Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
April, 2005
Regional Report

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Grow some of your favorite plants in containers so you can enjoy them on your patio, deck, terrace, or balcony all summer long.

Containing Your Enthusiasm

Many gardeners think of container gardens as static creations; pop in a few annuals, give them a little water, then stand back and wait for color. I think of container plantings as flower arrangements to be enjoyed throughout the season. I tend to move my containers around for a change of scenery. It's a little like rearranging the furniture in a room -- same stuff, different viewpoint. There are a few other things to keep in mind when planning your container garden. A group of containers is usually more engaging than one lone pot, and container plantings can extend your garden if placed along walkways or on steps leading to your deck, patio, or front porch.

Choosing the Right Containers
If you've decided to try gardening in containers, don't go out and buy terra cotta or plastic pots until you've gone on a treasure hunt in your attic, basement, or garage. Almost any type of container can be used for planting, as long as it has holes in the bottom for drainage. If none exist and it's not possible to drill holes in the bottom of a container, you can put a layer of pebbles on the bottom and then place plants in plastic pots inside the container.

You can be really creative when choosing containers. Old buckets and watering cans will take on new personalities when planted with brightly colored impatiens, pansies, or marigolds. A toy dump truck spilling over with purple and white alyssum is sure to draw attention when parked on the patio. Or, think how much fun it would be to see creeping charlie cascading from an old birdhouse, yellow and pink flowering sedums poking from a well-worn boot, or wooly thyme and violets springing from an old teapot. Even old Easter baskets, when lined with sphagnum moss and planted with parsley, will look fresh and bright all summer.

If you're using metal containers, choose plants that do not require afternoon sun. Direct sunlight will heat up the container and cook the roots. Regular soil from the garden can dry excessively within the confines of a container, so use a peat moss-based commercial potting mix.

Planting Correctly
When you're ready to plant, fill the container halfway with potting soil, set the plants as you would in a garden bed, and then add soil around the roots. Water well to settle the soil. If you're sowing seeds directly, fill the container about two-thirds with soil, sprinkle seeds on top, lightly cover with potting mix, and water gently. In either case, watering may have to be done daily in summer, and this continued watering will quickly wash nutrients out of the growing medium. To combat this, I feed every other week with a half-strength dilution of liquid fertilizer. It's also important to keep faded blooms pinched off. This encourages more blooms and helps groom the plants.

Winning Combinations
Some gardeners I know are reluctant to choose plant partners because they're afraid the combinations might not look "perfect." For the most part, plants have a happy way of combining well together. In fact, you may be surprised how well you can do if you begin your plant selection by looking for blooms in your favorite color. For example, if you're a red person, all shades of red will go together, but the combination will need an accent, such as blue or white, to give it some zing.

Since I have a penchant for plants with silver or gray foliage, I use these to perk up or tone down my plant combinations. There are as many shades of silver and gray foliage as there are of green. The range goes from almost white through gray to blue-gray, which allows me to craft a design that either commands attention or harmonizes the plantings by providing subtle highlights. I've found that it's hard to go too far wrong in placing silver and gray plants in the garden.

Whether planted in combinations or alone, a few of my favorite plants for containers include:

Nepeta x faassenii 'Select Blue'. This blue catmint has a long period of bloom and the bluest blue flowers I've ever seen. When not in flower, it's a neat mound of foliage with a pleasing fragrance and gray-green color.

Artemisia 'Tangerine'. The soft, ferny foliage looks like it doesn't belong to such an indestructible plant. I think it's invaluable as a fine backdrop to highlight other plants and ornamental grasses. This is a hardy perennial, and when the leaves are brushed, a powerful citrus scent fills the air. I suspect that's why it's called 'Tangerine'.

Salvia x sylvestris 'Blue Hill'. Blue Hill salvia is a knockout performer with a sturdy, compact growth habit and clear blue flowers. It blends well with other plants and seems to highlight the colors of the flowers that surround it.

Lavandula angustifolia 'Graves'. This cultivar of English lavender is taller than many others, with nice upright flower stems and a very long bloom season. The flower spikes are violet-purple, compact, and narrow. I value it most for its gray-green foliage.

Stachys byzantina 'Helen von Stein'. This large-leaved lamb's ear is essentially a non-flowering plant with large, fuzzy, pewter-colored leaves. It makes a superb, large-scale ground cover and combines beautifully with practically any tall perennial with bright, bold flowers.

Helictotrichon sempervirens. I think this blue oat grass is the frosting on the cake for any container garden. The stiff, gray-blue leaves are very striking, and they provide the foundation for the ornamental 4-foot-tall flower spikes that shoot up and ripen to a soft brown by midsummer. I cut mine back in late April to encourage vigorous new growth.

Vary With Veggies
Flowers are great, but don't be afraid to branch out by adding some vegetables and specimen plants to the mix. Cherry tomatoes, carrots, beets, and herbs all generally do well in container gardens.

Most importantly, have fun! Experiment with containers. Fill them with your favorite annuals or combinations you've never tried before. If it doesn't work out, you can dump it out and try something else next season. But you never know. You may come up with a winning combination that you'll use year after year.

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