Containing Your Excitement This Spring

By Suzanne DeJohn

Dark-leaved coleus contrasts with trailing helichrysum and pink verbena in this striking container.

Looking to make a splash with your container plantings this year? Although a planter overflowing with petunias is always attractive, consider branching out this year and trying some new plants and creative combinations. The usual cast of annual flower characters includes geraniums, impatiens and petunias, but have you ever heard of diascia, angelonia, and alternanthera? A few years ago these could only be found at specialty nurseries; now they are showing up in garden centers across the country. So be bold this year, and try something new!

Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing plants:

1. Select plants with differing growth habits. For example, combine spiky grasses with shrubby verbena and cascading sweet potato vine.

2. Make sure plants are compatible. Planting sun-lovers that require excellent drainage with shade- and moisture-loving plants is a recipe for disappointment.

3. Use foliage to your advantage. Choose dark-leaved plants to complement light or bright flowers, or chartreuse-leaved plants to brighten a planting.

4. Consider fragrance, especially if planters will be located near a doorway or window.

Orange-, red-, and yellow-stemmed chard is ornamental and edible. Think Outside the Pot

How about including an ornamental hot pepper in your container planting? Or maybe some 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, with multicolored stems and leaves? Culinary herbs, such as purple sage and bronze fennel, are ornamental, plus a sprig or two can liven up dinner. Edible flowers, such as nasturtium, combine well with herbs, such as purple basil, for an attractive and tasty combo.

Plan for the Seasons

Annual flowers can be categorized as either cool-lovers or heat-lovers. Cool-lovers can withstand light frosts but begin to flag when temperatures soar. Heat-lovers won't tolerate cold but thrive in the heat of summer. Take advantage of these characteristics by planting a succession of crops in your containers. You might start with pansies and dianthus in spring, replace these with verbenas and geraniums in summer, and follow up with chrysanthemums and ornamental kale in autumn.

Purple-flowered verbena and silver-leaved helichrysum make handsome companions. Planting Pointers

No matter what you are planting, your preparations begin with the container and soil. First, make sure your container has drainage holes. If the drainage holes are blocked when the planter is set on a surface, try placing the planter on casters or on a tray of pebbles. The water must be able to drain freely.

Use a high-quality potting soil. Avoid using garden soil, which often drains poorly and may contain disease organisms. You will be asking a lot from your container plants; you want them to flower and thrive all summer, despite having their roots confined to a limited space. So start them off right with a top-quality soil.

Ongoing Care

The main difference between container and garden plantings is that you'll need to water and fertilize container-grown plants more often, since roots are confined. Note that small containers may need watering daily -- even twice daily -- during hot, sunny weather. Most annuals benefit from regular deadheading to promote more blooms.

You'll also need to keep an eye out for insect and disease problems. While container-grown plants are sometimes less vulnerable to pest attack because they receive extra attention and/or are kept at a distance from the rest of the garden, you'll want to examine the foliage and flowers regularly. Many insects can be controlled by simply hosing them off the plants every few days. If this doesn't control the problem, try insecticidal soap.

The benefits of growing in containers are many: You can change out plants and arrange pots to suit your whim; you can place containers right where you want them; city dwellers can enjoy plants on their balconies. Containers are also perfect for experimenting! Try some new plant and container combos this season, and light up your landscape with color and style.

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