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Container Gardening- Designing with Plants

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In last week´s column, I discussed the pros and cons of container materials that are available. This week I would like to share some tips and design ideas that will make container gardening a pleasurable pastime for any gardener. Let´s begin by breaking down the elements of container gardening.

Container material: Choose the container material that is the easiest for you to use. Remember, plastic and synthetics are lightweight, while terra cotta, stone and cast iron heavy can be very heavy when filled.

Size: Any size pot works for outdoor container gardening. In fact some of the best looking container gardens are those with various size pots at different levels and all grouped together. But size is important when you go to move a large soil-ladened pot.

Placement: If the pot is a medium to large terra-cotta, glazed terra-cotta, cast iron, cement or wood, placement is important, because it will be too heavy to move once filled with soil and plants. On the other hand, the same size plastic, fiberglass or foam pot is easily moved by one or two people. Also, consider the exposure. Will the plants need sun or shade or a little of both? I place a large, heavy container exactly where it will live, and then add the soil and plants.

Elevating: All my containers, with the exception of ones in garden beds, are elevated by using ´pot feet,´-bricks, or metal or wood trays with wheels. Raising the pot off the ground allows for good air circulation beneath the pot. Metal and wood trays with wheels are an excellent way to lift the pot off the ground and also move it. The wheels work well on a deck or cement patio, but are not so easy to roll on soil.

Pot Saucers: Most exterior containers do not need saucers to catch draining water. But saucers under smaller table top containers prevent damage. I personally do not use saucers on any of my outside containers, mainly because I want and need my pots to drain thoroughly. If you prefer using saucer, just be sure to elevate to insure air circulation.

Soil: Use the best potting soil you can afford. The better potting soils drain well and yet retain moisture.

Fertilizing: Some potting soils contain time-released fertilizer in the mix. If the soil you choose does not then you can add either time-released type pellets at the time of planting or use a water soluble fertilizer after you plant your container. I prefer pellets so I don´t have to worry about fertilizing for about 4-6 months after planting. That insures that my pots containing annuals need only be fertilized as I change out the seasonal plants.

And now the fun part… Planting!!! Choosing plant combinations to fill your container is really not very difficult. Just remember to pick plants that all require the same exposure and water needs. Then think, ´spiky,´ ´roundy,´ and ´frilly´! A noted horticulturist I once heard speak at a Master Gardener convention used those fun descriptions for plants, not only in containers, but in garden beds as well. They relate to the plant structure to create an interesting combination in any garden setting.

For a container garden, either the ´spiky´ or the ´roundy´ can be the main plant, with the other type surrounding it. ´Frilly´ are always the plants that cascade over the side of the container. Another garden writer referred to the placement of plants in containers as, the ´thriller´…the main focal point plant, the ´fillers´… flowering or leafy plants surrounding the ´thriller´ and the ´spillers´…plants that spill over the container.

Now while thinking about ´spiky,´ ´roundy,´ ´frilly,´ ´thriller,´ ´filler,´ and ´spiller´ plants, let´s add color into the mix. Your container can contain plants with foliage in varying shades of one color or can have several foliage colors. One captivating combination example: spiky/thriller… purple New Zealand flax; roundy/filler… gray Dusty Miller and lamb´s ears; frilly/spiller… green Vinca minor and Bacopa

Here´s just a sampling of plants that fit the fun descriptions:

´Spiky´ thriller… upright ferns, Miscanthus grasses, Russian sage, purple fountain grass

´Roundy´ thriller… Coreopsis, Oriental poppies, Caladium, kangaroo paw, Verbascum, Helianthus angustifolius

´Spiky´ filler… Fescue, Lirope, society garlic, ribbon grass, penstemon

´Roundy´ filler… Coleus, Impatiens, Begonia, Hosta, Daisy, Chrysanthemum, Aster

´Frilly´ spiller… Calibrachoa, Bacopa, Lamium, needlepoint ivy, creeping Jenny, sweet woodruff

The number of plants to buy will depend on the size of your container. Usually the ´thriller´ will be just one plant, because it is the focal point. To insure a lush looking container, use as many ´fillers´ and ´spillers´ as you can. Using more than one species of ´filler´ plant will also add an interesting aspect to the container.

Planting several containers with all the same type of plants and grouping them together is yet another way to make a very dramatic statement in your landscape.

Whatever you choose to plant in your containers, I find it is best to fill the container with soil, and water it the day before I plant to let the soil settle. If you plant with dry soil, once you water you will have to add more soil which can be difficult if you have planted densely. It is easier to scoop out the damp soil and add it back in as you plant.

Saturday, April 5th, is Open Garden Day at the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden. Demonstrations begin at 10:00am and will include: poisonous fruits and vegetables, soil preparation, starting seeds, and at 1:00pm I will demonstrate planting a container. The demonstration garden is located at 251 S. Barretta Street in downtown Sonora.

Master Gardener Carolee James believes that containers of all sorts planted with a wide variety of annuals and perennials can be interesting elements in every garden.