Container gardens provide instant pizzazz

Florence the flamingo dressed for a party with Anthuriums, Bromeliads and a Phalaenopsis.

We were blessed with an overcast sky and light breeze Saturday when we hosted our annual family reunion. I cherish these gatherings as I remember all the family and some very dear friends that we have lost over the last few years. The year we moved into our new home 16 years ago, we had hosted a family party to welcome the daughter’s new husband. Shortly after that party, we lost three family members, making us grateful we spent time celebrating together. Hosting the annual reunion was my answer to only seeing family at funerals.

Since the party, the weather has gone back to our usual summertime conditions – hot, hot, hot! Unless you have tropicals, it’s hard to have color in the garden. There are two ways to get color in the garden this time of the year – containers or tropical plants.

Container gardens can provide instant pizzazz to a garden. To achieve that dash of excitement to the garden you need to choose containers with character. A container can be anything that will hold soil or water without creating a potential toxic environment for the plants it will hold. We have all seen the old claw foot bathtub used as a water garden. Children’s toy trucks and wagons can make charming succulent gardens. A leaky birdbath can provide a striking accent when filled with interesting succulents.

One of the important ways to make a simple container into a spectacular garden is to match plants to the container. When you choose plants for container gardens, don’t limit yourself to the plants in four-inch pots or six-packs of annuals.

Be adventuresome – choose small trees and shrubs as an element of your container gardens. A single specimen of a redbud or a vitex can make a sunning anchor for a group of potted plants. Most trees and shrubs do not like to be container-bound for too many years. Use them for a season or two, and then move them into the garden.

The key to creating a spectacular container is to figure out how to make them interesting. Whether you’re using containers with bold color or shape or plants with interesting foliage – keep in mind that the combination of the two is what will set your container apart.

When you’re deciding what to plant in a container, consider its shape. A long, narrow container is best when planted with narrow-leaved plants that will emphasize the container’s shape. While low, squat, bowl-shaped container works best with plants of similar shapes.

Consider more than flowers when planting a container. Consider foliage. Interesting foliage acts as a bridge to fill gaps when blooming plants are at rest. A good rule of thumb for planting a mixed container is to plant two-thirds foliage and one-third flowering plants. This will ensure that there will always be something interesting to look at.

The color of the container is important in determining the overall effect. You can choose plants to contrast or to match. Use a color wheel to pick plants with complementary color to provide a striking contrast with the container. A color palette in shades of green with white can be eye-catching with variegated ivy, white caladiums, white impatiens, maidenhair fern and white nicotiana. A vivid blue container filled with plants with pink-tinged foliage and flowers can be stunning. All it takes is a little planning and a color wheel.

A great rule of thumb to use when planting a container is to plant a thriller, filler and a spiller! Use the rule of three or five or when planting – never use even numbers. The same rule applies to height – include something tall for structure and height, medium is the filler and trailing pants for short.

Vertical accents can be a small tree, sansevieria, ornamental grasses, canna, dwarf papyrus, African iris and dracaena. You could even use a vine on a small trellis for your vertical accent. Filler plants are medium – sized plants that round out the container.

Filler plants give containers personality. Color should echo, repeating the color or foliage of the vertical or cascading plant – tying it all together. Excellent plants for fillers include coleus, geranium, caladium, impatiens, penta, salvia and lantana.

Trailing plants are the anchor to the container, giving it a softer look. Some great plants that will cascade over the edge include sweet potato vine, petunia, verbena, ivy dichondra, lamium and sedum.

Once you have assembled your container and plants, fill container with the best potting soil you can afford along with compost. Use a ratio of two parts potting soil to one part compost. If you are using bromeliads add orchid bark to the mix. Begin planting in the center of your container with the dominant plant. This is the focal point – where your eye goes first. Then plant the sides, weaving the plants together with color and texture. Remember to loosen the roots of each plant before placing in the container. Using large plants gives the container an instant finished appearance.

You can take the strain out of moving a large container by assembling it at its growing location. Always use fresh potting soil mix in a clean container. If you are using old pots, treat the insides with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water and rinse. Test to make sure the mix doesn’t harm the container. With large containers, save potting mix by filling bottom third with Styrofoam packing peanuts, crushed soda cans or other light weight material that fills the space but allows the water to drain. Cover these fillers with weed-barrier fabric to prevent soil from settling between the filler.

Before you plant a large container move plants around while they are still in their pots until you find the perfect arrangement. When you’re set, slide plants out of their pots. Place in the soil so the top of their root ball will be about an inch below the lip of the container to ease watering, then fill container with soil mix.

Containers stationed in full sun need more water than a shady pot. During the dog days of August, water daily! If your container is in the shade, water more sparingly. Add diluted fertilizer to a gallon of water and use for best results. Remove old flowers and trim any plant that over grows its neighbors.

Select a container by using materials and architectural details of your house as a guide. Small containers scattered about the wider garden will look lost. For maximum impact, keep these small containers close to the house in places where you have a chance to stop and admire them. Large containers work anywhere.

You can top-dress containers with gravel, crushed shells, attractive pebbles for succulents or heat loving plants. Use hard wood mulch for everything else. This will give your container a finished look while protecting roots from temperature extremes and helps retain moisture.

With a little imagination, you can create a grand entry, a border, a prairie or a jungle with container gardens. You can even have a water garden!

Happy gardening.

Texas Master Gardener Columnist: Down the Garden Path