Spending a lot of time ’round the ol’ homestead these days? We hear you. Perhaps it’ll help if you spiff things up a bit, particularly outdoors, where, should the weather gods be willing, we’ll all soon be spending a lot more time. Up for consideration: container gardens. In this crazy COVID-19 world we find ourselves in, “People are at home and looking for simple ways to beautify their environment,” says Jen Plasky, container-garden specialist for Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses in Greenwich. “Plants have the unique power to transform a space with color, texture and life,” while container gardening has the added bonus of allowing plants to “travel to spaces where they would normally not exist.” Porch, patio, poolside … shall we get started?
Clay, concrete, fiberglass, plastic, wood … your options are numerous when it comes to choosing the container in which your precious plants will spend their summer. While “it may not be the most eco-friendly choice,” Plasky says, “I lean toward fiberglass or plastic when choosing a pot. They’re the most durable and best for water management.” (Those terra cotta pots that seem to be, well, everywhere, don’t retain water, so plants dry out quickly.)
Truth be told, “You can convert just about anything into a container for gardening,” says landscape designer/architect George Trecina of Land Design & Horticultural Sales in Meriden, who has more than 300 blooming containers on his third of an acre. An old wash tub, a teapot … Trecina once spotted a steel bolt bucket he liked at Logan Steel in Meriden and talked the folks there into selling him one. The key, Trecina says, is to pay attention when you mix and match containers. “Each makes a statement, and you don’t want one to stick out like a sore thumb.”
The hole story
“Everything above the pot is depending on what is going on below in the soil,” says Cathy Testa, owner of Container Crazy CT in East Windsor, which is why drilling additional drainage holes in whatever pot you use is at the top of Testa’s list of “must dos” for successful container gardening. “Most pots on the market today have only one small drain hole in the base (or none at all) — and this is not sufficient,” Testa says. If the soil in a container remains too wet, the plants’ roots will not get the oxygen they need, along with carbon and hydrogen, to thrive. “Having constant wet soil in the base of a pot is similar to walking around in wet sneakers,” adds Testa. “While it may be tolerated for a short period, if air is not provided soon, rot [oh, that smell!] can set in.”
Trecina recommends adding a piece of landscape fabric to the bottom of each pot so that the soil itself doesn’t clump and block drainage holes.
It’s in the mix
Tempted to head into the backyard to dig up some soil for your container(s)? Hold it right there. Dirt, which can harbor soil-borne pathogens, insects and weed seeds, is “a four-letter word in the world of container gardening,” Testa says. Look instead for a potting mix formulated especially for container gardens. The type you choose should address conditions where the container will be located. “A planter in a shady location isn’t likely to dry out frequently,” Plasky says. “Thus it’s important to be sure the potting soil used in this location doesn’t contain additional moisture-retention ingredients or the plants will likely develop fungal diseases.” A planter that will be basking in full sun, however, may benefit from a mix with just such an additive.
Put down the petunias
No, seriously: put them down. These annuals (which are popular for reasons experts simply can’t fathom), will begin to “peter out” in a container by mid-summer, Trecina says — and who wants that when there are so many glorious options out there, whether annual, perennial, tropical, herb, vegetable or mixture thereof. “A container should have different layers or levels of plants,” Trecina says. To achieve this, he suggests following what those in the know call the “thriller, filler, spiller” method. Thrillers add height and “pop,” fillers add volume and cascading spillers soften the edge.
“Just make sure you install enough plants so that the container looks like a finished product,” Plasky suggests. “Don’t leave room for growth (unless you’re growing vegetables). “Overplanting helps to prevent gaps of space that may never fill in if flowers don’t reach mature size, as well as hide gaps that may occur if a flowering plant dies within the container.” Speaking of which …
“If you aren’t willing to water, you should forget container gardening,” Testa says. Plants need water, and they’re relying on you to provide it. Environmental conditions, container type and plant variety will dictate some of your watering routine, but it does take some practice. “Basically, you need to pay attention,” Testa says. Look at the plants: Are they wilting? Insert your finger into the soil an inch or two. Dark and damp? You should be good. Lighter and drier? Add some water — and when you do, always “water until you see it begin to drain from the bottom of the planter,” Plasky adds. “This ensures [that] the water has reached roots at the base.”
Now you try
Here are three tried-and-true (not to mention gorgeous) combinations from Container Crazy CT’s Cathy Testa to consider.
The bold and the beautiful: This sun-loving combo (above) features an Agave “Blue Glow,” a succulent with dramatic color and texture; Alternanthera “Plum Dandy,” an annual known for its exceptional performance as a filler plant (note how it picks up the fine purplish edge of the agave); and Scaevola aemula “Surdiva Blue Violet,” a semi-trailing annual with fan-shaped purple flowers.
Pretty in pink (and purple): Senecio crassissimus, a succulent with fleshy leaves rimmed in purple; Setcreasea pallida “Purple Queen,” a trailing perennial with violet-purple leaves; Scabiosa columbaria “Flutter Deep Blue,” a perennial whose blue “pincushions” are a butterfly favorite; Angelonia angustifolia “Angelface Perfectly Pink,” an annual with snapdragon-like flowers; and Isotoma axillaris “Beth’s Blue,” an annual with dainty, star-shaped flowers — sun-lovers all.
Sound the trumpets: Statement-making tropical Giant Upright Elephant Ear (Alocasia macrorrhizos) with sculpted, glossy green leaves; Alternanthera “Plum Dandy,” an annual with vibrant plum foliage with hues of olive green; and Plectranthus coleoides “Variegata” Swedish Ivy, a cascading annual with deep green foliage with white margins — a combo that does best in part sun.