Now that you’ve spent the entire Kentucky Derby weekend and a few evenings after work here and there getting your garden in shape, you can step back and see where the holes are, where you might need a pop of color or texture or where your garden just needs a little energy.
And there’s no better way to accomplish all of these things than by adding planted containers.
Containers can add so much color, texture, and just plain old wow to the summer garden. But done wrong, they can make you a grumpy gardener. And no one wants to be a grumpy gardener. So here are some basic tips to help you get the most out of your planted containers.
Why should you choose large containers for your garden plants
Small containers are simply a pain in the neck. Those 8 or 10 inch plastic hanging baskets that look so tempting in the garden center in May rarely look so good after a few weeks in the garden. Most annuals grow so aggressively that the pots quickly turn into a solid mass of roots which, when thoroughly and judiciously irrigated, stay well hydrated for as long as it takes you to wrap the hose on the reel.
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At Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, most of our planted containers are at least 20 inches in diameter and some are up to 36 inches in diameter. In our vegetable garden, we even went to large galvanized steel troughs and waterers (of course with lots of drainage holes added!) from the farm supply store to get the rooting volume that some of our container plantings need. .
So don’t be afraid to think big!
Why invest in potting soil
Soilless mixes are essential for successful container plantings. So-called topsoil, no matter how good, belongs in the soil, not in the containers. It is too fine to allow adequate drainage in a raised container.
You can make your own soilless mix from compost and other materials, but there are many good quality bagged mixes that provide the perfect balance of water holding capacity, drainage and nutrient delivery. . Those that contain slow-release fertilizers are often well worth the small extra cost.
And do yourself a favor and at the end of the season, throw all that mixture into your compost pile. A fresh bag of mix each spring can do wonders to reduce disease and pest problems.
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Why you shouldn’t do mixed planting in a container
Unless you’ve been doing it for years, planting mixed containers can be a tricky and disappointing process. Matching flower/foliage colors is just the beginning. Next, match the sun/shade and moisture tolerance characteristics of all plants entering a single container. And finally, there is the growth rate.
A combination that looks great in the garden center basket can fall apart before the 4th of July if one plant doesn’t blend well with the others.
At Yew Dell, and in my home garden in the Highlands, one solution we have used is to simply plant a variety of plants per container. Then you simply collect the individual containers you want to grow side by side. If a plant gets a little too rambunctious, all you have to do is cut its hair and let it fill in over time.
An added benefit of mixing multiple containers is that if one doesn’t succeed, you can simply replant it or relegate it to the graveyard behind the garage. Yes, I have one – and most likely you will too!
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Why should you plant succulents in containers
One of the hardest parts of growing large container plantings is keeping them well watered. Even with large containers that can last a full day’s work before drying out, it’s hard to go out of town for more than 12 hours unless you have a sufficiently trustworthy friend or neighbor who isn’t no especially forgetful.
Planting succulents, whether cold hardy or tropical, can make container irrigation a breeze. We have planted pot succulents in past summers that barely needed much watering for most of the summer. Many of them have such low water requirements that an occasional downpour here and there may suffice.
This is the most likely scenario that will result in living container plantings to welcome you after a week of summer vacation by the lake.
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Consider a drip irrigation system for your potted plants
Do-it-yourself home watering materials have come a long way in the past few years. Tubes, connectors and timers are now so well thought out that you can buy a basic kit to connect a bunch of containers, twist the supply line onto a hose bib, set a timer and away you go. Some of the newer home security systems now even offer built-in irrigation timers that you can control with your phone-based app.
What would have cost thousands of dollars just a few years ago can now be done for the price of a fine dinner in town.
Paul Cappiello is the executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.