By: P. Allen Smith
Container gardening should come with a warning: This activity can be habit-forming! Planted pots offer instant impact with bright colors or soothing greenery wherever you need it the most. They make eye-catching focal points, serve as camouflage for unsightly hose reels or air conditioners, and brighten dull spots in a perennial border. By varying the containers and the plants you fill them with, you can set a style, create a mood, and emphasize a color scheme. Follow a few basic tips and then let your creativity blossom.
Pay attention to plants’ needs. Colorful, imaginative container gardens start with common-sense gardening techniques. Make sure you know what type of soil, water, food, and light your plants need.
Prevent waterlogged roots by using a container mix and pots with drainage holes. Stay on top of watering because plants drink up moisture quickly in containers. Replenish nutrients that leach from the soil mix by fertilizing your containers weekly.
Give your plants’ roots room to grow by selecting a container that is deep enough and has enough potting mix to keep the plants stable and protect the roots from overheating. The shallow roots of succulents can flourish in just a few inches of soil, but deep-rooted perennials require a taller pot.
Choose wisely for sunny spots. When selecting plants, think about where you’ll be placing the container, and choose plants that will thrive in those light conditions. For full-sun containers, turn to plants that flourish with minimal moisture. Choose plants that have characteristics that allow them to take the heat, such as the swollen leaves and stems of succulents and cacti. Plants with fuzzy and waxy leaves are also good choices, as their leaves slow the evaporation of water.
Look for flowering and foliage plants labeled “drought tolerant,” such as salvias, zinnias, ornamental grasses, agastache, portulaca, and ornamental oregano. Rather than mix several types of plants in one container, try planting a single variety in each pot and then cluster several containers in an ensemble for maximum impact. This makes it easy to replace plants if one starts to wane or if you just want to freshen up the display.
Avoid dark-colored containers in full sun, as the heat easily transfers to the soil and accelerates moisture loss. Add an inch or two of mulch to the tops of containers to slow evaporation and keep roots cool.
Keep cool in shady spots. Even deeply shaded spots can be brightened with containers filled with the right combination of flowers and foliage. Spark up a dimly lit corner with white and pastel-colored flowers that bloom happily in the shade, such as impatiens, begonias, astilbe, and hydrangeas.
Foliage that is striped, splashed with white, or glowing with color can also light up the dark. Variegated varieties of hostas and English ivy (Hedera helix), colorful coleus (Solenostemon spp), coral bells (Heuchera spp.), and oxalis add a diversity of texture and color. Variegated ferns such as Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum ‘Pictum’) and soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) are indispensable for creating a tropical effect.
Keep in mind that most shade gardens aren’t in the dark all day. Occasional patches of sunlight will illuminate certain areas. Put containers filled with partial-sun plants (which need an hour or two of direct sun or several hours of dappled light) in these spots.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, a regular guest on the “Today” show, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens (Clarkson Potter, 2005) and other books in the Garden Home series.