Hooked On Hanging Plants

THE REAL DIRT

March 26, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each spring, my wife and I close out our bank account, head for the local garden center and buy a few flowering hanging baskets. To heck with the cost; we're smitten with these lush baskets overflowing with decorative plants -- trailing types of this and cascading kinds of that.

There are baskets filled with drooping varieties of petunia, portulaca and pansy; torenia, thyme and (cherry) tomatoes.

Most striking, perhaps, are the hanging baskets filled with verdant ivy geraniums, fuchsias and impatiens, all bearing brilliant blossoms and glossy foliage that spill out over the top and literally cover the sides of the containers.

All the baskets are teeming with greenery; choosing the best is a difficult task. We hem and haw, trying to pick the perfect plants. We circle around each hanging basket, examining the foliage for fullness, as one would a Christmas tree. I walk clockwise; Meg, counterclockwise. We meet at 12 and select the two baskets that will grace our porch all summer.

Transporting these plants is a real trip. Ever try driving home with a couple of hanging baskets sitting loose on the back seat? They roll around and get into more scrapes than a couple of ornery 5-year-olds. Their leaves get all tangled and they start to pull each others' roots out. My wife and I react as any responsible parents would -- by buckling each plant into a seat belt and ordering it to sit still.

At home, we suspend the hanging baskets from metal brackets fastened to the top of the porch, fixtures strong enough to hold the heaviest containers. My worst fear is to be snoozing beneath a flowerpot when it falls on my noggin. It's funny when it happens to Laurel and Hardy, but not me.

It's bad enough that I collide with at least one of the hanging baskets every time I step onto the porch, sending both my head and the plants spinning crazily. Or that I get soaked whenever I water the hanging baskets because I stand beneath them to do it and then forget to move. The water percolates quickly through the planter and trickles onto the front of my shirt, looking a lot like drool.

I'm just not used to raised-bed gardening, particularly when the "beds" are 6 feet off the ground.

There's much to be said for enjoying flowers, herbs and even some vegetables without gazing at the ground. Because the plants are hanging so high, no back-breaking labor is needed. To weed our hanging baskets, you've got to reach up.

Container gardening is the option for apartment dwellers who enjoy plants. Hanging baskets brighten up balconies, patios and terraces. Many plants once considered ground-bound can be raised in these baskets, including orchids, succulents, a number of low-growing herbs and some vegetables (bush cucumbers do well). All they need are daily waterings and a weekly dose of fertilizer.

Store-bought hanging baskets are expensive. Some cost $30 or more, a steep price for a white plastic pot filled with flowers that will be gone by fall. Come autumn, all that's left is a cheap-looking pot and a metal hook with three flimsy wires attached.

There are a dozen of these baskets stacked in our garden shed now. They don't go to waste; I use the containers to store everything from seed packets to garden gloves. Sometimes, before weeding the summer garden, I'll pack a hanging basket with sodas and ice cubes and hang it on a tomato cage at the far end of the vegetable patch. That's my incentive for completing the job.

We're thinking of creating our own hanging baskets, using wire frames lined with moistened sphagnum moss and filled with potting soil. The flower seedlings are easy to plant: From outside the basket, guide the roots through the wire and moss until they contact the soil. This homemade hanging basket reportedly grows into a living ball of blooms and is more of a conversation piece than any purchased planter.

This spring, we plan to buy one hanging basket and build the other. And what else will we do with those old store-bought baskets? They make great containers for gathering small produce like cherry tomatoes or blueberries; simply insert the hook through a belt loop on your trousers.

My favorite use for an empty hanging basket is a lunch box. If I'm working outside for hours, I'll fill the container with sandwiches and chips and hang it from the maple tree, where the dog can't reach it.

It's not the prettiest hanging basket around, but it sure smells good.

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