients together an entirely different product is achieved. Gardeners are like this too. Their personalities are made up of lots of smaller positive qualities that when combined form the essence of a gardener. Like good fruitcake, sometimes it just takes some time to “cure” (and a little rum helps too) before a gardener really becomes a great gardener.
Whatever the skill level, gardening often changes a person into something better. Gardening does have a positive effect on people. Many studies have shown that being around plants lowers the blood pressure and calms the nerves. Except for dealing with a wisteria that refuses to bloom after seven years of vigorous growth, the physical activity and emotional healing experienced while gardening will have a positive effect.
What are the qualities that make a good gardener? A love of plants is expected but often a love of all living things prevails. Gardeners often have a kind heart for birds, animals, and small children in addition to their love of plants. Gardeners by nature seem to be nurturers and caring people. Accepting the responsibility of caring for plants (animals and birds) makes us nurturers at heart. How can we help not being this way?
One of the most important qualities needed to be a good gardener, and what sets our pastime apart from many others, is a good old-fashioned dose of patience. Patience is a fleeting virtue among the “need it now”, instant gratification world. Luckily patience is not a vanishing quality among gardeners. Gardeners have shown lots of patience when they spend two years looking at an algae covered pot of soil while hoping that the cold and heat treatments would get the finicky seed to grow. Even growing relatively fast crops like tomatoes are an undertaking of four to six weeks before they can be put outside in the garden. The anticipation of biting into that first ripe tomato teaches patience.
Connected with patience is a strong determination among gardeners to see a project through to the end or at least until the plant flowered. Orchid growers are especially determined gardeners. They buy the tiniest plants and through sheer determination, raise them to flowering stage years later. Luckily a lot of orchids bloom for weeks so that these gardeners can savour their achievement for a long time.
Along with the sheer determination needed to train plants in an espalier form against a wall or trim bonsai with mini-shears, gardeners often have stamina. Stamina is different than determination. Determination and perseverance requires will power and drive. Stamina takes both of this plus physical endurance. Stamina is spending an afternoon edging the entire driveway with a manual lawn edger (without many complaints) and then digging out the dandelions from the lawn.
A gardener with a sense of purpose is one with a vision. Having a vision and being able to picture the anticipated end result is a valuable quality that will eliminate lots of unnecessary frustration. A vision is the roadmap to follow when creating the garden. Gardeners should have a clear vision when they set out to create their botanical statement. This anticipated picture may change somewhat between the start and finish but it is key to success.
Being creative is the fun part of creating the vision. Gardeners are continually showing their creativity with new plant combinations and innovative accessories for the garden. Letting the creative ideas flow freely brings out some amazing results. Ingenuity is frequently linked with creativity. This ability to make do with whatever is nearby is also a trait that is particularly strong in gardeners. There are always makeshift trellises for the climbing beans, temporary compost piles or a new way to stake tomatoes (with hockey sticks?) showing this ingenuity in gardeners.
Gardeners are a very reliable and dedicated group given the unforgiving nature of their charges. Anyone growing seedlings, bonsai, or hanging baskets is destined to be reliable when plant care is involved (or they won’t be growing for long). Getting water to a parched plant is crucial or they cease to exist. The more reliable the gardener the better gardener they will be. Wouldn’t this be a great way to teach this skill to young children?
Given the unpredictability of the weather, gardeners had better have a good sense of humour. Marble size hail dropping from the sky and shredding the leaves of hosta, cannas or bananas is not a sight for the uptight. Mother nature likes to play tricks so gardeners have to learn to live with it. For other challenges, like the dog rolling over a prized delphinium and snapping it off at the ground, the healthiest response is the grin-and-bear-it one. Even if this plant was the one that was started from seeds that came all the way from England.
Being forgiving goes along with having a sense of humor. When a treasured plant dies, the garden does not cease to exist. Good gardeners have a forgiving nature that allows them to look at the opportunities present and start anew. Plant life and death situations in the garden are a frequent occurrence that cannot be avoided.
Gardeners always have intimate knowledge of everyone’s favorite subject – the weather. Gardeners are keenly aware of the weather because it affects their gardening life. This interest in weather allows gardeners to strike up a conversation anywhere with other gardeners. Sometimes a conversation with a new gardener friend will even result in plants exchanging hands. Gardeners are also very willing to share their plants with others. Sending a part of ones garden home with an admirer is a tradition that goes back to pioneer days. Gardeners are a generous lot.
Lastly, gardeners have a love for plants, flower and nature that gives them an appreciation for the finer things in life.
Plan First to Efficiently Maintain Perennials
The following are a few tips on developing a strategy plan to maintain your perennial plants more efficiently.
Graceful drifts of perennials greet visitors at the entrance garden to the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture in Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada.
• Draw a sketch or plan of each perennial bed or border. Indicate each plant on a scaled drawing. The time that it takes to create this valuable plan will be well spent when garden revisions are being done. Use this plan to record your ideas while they are still fresh.
• Take pictures of the garden during each season. Although this is often the lowest priority item on your “to do” list, pictures are essential to help recreate the ideas noted on your plan. This is particularly helpful if you are redesigning your perennial garden in the winter.
• Keep records of each plant’s characteristics. Draft a chart of their height, width, flower colour, blooming time, and blooming duration. Include a final column on the chart where notes can be added about other attributes.
• Before a maintenance plan can be created for the garden, some research is necessary. Add several maintenance categories to your plant charts. Include propagation records (division, layering, cuttings, seeded), staking, deadheading, pest and disease problems.
• Be observant in the garden. Take note of any plants that are showing signs of unhealthy growth and try to find out why.
• If you wish to lower the amount of maintenance required for your perennials, try using perennial groundcovers such as Ajuga, Alchemilla, Aubrieta, and Geraniums. These cover an area with their thick leaves and keep out weeds. Also to lower maintenance -don’t fuss with your plants. If a clump of candytuft needs deadheading- use hedge shears to get the job done faster.
• Plant in groups or masses of odd numbers. Groups of plants will be better suited to keep out the weeds and will be faster to maintain. Many smaller groups of diverse plants will require more time to maintain.
• Consider the timing of your activities. By deadheading (removing the finished flowers) candytuft before the seeds are dispersed, the plant does not selfseeding. A weeding job has just been eliminated.
• Accomplish as many tasks as your time and the plants will allow. Think of what will need to be done to maintain your perennials before your can return to the garden and do it now. Think about anticipating “must do” tasks that are on the horizon. Staking a plant before it needs staking is much easier than doing it after it has blown over.
• No time to spend time? Don’t use plants that need lots of TLC in your garden. These are the finicky plants that have to have special soil, precision watering, constant grooming and copious pest control to look good. If you are short on time to maintain perennials do not use these plants.
Here’s a list of tough, durable, easy care perennials for a sunny location:
• Achillea millefolium (Yarrow), zone 4-8
• Campanula carpatica (Carpathian Bellflower), zone 3-8
• Cerastium tomentosum (Snow in Summer), zone 3-8
• Coreopsis grandiflora (Tickseed), zone zone 3-10
• Echinops ritro (Globe Thistle), zone 3-8
• Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), zone 3-10
• Gaillardia grandiflora (Blanketflower), zone 3-10
• Phlox subulata (Creeping Phlox), zone 3-9
• Rudbeckia fulgida (Showy Coneflower), zone 3-9
• Sedum and Sempervivum species (Stonecrop and Hens & Chickens), zone 3-10
Schedule your perennial maintenance activities and prioritize your work. Group your perennial garden activities into three categories.
1) Things that must be done in the perennial garden so that plant will survive. These include watering, weeding, and pest control.
2) Things that should be done in the perennial garden but are not absolutely critical to the plants health. These are fertilizing, mulching, and fall clean up.
3) Things that might be done in the perennial garden but are definitely not critical to the plants health. These include deadheading, shearing, pinching, cutting back, staking, thinning, dividing, moving, and winter protection.
How much time do you want to spend on each of these categories? Will this change with the time of year? Throughout the season keep track of the activities that fit into each category. Evaluate these categories at the end of one season. Do you need to change your priorities?
After the flowering party is over…
Stunning Echinacea Meadowbrite Orange blooms at their peak
Their blooms have come and gone and left behind are the fallen petals and the swellings and bulges not unlike those at a mom-to-be convention. After the flowering party is over for many annuals and perennials, a gardener’s task turns to deadheading the finished blooms. The newly forming seed heads need to be removed by pinching, shearing or just plain pruning them out.
For some plants, deadheading is done to improve visual appearance. By removing the finished blooms the plant looks a lot better. Butterfly bush, ageratum, artemisia, Pelargonium (annual geranium), gazania, Solanostemon (coleus), and Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) fall into this category. Besides these, many plants that have white flowers will turn an unsightly brown colour when they are finished blooming. White blooming ageratum is one plant that often needs deadheading to make it look better.
Other plants are deadheaded for cultural reasons. Mainly to encourage more blooming. Removing the spent flower will stop energy being wasted on seed production. And still other plants have their reproductive structures removed to reduce the number of offspring that might appear the following year. The perennial, lady’s mantle is a plant that loves to “go forth and propagate”. It self-seeds like crazy. It must be sheared after the chartreuse coloured flowers are finished to prevent hundreds of babies sprouting. Some flowers are deadheaded to protect the plant’s health. The fungal disease called Botrytis likes to live on decaying flower petals. Removing the spent flower will remove the host infection site and often reduce the amount of infection.
The interesting blooms of Cleome (spider flower) – but watch for it to reseed if it isn’t deadheaded
Deadheading annuals and perennials can be done with many different tools. The simplest is the thumb and finger (or fingernail) method. Your handy digits are useful for taking the finished blooms off soft-stemmed plants such as begonia, Cleome (spider flower), marigolds, geraniums, lantana, nasturtium, petunia, salvia, or zinnia. These plants all have thin brittle stems that can easily be snapped to remove the seed heads. Hand pruners, scissors or a pocketknife is needed for plants that have a slightly tougher flower stalk. Columbines, cannas, iris, daylilies, Nicotiana (flowering tobacco), sunflowers, or heliotrope must be cut off by using pruners.
Some annuals and perennials have a habit that allows for efficient deadheading with the use of hedge shears. A sculpted effect can be obtained through skilful pruning during this process. Hedge shears can be used to deadhead plants that have their blooms all at the terminal points. Trailing or edging lobelia, perennial and annual alyssum, candytuft, lady’s mantle, dianthus, and lamb’s ears could all be deadheaded using hedge shears.
Although removing the seedpods from plants is a recommended practice, there are some instances when the seeds are left on to fully mature and ripen. If open-pollinated seed is being kept for harvesting then the seed pods must stay on the plant until they are ripe. Other plants that have decorative seedpods should be left on so that the pod can fully mature before it is harvested. Nigella (love-in-the-mist), poppies, Lotus, many clematis, and Allium are three plants that form very decorative seedpods.
There are some plants that do not require deadheading or are self-cleaning. These are great plants for a low maintenance garden because they do not require any laborious attention. Fibrous begonia, Bergenia, impatiens, lobelia, Catharanthus (Madagascar periwinkle), sunshine impatiens, and verbena are all members of this “no deadheading required” group.
Canna flowers just a few days prior to needing deadheading.
Many annuals (and quite a few perennials) must be deadheaded to keep them blooming longer. Notorious are Antirrhinum (snapdragon), canna (only remove the spent flowers and be wary of cutting off future flower buds lower on the same stalk), delphinium, Heliotropium (heliotrope), Hemerocallis (daylilies), lantana, Lavandula (lavender) Liatris, nasturtium, Nicotiana (flowering tobacco will self-seed but not quite enough to create a crisis), salvia, Tagetes (marigolds), tuberous begonias (female flowers only), viola, and zinnia. Many older variety petunias would benefit from a deadheading but who has the time for this tedious work?
There are some plants that should be deadhead at all costs to avoid self-seeding the following year. This group contains the plants that are prolific self-seeders and are an inconvenience in almost every instance. These plants include: Mirabilis (four-o’clock), Cleome (spider flower), Nigella (love-in-the-mist), Antirrhinum (snapdragon), Verbena bonariensis, Melampodium, Verbascum, Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) Corydalis lutea, and Eschscholzia (California poppy). If this group of annuals and perennials were left to self-seed, the following year the garden will be filled with seedlings. There is a saying that one year seeding equals seven years weeding.
This last group of plants are the ones that readily self-seed, but these plants have seed structures that do not permit any deadheading to take place. Use these plants in the garden with caution unless you prefer a groundcover-like planting the following year. Talinum (jewels of Opar), portulaca, cosmos, and Lobularia (sweet alyssum) all usually evade deadheading. Each of these plants has many tiny seedpods that would require endless, finicky deadheading.
One planter, several deadheading challenges from cannas, coleus, nasturtiums and lantana.
When deadheading annuals and perennials it is important to recognize what the seed head looks like so that the flower buds are not inadvertently removed. Often the flower buds will be in the terminal growth, while the seedpods will be found along older growth. Annual phlox is tricky to deadhead because there’s little difference in look between a forming flower bud and a finished seed head. Canna is tricky because if the spent flower is pruned too far down the stem then the next flower bud is removed too. During deadheading, be wary of stinging insects that like to frequent flowers. Grabbing a canna bloom to deadhead it and finding an angry bee is not a pleasant experience.
Some plants do not flower any longer even if they are deadheaded. So why waste the effort to do this task? This group includes astilbe and oriental poppy.
On a final note, some plants that have silver foliage are prone to deterioration once they have bloomed. Deadheading will allow the plant’s energy to stay directed toward foliage production. Lamb’s ears and artemisia are two key perennial plants that have this unusual habit.