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Tales from a Plant Addict

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

Not the Same Old Container Garden

This Mother's Day weekend, chances are that you or someone you know will be spending time on something related to gardening. The typical frost-free date in central Illinois is approximately Mother's Day through May 15th. Even so, no one can predict the weather with 100% accuracy. But considering Mother's Day as the starting gun for some full-blown gardening is generally a good rule of thumb.

A container garden is a great option for a Mother's Day gift. Cut flowers only last a week or so, while a container garden will last the entire growing season.

It's easy to get stuck creating the same container gardens year after year. Typically my husband and I plant my mom's flowers outside for her each year for Mother's Day. It's become a sort of joke with her when I ask what she wants to plant–she always thinks a minute, and then says "red impatiens". If she is feeling especially wild she might say "red and white impatiens".

My mom's response is simply because she knows what works well in her yard. She is hesitant to try new things because they might not work as well. That's where I come in. I like to bring her a container of plants that are new to her, so maybe she'll find some new favorites. Trying new plants in a container is a way to "test drive" plants before committing to using them in other areas of the garden.

It's extremely easy to plant the same things in the same pots each year. After the drought last year, I'm cutting back on the number of containers I commit to this year. I'm looking at which plants will handle drought best, and which locations in my landscape have the most impact. Considering that this is my first Mother's Day as a new mom, it may be a stretch to assume I will get anything planted at all!

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.

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.

When choosing plants for containers, it is perfectly acceptable to blur the lines of what you consider to be a "container plant". Traditionally, annual bedding plants would be the only thing seen planted in containers outdoors. But in light of last year's drought and incredibly high summer temperatures, desert natives like cacti and succulents are plants to consider. There is incredible diversity in size, color, form and texture among these tough plants. And some of them even flower!

I found that planting container gardens of succulents is a bit like eating potato chips–it's hard to stop at one or two! I have even overwintered one succulent planter indoors for three years now with great success.

A few succulent plants to try:

  • Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, Flapjack plant–large, round green leaves edged in red are stacked like pancakes. This plant produced an enormous flower spike indoors in early spring at my house.
  • Aloe sp.–There are numerous different species of Aloes, differing widely in color, shape, and size. They tend to be spiky, a good vertical element in containers.
  • Crassula sp., Jade plant–Another genus with incredible diversity in color, shape and size. Try the variety 'Campfire' which has brilliant red and orange foliage.
  • Sedum sp.–Some species of this plant is probably already in your perennial garden. You could use these in containers, but there are also plenty of Sedum species that are not hardy in our area, but make great container specimens. A favorite of mine is Sedum morganianum, also called Burro's Tail. Tiny blue green leaves hang down from a fleshy stalk and resemble a tail.
  • Echeveria sp.– Plants in this genus grow in a rosette, and there are many different colors, shapes and sizes available. A drawback with this plant is the tendency to lose lower leaves as it grows, leaving an often unattractive bare "neck" on older plants.
  • Sempervivum sp., Hens and Chicks–Another plant that grows in a rosette, but forms thick clumps, with the larger, parent plants called the "hens" and the smaller offshoots called "chicks". Some species in this genus are hardy in our area, some are not.

There are many more succulents out there than I have room to list. Also keep in mind that the term succulents is a broad category that can include cacti. So that broadens the available plants to use as well. My best advice is to have fun, and plant what appeals to you. And in the end, you just might have a little less watering to do this summer.

Trying new plants will not always produce a new favorite, but you don't know unless you try. Consider it an experiment. Nothing says you have to throw out all your "old standbys" at once, but why not try one pot with new plants or new uses of old plants this year?


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