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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Container gardening

The other day, a friend said to me: “Container gardening is such hard work!” “Work?” I thought. It does take a lot of thought, which is in itself a lot of work, but I didn’t think that is what she meant. I soon learned that the work she had taken on was lugging a heavy watering can to the end of a long country driveway to water a hanging basket. That is work! And it has to be done because container plants must be watered every day.

I do my container gardening right in front of the house, with a few pots on the Welcoming Platform and the paved entry path. I can’t forget the containers since they are right in front of me and a spigot and watering cans are always handy and at the ready. What is hard for me is thinking about an interesting arrangement of plants for a single container. Pots of geraniums and petunias will never lose their classic charm, but now there are books and magazines urging one on to complex and seasonal arrangements.

I will not say I dismiss complex arrangements, but so far I am sticking with some old favorite annuals that will bloom all summer, asking only that I keep them watered. I want my containers to give a flowery welcome to those who visit me — and indeed to myself when I come home at the end of a busy day touring around on errands or pleasure.

Visiting a garden center or nursery can be totally overwhelming. There are annuals for shade, for sun and hanging baskets. I bought some annuals at the Bridge of Flowers plant sale with the intent of planting a mixed container with an interesting and new-to-me Cuphea Tiny Mice, with its small but intensely red and purple blossoms, combined with Superbells Trailing Blue, which is really purple, and a silvery helichrysum Icicles.

I’ve planted a blue ceramic pot with a pink geranium, blue lobelia and white superbells: a good traditional combo and very pretty.

When planting a container, there are a couple of things to remember. It is important to use potting soil, which is not really soil at all. This light mixture allows the plants’ roots to grow. Garden soil in a pot will soon bake into a very inhospitable home for plant roots.

Potting soils can be enriched with fertilizer, or not. Either way, it is important to remember that flowering plants need to be fertilized on a regular basis all season long. There are many commercial fertilizers for blooming plants and they will have their own directions. All will say a watering with diluted fertilizer weekly will work nicely. The necessary daily watering will always be washing out some of the fertilizer, which is why it needs to be replenished regularly. Don’t forget to water daily. Containers dry out rapidly. Terra cotta flower pots dry out especially fast, but while plastic and resin pots hold water longer, the plants are using that water and respiring into the hot summer air. They get thirsty.

Because I am leaving room to grow, there is bare soil in the cuphea pot. So, I am filling in bare spots with moss from my lawn. That gives the pot a finished look at this early stage in the arrangement’s life. This is a trick I learned from Gloria Pacosa, who is a great gardener and flower arranger, but I have to say she does recommend putting more plants in a pot than I can usually bring myself to do.

Annuals started in greenhouses early will have a pretty healthy root system by the time they arrive at the nursery. In fact, many of them will be root bound, twisted around and around their little planting pot or cell. Before I remove plants from their pots, I always water them well. Then when I remove them, I break those tightly bound roots apart. I am gentle, but the torn roots will make new growth once they are put in more soil in the container. Tearing those roots apart will help get the plant off to a good start.

Breaking the roots apart is necessary whether you are putting plants in a container or in the ground. I remember the late Elsa Bakalar giving a lesson in raking a cultivator through root-bound roots of a plant she bought at a season’s-end nursery sale. Loosening the roots is the first step to revitalizing the plant.

Because potting soil is expense, those who use large containers for plants that don’t need all that root room have come up with some tricks. One trick was to use the plastic peanuts that come as packing material. I have tried that, but found I had a mess to deal with the following year when I wanted to reuse the pot but needed to put in new potting soil.

The trick I have found most useful is to use some of the light plastic planting trays for vegetable starts or annuals. They add no weight, but do take up some room, saving a little on potting soil.

Container plantings can be charming or exotic, full of colorful foliage or colorful flowers. They can be near the house, or exclamation points in the garden. It is all a matter of taste and desire.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.

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