Uncontained Imagination

Stretching the boundaries of what makes a container garden

Focus On Gardening

May 12, 2002|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Potted plants aren't just for Mother's Day anymore.

Like everything else in the garden, that single geranium in the clay pot on the front porch has grown and spread.

It is now a "container garden," which can mean anything from a single large pot planted thick with a dozen plants to a collection of ornate pots each planted with a single variety and grouped in the corner of a deck or patio.

Container gardens are even finding their way into the real garden, where they surprise the eye or contain an invasive mint.

"I think window boxes are coming back, too," said Eric Morrison, the University of Maryland landscape architecture student who creates and manages the container gardens at Davidsonville's Homestead Gardens.

"They have always been around, but I think people really love the European flavor of them."

Container gardens need not confine the imagination, Morrison tells his workshop students.

"Perennials, herbs, vegetables, woody plants. Ornamental grasses are big. Even trees. Don't limit yourself."

Morrison will be designing container gardens all summer (he finds that people like to copy his ideas) and into the fall.

"Containers are so popular now because people can change them seasonally and enjoy them all year. They actually seem to be more popular in the fall and winter.

"And if something starts looking tired, pull it out and plant something fresh and different."

Since the events of Sept. 11, Morrison has noticed that customers are drawn to flowers in red, white and blue. But he has also noticed a trend toward planters that take their color from foliage, such as coleus.

Containers, too, have come a long way, with plastic and Styrofoam that look remarkably like terra cotta or cement.

You can use a large container to plant a handful of your favorite vegetables. Or you can plant one with herbs and place it near your kitchen door.

You can group them to create an outdoor "room." You can hang a planter from a hook, or you can supplement one with a trellis and plant a climber.

"Container gardens used to be for people with not much space or not much time," said Morrison. "But now everyone is getting into them."

How to squeeze a lot of beauty into a pot

* Containers: Anything goes -- from an antique wash tub to a conventional half barrel; from faux terra cotta to a hay-rack window box. Make sure there is a hole for drainage, because you can't control water flow outdoors. Place a piece of window screen over the holes to prevent the soil from leaching out.

* Soil: Coarse, soil-less growing mixes are best, such as Premium Potting Mix by World Apart, Metro Mix or Pro Mix. They are light, sterile and drain well. Don't use soil from your garden. It can carry diseases or insects and can become rock-hard when it dries. The potting mixes are so porous that rocks are not necessary, unless they are needed for ballast in tall plantings. Change your soil every year: Decomposing roots can hold harmful bacteria.

* Plants: Anything goes here, too. Annuals, bulbs, perennials, ornamental grasses, tropicals, herbs, vegetables, shrubs and trees. Plant for all seasons with heather or evergreens and by adding pansies or mums.

* Composition: Choose the right plants for the container's location -- sun or shade -- and choose plants with similar growing habits -- moist soil or dry. Think about combining different leaf textures and consider the colors on your house, porch or deck. Consider height, shape and growth habits. The rule of thumb is to combine upright, broad and trailing plants. In a shallow bowl, think about planting just one variety.

* Planting: Start from the center of a planter and work out, or start from the back of a window box and work forward. Drape trailing plants over the edges and over the corners. Break up the root ball with a cultivator, trimming some roots if you need to. Make sure the roots are moist, or the shock of watering-in could kill them. Plant your container as densely as possible so it immediately looks full and filled out.

* Fertilize: The potting mix contains no nutrients, so fertilizing is critical. After planting, dress the container garden with a granular, time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote. It will last longer that liquid fertilizers. But because any fertilizer will wash out with frequent watering, it must be reapplied in a month or six weeks.

* Watering: Container gardens may require less space, but they often require more work because of frequent watering. After planting, water thoroughly, until it runs out of the drainage holes. This will release the fertilizer and stabilize the roots. Though common knowledge suggests that watering be done in the morning, Homestead Gardens designer Eric Morrison says he never does. "I'm not a morning person. I water at night. But I avoid wetting the leaves if I can."

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