Container Gardens

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Living Flower Arrangements

Have you always envied those individuals who could take just any old pot and make it become a masterpiece floral arrangement in soil? Well, Lynchburg has Master Gardeners who can teach you to pot plants in an arrangement just like the pros. I for one do not have the talent, so I am eager to learn.”

These luring words from Elsie Morris, President of the Hill City Master Gardener Association (HCMGA) landed in my email inbox a few weeks ago and reeled me in. Even though I’ve been collecting containers and potting plants in them for as long as I can remember, I’m always up for a new perspective and tips for success. And Master Gardeners Patty Butters, Diane Cooper and Laura Meniktos offered exactly that with their seminar and workshop on “Container Gardening and Fairy Gardens” at Lynchburg Grows just in time for those of us who’ve been watching the calendar and weather reports in anticipation of filling this spring’s outdoor garden containers with works of floral art—or edibles—as well as setting houseplants outside.

Catching Potted Plant Fever
Eye-catching creations of plants in containers first sparked my imagination in picturesque old European cities with charming balconies brimming with blooms and palaces where majestic urns spilled splashes of color against great masses of gray or honey-colored stone structures. Oh, yes, I recall charming pots of flowers in courtyards in Seville, window boxes in Germany, urns lush with geraniums rimming walls and other delights at cross-axis points in formal Italian gardens, and alluring combinations of plants in pots in stately gardens in the Cotswold Hills.

And I’ll never forget the obligatory line-up of lemon trees in terracotta pots in Mediterranean and other Italian gardens, or the seemingly random scattering of charming pots bursting with color in meandering country cottage gardens or carefully placed by front doors in cities with tight living spaces and small yards. It seems that not to be outdone by their forebears, Christchurch, New Zealand has serious competition and rewards for gardeners who incorporate clever and artistic use of pots in their landscapes during their annual Festival of Flowers.

Container gardening has recently gained traction here at home. Renowned garden writer and professor, Allan Armitage, author of Herbaceous Perennial Plants and Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens, declared in a recent Piedmont Landscape Association Seminar in Charlottesville that container gardening is the fastest growing garden sector in the U. S. today, and that excellent space-saving “patio veggies” are now being bred for container gardening and vigor, with especially good success for potted slicer and cherry tomatoes.

What’s Not to Love About Potted Plants?
They add colorful punctuation to green landscapes layered with trees, shrubs, and ground covers—or provide a touch of living green to the built environment, inside and out. They introduce interesting shapes (such as vertical elements into horizontal gardens), and enliven balconies, patios, terraces and porches with intoxicating scents wafting over sitting areas.

Mobility is another plus, since portable pots can be moved from porch to patio or popped temporarily into party décor. And they offer the option and flexibility in choice of plant material when space constraints, poor soil, or no soil at all do not present conditions amenable to in-ground planting.

Potted tropical plants that require inside protection over the winter add a lush exotic flavor to summer outside spaces. For years, my screened back porch was the perfect summer home for my collection of potted orchids until fall’s first frost, and autumn nights outside invariably set the flower spikes for January’s indoor blooms.

Or you can plant a sequence of spring bulbs in your pots, followed by annuals when danger of frost passes. Other plant options are perennials, shrubs, trees (such as a single boxwood or Japanese maple) and herbs.

Pots are especially useful for containing perennials or herbs that tend to spread all over the garden, such as mint, or to manage other challenges. I potted all our herbs for kitchen use out of range of the lifted-leg of our little beagle every time we let him outside. A bonus was locating the pots just outside the kitchen porch door for quick and dry-footed access. And for years Tim planted his tomatoes in pots inside an abandoned fenced dog run to keep critters from eating them.

Growing plants in an enclosed space—whether large or small, grand or humble, permanently located or portable, useful or purely decorative—is the perfect solution to space constraints.

Even the smallest of front stoops can typically hold a little pot, and window boxes are sometimes an option when the building façade is flush with the sidewalk or street. Indeed, potted plants can brighten any spot, including a back alley, narrow path between buildings or window sill; strategically placed splashes of color in pots offer visual appeal with less work than in-ground gardens.

Classic and Creative Containers
Over time, potted plants have developed from the classic “lemon tree in a terracotta pot” into a highly evolved floral art form. Exciting combinations of plants and containers are endless, and most anything can be used as a container—if it drains.

You will, of course, want to consider size, shape, color, style, use and location.

Whether you choose containers that are utilitarian or decorative, be sure they suit your style and purpose and are compatible with their setting: your architecture, yard furniture and other features. An eclectic assortment of pots can be quite effective, just as an eclectic art, furniture or rug collection can reflect the owner’s taste and preferences for interior design.

For our farm, mid-sized traditional metal urns were right for flanking the entrance fence gates, while simple, functional pots worked outside the kitchen door. At the other end of the house, the idea of clustering blue ceramic urns and pots captured my fancy for our terrace entertainment area overlooking the Blue Ridge.

When considering protective potting for kitchen herbs, I searched dusty corners of the barn and discovered an old copper ham boiler. Scrounging around produced another one that Tim’s grandma had used as a tub for washing clothes over the wood-burning stove at their Indiana farm. (Yes, it had earned its holes in the bottom, and I didn’t have to pay extra for well-earned patina!) Then over time, I repurposed additional rarely-used copper pots (by drilling holes in their bottoms) and ended up with a solution that was just right for kitchen container gardening.

Remember that unglazed terracotta pots are porous and water evaporates from them more quickly than from metal or plastic ones. They can also crack if the potting mixture freezes in winter, and large ones can become too heavy to move once planted—although the weight can be a good thing for stability in windy areas.

Patty urged workshop participants to scour yard sales and Goodwill for unusual and fun cast-offs that could be spruced up to create containers and charming “fairy gardens” with tiny figures in live plant settings. Her out-of-the-box (intentional pun) thinking produced a miniature scene in a sea shell, a pirate ship, a shoe, and a child’s little red Radio Flyer wagon, each accompanied by a charming story. One of these as a birthday gift most certainly would enchant children and imaginative adults alike!

Plant with Flair and Locate Strategically
Diane stressed the three “C’s—Container, Colors, Creation” for potted plants and agreed with Patty and me in choosing a container: “Just about anything that holds soil and has (or can be given) drainage holes is fair game!” When selecting plants, consider color, shape and growing habit.
She reaffirmed rules-of-thumb I follow for creating pots with panache: Unless the container is very small (or you’re simply planting a shrub or other statement plant), add three or more complementary species: thrillers, spillers and fillers.

Thrillers include attention-getting “wow! factor” plants for height, such as spikes/dracaena; spillers, such as sweet potato vine, creeping Jenny, or ivy, cascade over the edge of the pot; and fillers can be any plant that takes up the middle ground. For an artistic arrangement, the traditional guideline for number of plants in a container is 1, 3, 5, or 7. Be sure to place the tallest plants in the center of the pot and let spillers tumble over the edge.

For strongest contrast and eye appeal, Diane prefers combinations of primary and complementary colors (yellow and purple, orange and blue, red and green), although any combination that balances color and texture is fine, even if you go for a combo such as purple and red or orange, all green, or all white—which are some of my favorites.

Choose plants for their location—sun, shade and other environmental conditions. Once again, ensure good drainage (adding permeable garden fabric, gravel, or crock pieces if needed), potting soil or other appropriate growing medium—soil-based, soilless, acidic, or alpine/free-draining, and fertilizer. Clustering pots can create a more dramatic effect, but be sure to group plants with similar sun and water requirements.

Caring for Containers
Frequency of watering is determined by plant choice (tender annuals need more, succulents need less), size and type of pot (small pots typically need more), if in sun (more) or shade (less), and time of year (more in heat of summer). In spring, fertilizing with a 10-10-10 mixture once a week will get your pots off to a good start. With experience, you can tell by the condition of the leaves if they need more (or less) sun, water and fertilizer. And experience is gained only by giving it a whirl. So, let’s go for gorgeous potted plants this season!

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