Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2007
Regional Report

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These containers have a job to do, and they do it well.

Colossal Containers

On a recent visit to Petaluma, I spied three large, elegant containers parked contentedly alongside the stone wall of an old building. The rounded, urn-shaped containers balanced the tall Camellia japonica shrubs, with their skirts of begonias. The camellias in the pots looked about two years old, and they were in good shape, just a bit dusty. The mounds of begonia plants complemented the pots nicely.

It made me stop and think about what it takes to create a container display that is durable, elegant, and drought resistant. Nobody wants to be a slave to a hose.

The containers weren't particularly fancy, however they did add life and color to an otherwise dreary wall. Their job is guide shoppers to the entrance of a river front boutique. The camellias weren't in bloom, but they were promising to continue adding color throughout the winter. The rhizomatous begonias were blooming their little hearts out . The main shopping street in Petaluma was around the corner. How clever those merchants were to lure shoppers down a secluded side street with a promise of more to come.

What it Takes
To create a permanent container display takes a little forward thinking. Anybody can throw colorful annuals in a pot and have them look good for a season, but to grow plants in the same container year after year is another thing entirely. In the grand estates of England and the Orient, you often see large container plantings perched on top of solitary plinths or stone stairways. The plants they select for these displays must be slow growing so they don't outgrow their environment, attractive and complementary to the setting or architecture, hardy to survive inclement weather, and impervious to insect problems. I have seen arborvitaes used for this purpose, but they seem to succumb to spider mite infestations where there is no truly cold winter to subdue this insidious pest.

Plant Selection
I have a pot growing downstairs that has been thriving in a shady location for the past six years. It is watered irregularly and contains a mother fern (Asplenium bulbiferus), a five-finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum), a few impatiens for color, and a Schefflera arboricola, which needs occasional pruning to stay tidy. The success of this particular container was an accident. It receives little or no fertilizer and has never had any indication of insect pests.

Other plants I would recommend are: jade trees (Crassula ovata), asparagus ferns (A. densiflora 'Myers', A. densiflora 'Sprengeri'), Corokia cotoneaster, holly, purple fountain grass (Pennisetum), lantana, and aeonium. These are a mixed group, mostly sun-loving.

For shade I like Nephrolepis ferns, Aspidistra ferns, and Monstera friedrichsthalii, although the latter tends to grow rather large for containers. When planting, consider the light requirements of each individual variety and plant accordingly. Never mix shade-loving plants with those that require sun. One or the other will be the loser.

Make sure you use a premium planting mix. My personal favorite is SunGold Potting Soil, which is what many commercial growers use. It drains quickly and is packed with organic matter. Always leave the top 1 inch of the root ball above the surface of the soil to allow for maximum drainage. Add a slow-release, balanced fertilizer at planting time, if you wish.

I see a lot of people using the popular ground cover bacopa in containers. It always looks leggy and in need of pruning. I don't recommend it. Stick with the tough guys and save yourself hours of work.

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