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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Container Gardening Tips and Tricks


In theory at least, most people have planted their annual flowers for the summer by the time June rolls around. I'm someone that tends to have a "just one more" mentality when it comes to container gardening and plants in general. So it's not unusual to find me adding another pot to my patio at any point during the growing season.

Choosing plants for a container can be intimidating. You may think you're not creative enough, or that you don't know enough about plants. But with a few tips and tricks you will be designing container gardens in no time. You need to start with the basics.

First, choose your container. Consider where it will be in your landscape. You may want a pot that coordinates with your house, or looks good in a particular corner of the garden, but it's also fine to just pick a pot that you like for no other reason than it appeals to you. Whatever you choose, make sure there is a hole in the bottom for drainage. This sounds really basic, but it is easily overlooked when shopping.

If you are going to place your pots in a sunny location, remember that unglazed clay pots will dry out relatively fast in the sun. You may wish to choose a glazed ceramic or even plastic pot for a very hot sunny location. Also, it may be a good idea to go with a pot on the larger side, as a larger volume of soil will dry out more slowly than a small volume of soil in a smaller pot.

The down side of larger pots is buying enough soil to fill them. It would cost a small fortune to fill some of the giant urns and pots out there! Most annuals develop a fairly shallow root system, around six to eight inches deep. So it's really a waste to have soil two feet deep in a pot! Instead, place inverted plastic pots, crushed aluminum cans, plastic pop bottles, golf balls, large Styrofoam packing pieces (such as those that computers and other electronics are shipped in) or a plastic bag of Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of your pot to act as filler. The pot will be a lot lighter, and you won't have to invest in soil that your plants never utilize.

It's tempting to use your regular garden soil for your container gardens, but don't! Garden soil is far too heavy, does not drain well enough, and may harbor pests and disease. Instead, choose a quality mix labeled as 'potting' or 'container' mix. These types of mixes are formulated to be sterile, drain well, and are much lighter than the soil in your garden. Many mixes available now come with time-release fertilizer incorporated into the mix, as well as moisture retaining polymers which slowly release water to your plants after watering.

You may have pots at home filled with soil from last year's planting. Many people ask me about re-using soil from previous years. The textbook answer is that you should use fresh, new soil mix each year. My opinion is that you certainly may reuse the soil, but do so at your own risk. I reuse soil, especially in extra-large containers. I try to replace at least the top few inches of soil with fresh planting mix. Keep in mind it is very possible that if there were any disease causing organisms in that soil last year, they are still there this year.

One of my favorite tips in designing container gardens is that there are three types of plants in a container garden: the thriller, the filler and the spiller. I wish I knew who originally coined these terms, as I think they are a great guideline in choosing plants.

The thriller is the tallest plant in the bunch. It grabs your attention in how it stands above the other plants. The filler is a medium sized plant that dominates the center area of the pot. The spiller cascades down the side of the pot, drawing attention downward.

In my experience, container gardens look best when you have at least one of each of these plants in the mix. Also, odd numbers of plants tend to look best. The pots in front of my garage demonstrate this idea. Each pot contains five plants: 'Sky Rocket' fountain grass is the thriller, three Calibrachoas-- 'Lemon Slice', 'Strawberrry Punch', and 'Pomegranate Punch' are fillers and act as spillers to some degree. Last but not least, 'Sweet Georgia Deep Purple' sweet potato vine is the primary spiller.

But just because you have a thriller, filler and spiller doesn't mean they look good together. You still have to pay attention to color. This is where many people get frustrated. In my opinion you will have the best results if you keep your color choices simple.

The simplest method is to choose different shades of one color, such as red. Another choice could be a palette of warm colors, which includes red, orange, and yellow. Green, blue, and purple are the cool colors. Warm colors suggest excitement and energy, cool colors evoke peaceful and calm feelings. Choose your favorite.

Complementary colors are colors which lie directly across from each other on the color wheel. These colors bring out the best in each other, and they "pop". Red/green, orange/blue, and yellow/purple are the basic complementary color pairs. Choose plants with these color pairings and you will be very pleased with the results.

A favorite way I choose colors for plants in my containers is to use one plant as a starting point, choosing colors in it to pull out and accent with other plants.

When I put my garage planters together, I will confess I went shopping with a general idea of what I wanted, but no real plan. I wanted to see what caught my attention and go from there.

The first plants that caught my eye were the 'Pomegranate Punch' and 'Lemon Slice' Calibrachoas. 'Pomegranate Punch' is a deep red/pink with a yellow center, and 'Lemon Slice' has striped flowers that look like tiny white and yellow pinwheels. Playing off the yellow and pink in these two plants, I added the 'Strawberry Punch' Calibrachoa, with its light pink petals and deep pink and yellow center echoing the hues of the other Calibrachoas.

I added the green and white variegated 'Sky Rocket' fountain grass as an all-purpose neutral color, and then the 'Sweet Georgia Deep Purple' to pick up the darker hues of the 'Pomegranate Punch' Calibrachoa.

While you are choosing your plants with colors that work well together, keep the plants preferred needs in mind. Choose sun loving plants for sunny locations, shade lovers for shady spots. Do not mix shade loving plants with sun loving plants in the same pot, or one or the other plant will be unhappy no matter where you place it.

If you are trying to choose plants for several containers at once, it can get confusing in a hurry. Group plants for each container together in your cart and ask the cashier to bag or box them together. This increases the likelihood that you'll remember how you wanted to use each of the plants once you get home!



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