Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
May, 2004
Regional Report

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To give the container planting a nice, rounded crown, place the plants along the sides at a 45-degree angle.

Container Gardening

For 17 years I created and maintained the container plants at Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park, so I have some tips to share with you for building your own "gardens in a pot":

Container Basics
First, the pot. It should be large because big pots don't need to be watered as often and you can jam lots of plants into them. The minimum size is 14 inches, 16 inches is perfect, and anything over 18 inches can't be moved unless you have the services of three men and a boy.

I prefer terra cotta, always have. I love the mossy, weathered look it gets after a few years. And you absolutely, positively must have a saucer. The saucer collects the run-off water, which will provide humidity to the plants -- imperative during the dry summer months. I always set the container up on 2 x 4 blocks inside the saucer so the bottom of the pot doesn't sit in water.

Always use fresh, new potting soil. Don't skimp here. Even if you have to use a plastic pot instead of terra cotta, use a premium potting soil. Your plants are going to have to live in this medium for a long time, so do them -- and yourself -- a favor and start with the best. Mix in a handful of slow-release fertilizer prior to planting.

Drainage hole technology has changed over the years. In the past, we always covered the drain hole with broken pottery shards. Now, plastic window screen is preferred because it allows water to drain freely and keeps the soil in and the insects out. It's cheap too.
Select the location for your container garden prior to planting. Once filled with soil and plants, pots get very heavy.

Here's a tip to save weight: If you are planting annuals in a deep pot, fill the bottom half with styrofoam peanuts, cover the peanuts with landscape fabric so the soil won't fall through, then fill with potting soil. The roots of most annual plants only go down 8 to 12 inches, so the soil in the bottom of the pot is wasted. This only works for annuals, but it's a good tip if you are gardening on a deck where weight is a consideration.

Plant Choices
Select plants appropriate to the site, e.g., full sun, shady, partial sun. The wonderful thing about container gardening is that you can have a collection of plants that would otherwise be difficult to cultivate. You can adjust the soil, water, and light as you choose.

At Sunset magazine we would jam as many plants into the big pots as we could. In an 18-inch pot, there might be as many as 45 individual plants of different varieties -- a mixture of annuals and perennials. Color was always a consideration. I used dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) to add contrast to the color mix. Coleus was a favorite in shade containers; the bright foliage color contrasted perfectly with many flowers and looked elegant with any type of fern.

As you are planting, check to make sure you have left room between the surface of the soil and the rim of the pot for water. Adjust by removing soil if necessary; you will thank me later.

Creating a Rounded Look
To give the pot a rounded look, or a crown as I call it, the plants along the sides should be planted at a 45-degree angle. You sort of lay them over the rim of the container, then cover the root ball. If you don't use this sideways planting technique, your plants will be standing up like little soldiers.

I always finished a pot with trailing plants to cascade over the side. Lobelia, ivy, asparagus fern, asparagus 'Meyerii', wave petunias, or alyssum all work well as trailers.

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