Operating a garden center sometimes feels like being a marriage counselor between a gardener and their plants! I spend many hours turning tension into understanding through a bombardment of worry-filled questions. Some questions are easy; the gardener just needed a little reassurance and a boost of confidence to take the first step (or shovel full!). However, some questions make us take a step back and stare into space before formulating an answer. Questions such as "which color" or "which plant" can often be answered fairly quickly. Some questions make you want to sit down and write a book!
How do you all make all these perfect containers?
Well, let’s start writing that book! I’d love to tell you that the perfect container was a well thought-out process with an intricate design and concept in mind. Well, that wouldn't be entirely honest! Many of our “perfect containers” are happy accidents or concept pots that went astray. We do start with a design concept in mind but as planting progresses some plants don’t quite work and back to the shelf they go!
So, how do you do it? As a gardener, you don't have a nursery full of plants nor enough wine in the house to contemplate what plant goes where! There are a few little “trade secrets” we go by (and will let you in on).
First, as if building a house, start at the ground and work your way up! The container itself plays a huge role in the outcome of your planting, keeping in mind color and size. Shallow containers need shallow rooted plants like succulents, ivies and million bells. Although large planters are heavier and demand more space, they allow for larger plants and more of them. Regarding color, it's more simple than you'd think! If you have black or dark blue containers, pair with pastels and whites. For white or soft colored containers, contrast with bold and bright flowers! Purples and reds look amazing in this situation.
Next, let's consider light. This is the most critical part of a perfect container, but it’s surprisingly simple! If you are planting in shaded areas use shade annuals like New Guineas or Begonias. If you are planting in the sun use sun lovers like Petunias and Lantanas. It helps to know where the container will be for the next few months before deciding it’s a great day to go buy plants! It will be a better day for you (and me!) if you know where you want it first.
Next, let's talk about soil. As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for! If the soil is cheap, your planters will most likely look cheap, too. If you plant with premium soil your plantings will really thrive and are going to look professional. If you wouldn’t want to sleep in a cheap stinky, hotel for months, your plants don't want to spend that time in cheap, stinky soil! So, what makes a good soil? Make sure it's high in peat moss and vermiculite. I often avoid soils with moisture control or additional fertilizer because all plants are different and need different rates of watering and fertilizer. Remember that soil is something you get on your hands and dirt is something on tractor tires!
Now, let's discuss planting. There is a little rule of thumb we go by when we are designing a container: "Thriller, Spiller, and Filler!" If the container will be seen from all sides, the "thriller" will go in the middle. If it’s going to be seen from one side, the "thriller" goes in the back and you will build off of it. Next, the "filler." Fillers are normally taller foliage plants like grasses and salvias, filling space and adding color and texture. Fillers need to be the same plant and color, planted in three or five and around or in front of the "thriller." The "spiller," as the name implies, will spill over the side making the container look full and complete. Plants like Million Bells and Sweet Potato Vine also need to be planted in 3 or 5 at cross points in the container.
To make your planting endeavor as successful as possible, remember a few simple rules. First, be sure to “overplant” the container. I don't say this to sell more plants but because a sparse container at planting is a sparse container through the entire season. Next, make sure you're consistently feeding your planters. Lastly, remember to dead head. This promotes new growth and gives the container a clean look. Just a few minutes every week will go a very long way!
I leave this book with blank pages, not to give you the illusion of more to come but because everyone’s book will be a little bit different. Your preference in containers, plants and colors will probably be different than mine and your neighbor's, but that's your garden book! One thing I hope we both had in common is along the way we dug deep roots and enjoyed the soil in our hands!