“Just one more container,” I say to myself as I look at the tray of plants still waiting to go into a hanging basket or window box.
Somehow, it’s never “just one more.”
We all know I have a deep and abiding passion for planting gardens, but I also love making up containers of plant combinations, and every spring finds me lugging home a great variety of annuals for putting in various planters.
From smaller clay pots that hold just a couple of succulents, to larger glazed pots in brilliant hues that I pack with long-blooming annuals, to dedicated containers of herbs and vegetables, container gardening delights me. And it will delight you, too.
I call my containers my portable gardens — many of them get moved around the yard throughout the summer, either to give a pop of colour in a spot where some perennial or shrub has finished blooming, or to give the container a boost after it’s been brightening a less than ideal spot for a week or two.
I group them together, set them on my deck, out by the garden beds, on my patio table, in planters on the railing, in hanging baskets on the bird feeder stands … I even have them in the house because I grow a rather substantial collection of succulents and cacti, some of which live in dedicated dish gardens or dry terraria. I have some marginally hardy plants that I grow in containers outside all summer, and then overwinter in my cool, dark basement, including passionflower vine, lily of the Nile (Agapanthus) and Peruvian scilla.
You can plant just about anything you want in containers — annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, herbs, vegetables, fruits — the main secret to success being that you have an adequately sized container for whatever you’re trying to grow.
You can plant hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum) in a shoe or a boot, because they are shallow-rooted plants that don’t get huge. Don’t try that with plants with taproots or with vigorous growth habits. Deep, tall urns or crocks are great for shrubs and smaller trees, while alpines can grow in troughs without a lot of soil.
You can also use just about anything for a container, from something designed exactly for growing plants to a range of other items — footwear, as mentioned above, tea pots and coffee mugs, baskets, cans, wooden boxes … even an old wood stove or a child’s dump truck!
Whatever you use, it HAS to have drainage holes in the bottom, to allow excess water to flow out — otherwise, soil will get waterlogged and drown your plants.
I recommend using pre-mixed potting mediums available at good garden centres, rather than soil out of your garden, which can be nutrient-poor, full of weed seeds and plant pests, and heavy to boot. What I do is buy a bale of professional potting medium, to which I add composted sheep manure, dried seaweed meal, perlite, and, when potting up succulents and alpines, lots of coarse sand to help improve drainage.
Designing a container with a number of plants in it is a lot of fun, but please, promise me you will go beyond a swath of geraniums with a ‘spike’ dracaena in the centre! There’s nothing at all wrong with either geraniums or dracaena, but you can do much more exciting and eye-catching designs since there are so, so many plants that are perfect for containers.
American garden writer and photographer Steve Silk coined a term some years ago to help with designing containers: to use thrillers, spillers and fillers.
The thriller is something that lends vertical height and drama to the container: try something like a climbing vine like morning glory, nasturtium or scarlet runner bean, or an elegant grass like purple millet or fountain grass.
Fillers, as the name suggests, help to fill the container out because they’re bushy; good suggestions include verbena, lantana, petunias and million bells, and my personal favourites: hot-fuchsia geraniums, nemesia in jewel tones from orange to magenta to lavender, bidens ‘Campfire’ (red-orange combination) and anagallis ‘Skylover’ (blue).
The spillers cascade out of the pot and downward, adding another dimension and a sort of foliar waterfall effect. Good choices include sweet potato vine, trailing portulaca, heat-tolerant lobelia, bacopa, trailing lantana and verbena, fuchsia, begonias and ivy geraniums. Don’t forget to focus on some interesting foliage to add an additional pop of colour and interest. Plants like sweet potato vines, coleus, Rex begonias and even small hostas are great for adding a textured look.
To keep containers looking their best, they need to be watered regularly — even as much as daily in hot weather — and fed regularly, too. I normally feed liquid seaweed fertilizer at least once a week, but I also throw a little slow-release fertilizer in most of my planters in the spring.
You also need to deadhead flowering plants of spent blooms, especially annuals, in order to keep them flowering all season long. Otherwise, they will set seed and die, their life cycle complete.
Daunted by all these tips, and starting out with containers for the first time? You can always buy pre-made or custom-made planters and hanging baskets from reputable nurseries around the province.
I will never tell.
Just remember to feed and water and deadhead, and you’ll do fine. It’ll be our secret.