Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Gem of a Geranium

In this digital age, we can sometimes be disappointed to learn that the picture is way better than the real thing. With technology we can trim the edges, blur the lines and enhance the colors to the point that the image hardly bears a resemblance to the actual subject. But let me tell you, this flower is the real deal. I stumbled on it at the nursery and all the information on the label fit my criteria for an excellent container plant but I had no idea until last week, how amazing the flower would be.

This is a Cranesbill hardy geranium called 'Ann Folkard'. The stunning magenta bloom is about 1 to 1-1/2" in diameter. It's a leggy looking plant so it makes a good trailer. This is the first year I've grown it so I can't say a lot about it with authority. The best I can do is offer the specs and then revisit later in the year to see if it continues to be as fabulous as it appears to be now.

Ann Folkard is hardy to zone 5 which is great for me since I'm a zone 7 and if a plant can withstand two zones colder, there's a good chance it will return the following year in a container. It likes sun to part shade and blooms June to October (music to my ears). It has a spreading habit and can get to be 24" high to 36" wide. The fact that it's in a pot might very well tame that growth tendency. I think it makes a good companion plant because it sort of likes to wind its way up and around the other plants which makes for a very interesting arrangement. My information tells me that it is not bothered by any of the usual pests. Altogether a beautiful plant--no retouching necessary.

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some Words about Watering

My container garden has anywhere from 25 to 30 pots each year. One would think that by now, I would have invested in a drip irrigation system to save myself the trouble of thoroughly watering each container every day (and sometimes twice a day) in the summer. But one would be wrong because I water the old fashioned way, with a hose and a sprayer. I had a nice surprise waiting for me one morning this week because my husband bought me a new, really cool water wand. It has about 10 settings and the force of the water stream can be adjusted by a little lever at the base. A similar one can be found on Amazon or probably in just about any hardware store. Very handy.

One reason I have not installed drip irrigation is that watering by hand each morning affords me the opportunity to inspect each plant to see how it's faring, if there are any pests bothering it or if it needs any extra attention. I would probably not take the time to scrutinize that closely if I had a system that automatically did the watering for me.

Of course, manually watering is a fair amount of extra work and in the dog days of summer, if I'm not out there before about 8:30 a.m., I can be drenched in sweat in less than five minutes. If that's how I feel, I can only imagine how my plants are suffering. My point is, in the heat, plants, like people, need lots and lots of water. Here are some things to remember:

The smaller the pot, the more frequently it needs to be watered.

Avoid overhead watering, you need to get the water down into the soil so it can really get to the roots.

Try to elevate all containers using plant stands or pot feet so that there is good air circulation underneath.

Soak the pot until you see water dripping out from the holes you are supposed to have at the bottom. (see post: Let's Talk About Pots)

It's always best to water early in the morning so that any water that might get on the leaves has a chance to evaporate. This minimizes the risk of fungal diseases.

Just because it rains, doesn't mean you're in the clear. Check the pots anyway because the rain may not have been sufficient to get through the foliage and soak way down into the soil.

Be extra vigilant about watering when plants are first put in soil because that's what they need to establish strong root systems.

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Sunday, May 25, 2008

What's Not to Like?

My friend Barbara detests coleus, in all its forms. She despises it with a vigor and passion most people reserve only for beets and brussels sprouts. Myself, I incorporate it into my containers not because I have any particular love for it but because it is such a convenient filler. I've generally been ambivalent where coleus is concerned. But I really began to rally around it, to champion its cause when I learned how much Barbara disliked it. I even went so far as to send her a link on Amazon to a book that was devoted exclusively to coleus. She laughed.

But I'm going to take one more stab at swaying her opinion by introducing her to a type of coleus I discovered today called 'Fishnet Stockings'. You've got to love that name. And the colors: a deep, deep purple and a lime-y green. The combination of colors could not be more perfect. What a great companion for all manner of containers including the all-foliage one I planted today. This terra cotta pot is about 16 inches in diameter and in it I planted the following: Coleus 'Fishnet Stockings' (1); Creeping Jenny (1); Sweet Potato Vine 'Margarita' (2); Thyme 'Hi Ho Silver' (2); Japanese Silver Grass (1); Purple Sage (1); Ajuga (Bugleweed) (1).

Fishnet Stockings.....what's not to like?

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Old Favorite

This is one of my favorite things to plant in. I bought it about six years ago from the White Flower Farm catalog. I checked a couple of weeks ago, hoping to get another one, but they must not be selling it anymore. Our local nursery has containers that sort of resemble this so I might have to check them out. Anyway, anytime you have a container or hanging basket that you can't put soil directly in, you need to incorporate some sort of material that will keep the soil contained. Here, I've used coconut husk that was made into a bowl shape. It cost about $2.99. I then filled with potting mix and some time release fertilizer. Since this container is only about 8 inches in diameter and the structure of it is more elegant than a big old terra cotta pot, you want to consider plants that are a little less bold and dramatic. For this, I chose three plants:

Whisper Salmon Red Diascia. This will be the first year I've planted this. I read the label and it said that it blooms all season, requires full sun and reaches 7-10" tall. Worth a try.

Heuchera Key Lime Pie: Heuchera is one of my all-time favorite perennials. I have never had it fail me. It does have tall spiky blooms in the spring but I buy it for the foliage which comes in all kinds of colors. Better yet, it is hardy to zone 4 so when I plant it in pots, it always returns the following year. Heuchera requires part sun/part shade.

Creeping Wire Vine: This is a great trailer and creates a dense mat of foliage. It needs full or partial sun so obviously, it's not very picky.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Now You're Cooking

One of the many cool things about having my garden on my deck is it's just outside our kitchen and I can go out there (while the garlic and onions are simmering in the olive oil on my stove) and trim a few herbs to toss in whatever I'm making. If you cook a lot with herbs, you know what a difference it makes. And if you never have, give it a try--maybe just start with one or two. I'm pretty sure I'm saving myself a small fortune. Fresh herbs at the grocery store are expensive, they are in limited quantities and you have to use them within a specified period of time otherwise they cease to be fresh. If you grow your own, you have an unlimited supply during the entire growing season.

Usually I'll choose one fairly large pot to plant a bunch of different herbs, and then I'll buy additional herbs to integrate into my other regular mixed containers. They make great companion plants. In the first picture below, I'm just trying to gauge how many I can reasonably put in one container. It's important to allow for growth and I happen to know from past experience that herbs like Italian parsley and basil are prolific growers. But if you use them almost every day like I do, the constant harvesting will keep them in check. The one herb that I did not include in this group is oregano. It needs a home of its own because it is a fast, aggressive and invasive grower.

So once I have sort of eyeballed how many will fit, I just plant them right in. After, of course, I have made arrangements for proper drainage with holes at the bottom of the container and a layer of some sort of material like gravel, broken pot shards or styrofoam peanuts to facilitate the drainage. In the potting mix, I've tossed in a couple of tablespoons of Osmocote time release fertilizer as well. Note: herbs need plenty of sun so make sure they are exposed to six or more hours. Morning sun to early afternoon sun is ideal.

Here's the rundown on what's I planted here: rosemary, bay leaf (slow grower), Italian (flat leaf) parsley, chives, golden sage, thyme, basil and purple sage. Each one came in a little 3-inch nursery pot and cost me about $3.99. I bought most of them at a nursery but a couple at Home Depot (those may have been a little less expensive). As much as I use them, I figure my payback period for this entire bunch is about a week.

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading the Label

At the nursery, temptation lurks on every shelf and around every corner. I can be drawn in by the shape of a plant's foliage, the color of its bloom or some altogether inexplicable reason. Over time I've learned to build up my resistance and approach the purchase of a plant with a somewhat cooler head. It requires taking a breath, pulling out that little tag that's stuck in the pot and reading it. It is the information on the tag that will tell you whether you and that plant will live in happy harmony when you get it home or if it will soon perish, leaving you sad, dejected and wondering what went wrong.

When reading the tag, the first thing I look at is the exposure requirement. There are sections of my deck that are full sun (six or more hours of direct sunlight) and other sections that are part sun/part shade (around three or four hours of sun). So if the plant I am so enamored with requires full shade (less than 3 hours of light), I just need to walk on by. I advise you to do the same.

Next, if I'm looking at a plant that produces flowers, I consider bloom period. I love lilacs and peonies as much as anyone but I never grow them because their bloom time, while spectacular, is just entirely too short. My ideal is a bloom period of spring until fall (May to October) but I'll settle for June to August if I have to.

I also am interested in whether or not I'm going to have to add a lot of esoteric ingredients to the soil, or use some special sort fertilizer or other high-maintenance sort of thing. I just can't appreciate an overly fussy plant, no matter how pretty it is. The use of ordinary potting mix and the occasional application of a water soluble fertilizer is about all I'm willing to do.

Finally, I determine what my objective is for the plant. If it's a perennial, do I really want to try and have it return every year? If so, I check the Hardiness Zone. I live in a zone 7 and my rule of thumb for perennials that I want to make a repeat appearance is to make sure they are a zone 5. That's still no guarantee, but it's worked pretty well for me so far. Of course, I don't plant them in itty bitty pots either because there needs to be enough soil and space to protect it from exposure to the winter elements.

Remember, the folks at the nurseries are there for a reason. Where I shop, they are nothing less than brilliant. You may not encounter that level of expertise at a big box store but that's okay. If you find a plant you like that has a name label but lacks the details, go inside the store and find the book or magazine section and see if you can look up the plant profile by name. Otherwise, my advice would be to wait until you can get more information before you plunk down your money. In the end, you'll be happy you did.

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Planting Technique: Mandevilla

I've been waiting for the nighttime temperatures to stabilize because it's risky to plant a mandevilla outside (in nontropical climates, that is) unless the thermometer consistently reads above 55F at night. Determining that I was in the clear, I potted it up a few days ago.

Mandevilla is a very rapid climber, in fact, I swear if you stand next to it long enough, it will begin to wrap itself around your leg. So it's important that it be given ample room to climb. When you buy these plants, they will already be attached to some sort of structure. I buy them when they are small and not too intertwined with the plastic trellis that comes with the pot. It's also possible to buy a substantially larger one that has a taller and wider (probably wooden) trellis attached. At that point, the work is done for you. But I like serious vertical interest in my container garden so I'm going to let mine climb up a 7ft tall by 2ft wide iron trellis. It will be interesting to see what it looks like at the end of the summer.

Mandevillas range in price. I saw a small one at Home Depot yesterday for only $7.99. The one shown in my pictures was $10.00. Larger plants can cost more than $20. I have never tried to overwinter my mandevilla, mainly because I don't have a good place to keep it. But my friend Chris has met with much success by bringing hers in sometime around late September/early October and leaving it in her laundry room. It does need to be exposed to light. I am told that it will begin to look very sad over the winter (it must be kept damp but you shouldn't have to regularly water it) but not to worry, it will bounce back. Hers is coming up on its fourth year.

So I've included some pictures of my planting technique. First thing is drainage: my pot has holes in the bottom and I added the styrofoam peanuts. Next add potting mix and sprinkle some time release fertilizer (like Osmocote). Then, carefully remove the plant from the nursery pot, loosen the roots and plant it in the new soil. Don't pack the soil down hard. Water it, let the soil settle and maybe the next day, add a little more soil if need be.

The mandevilla will be put on the back side of my trellis so I wasn't all that interested in buying a nice pot for it. In the front of the trellis will be a very large pot containing a rose shrub and some other plants so the trellis with the climbing mandevilla will serve as a backdrop for the rose. At least, that's how I've envisioned it. We'll see what really happens.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

First Big Shopping Trip

The rains have been relentless since Thursday. There was a little break in the clouds on Sunday so I made a quick trip to the nursery thinking I might be able to check a few things off of my shopping list. Once I arrived, I had to move quickly because it looked like the sky was going to open up any minute. Thank goodness I had a list otherwise I would have been distracted by the endless selection. If you are a gardener in Northern Virginia and you have never been to Merrifield Garden Center (the one on Lee Highway in particular), you need to drop everything, get in your car and go. But don't say I didn't warn you. As for me, I was fortunate on Sunday that the weather was begining to turn sour again because it caused me to cut my trip short so I got out of there with only one shopping cart full of plants. I did start to do a little planting today because we got another reprieve from the rain so I will be posting those pictures next time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


There are a whole lot of books out there about container gardening. I know, because I've bought my fair share. I'll tell you which ones I've held onto and refer to frequently and as I come across new ones, I'll add to the list.

Gardens To Go: Creating and Designing a Container Garden by Sydney Eddison. This lady is just amazing. She has written numerous books on gardening but this one is, of course, my favorite. It covers all of the basics from choosing containers and plants to arranging, maintaining and overwintering. The picture of that rooftop garden on page 29 is phenomenal.

P. Allen Smith's Container Gardens. All of Smith's books are
beautifully produced and photographed.

This book contains "recipes" for containers that you can plant in each season.
He's not afraid to really cram the plants together so that you can have instant impact. I often look at his diagrams and think there's no way all those plants will fit, but they do and they look amazing.

Container Gardening by Paul Williams. This is a very practical guide that does a great job of showing you how to marry plants with pots. He schools you on color, texture and proportion. This would be the book I'd go to if I was trying to make a major style statement with maybe just a container or two (or three).

The Ultimate Container Gardener by Stephanie Donaldson.
This book is where I got the idea to use a wooden wine case as a container. She used hers to plant various herbs, which I have done in past years, but last year I also used one to grow different types of lettuces. The

book is filled with all kinds of creative projects and
includes step-by-step directions.

Container Plants for Patios, Balconies and Windowsills by Halina Heitz. I like this book's fairly comprehensive section on the myriad of plants that are suitable for containers. Unfortunately, it may be a bit difficult to find. It's available via various sellers on Amazon. Worth it if you can find it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Color Coordination

Today's weather was not conducive to plant shopping. It's been pouring rain, windy and chilly so I've postponed my shopping trip. I hope to get out there on Sunday. Meanwhile, I was digging through my gardening books and supplies and rediscovered this handy tool that beginning gardeners might appreciate. Often times, beginning gardeners don't trust their own eyes when it comes to selecting plants and coordinating colors. Sometimes it seems like more of a challenge when you are planting a container because everything is jammed in there so close and it can be much more startling if competing colors are battling it out in such a small space.

My first piece of advice would be to trust your own eye because you probably won't go too wrong. But if you need a crutch, or just a handy tool to inspire you to think outside your usual realm of color combinations, here's what I recommend: The Gardener's Color Wheel. It's pretty much an artist's color wheel but tweaked a little bit for a gardener's use. It comes with a booklet that reviews the vocabulary of color, explains contrast and harmony and offers color scheme ideas. The wheel can be found for about $15 at the Color Wheel Company .

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Organizing Supplies

Yesterday I bought a few things from GardenMasters, a vendor that sets up a temporary tent for about six weeks in the local Whole Foods parking lot. But my big shopping will be this Friday at the nursery located about 20 minutes from our house. In the meantime, I've gathered some of the tools and supplies I'll be using. As the picture indicates, it really doesn't take a whole lot to get started.
First, a pot, or some other type of container that can hold soil and water. The size of the pot depends on the amount of space you have and how much watering you really want to do. If you are just going to do a one pot container garden for your front door entryway, go for a good size pot in which you can plant a number of things so that you can make a real statement. You want it to be noticed. The pot shown here would be ideal to put by our front door. It's about 20 inches in diameter. Be sure you can provide drainage so if your container does not have holes at the bottom, you'll have to drill them but be sure you can safely do this without destroying or compromising the support of the pot.

Second, to facilitate drainage, to lighten the overall weight of the pot, and to minimize the amount of potting soil you'll need, you'll want to fill the bottom of the pot with material such as styrofoam peanuts. A pot as deep as the one shown here does not need to be filled entirely with soil--that ends up being heavy and expensive! Plus most plants (including perennials) do not need all of that room to establish a root system. Pot feet also help with drainage because they elevate the pot by an inch or so. I have a large supply of terra cotta ones that cost about $.99 each. You'll need at least three for a round pot, four for a square or rectangular pot.

Of course you'll need potting soil. With the twenty-five or more pots that I have, I'm obviously going to need quite a bit. Be sure to buy potting soil or potting mix but not garden soil--and definitely don't take soil out of your flowerbeds and put them in your pots. Potting mixes are less compact and contain compost, peat moss and other ingredients to facilitate the growth of the plant's root system. Don't go the cheap route, because your plants are only as good as the soil they are grown in. Also, a soil scoop would be handy or you can just use the two scoops nature gave you.

I usually mix in some time release fertilizer such as Osmocote®. I sprinkle a tablespoon or so in the top layer of potting mix before I put in my plants. A few times during the summer I will also use a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro (shown in blue bag).

I rarely use gardening gloves but I'm also forever scrubbing and cleaning my hands and fingernails. You can decide for yourself. When dealing with roses, you'll want to consider gauntlets because you'll want to be protected up to your elbows.

And finally, pruners and/or scissors which I discussed in my April 30th post.

All of the supplies you need can be found at any nursery or big box store so you can count on one-stop shopping.

Over the next week or so, as I begin to plant, I'll be revisiting much of what I've talked about today and showing step by step pictures so you'll know exactly what to do to get your own container garden started.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Container Design Contest

I've been a long-time reader of Fine Gardening Magazine. No matter what type of gardener you are, you will find something in each issue that will teach you something new and inspire you to try something different. The gorgeous photography alone is enough to make you want to immediately start digging in the dirt.

For several years now, the magazine has conducted a container garden contest in which a theme is presented and readers are encouraged to send in their entries. Last year's theme was "Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers", a perfect formula by the way, to keep in mind when designing any container. The June 2008 issue presents the winner and finalists in that contest and I was fortunate to have one of my containers featured as one of the top 10 finalists. My objective was to show that all it takes is a little pot (mine was about 8 inches in diameter and equally as tall) and a few plants to have a terrific looking little garden. In this pot are one of each of the following (clockwise from top of pot): Pink Angelonia (thriller); 'Profusion Orange' Zinnia (filler); Golden Creeping Jenny (spiller); Variegated Sage (filler). I found them all at my local nursery but I bet you anything your area big box store stocks these plants.

The theme for the 2008 Container Design Challenge is "Create a Water Garden in a Pot". Details for entry can be found in Fine Gardening magazine or online.

This week I'll begin my big shopping for my garden. Let's see how well I stick to my budget.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Arrival of Cecile Brunner

Three summers ago, I tried growing a rose in a container. It did fine that year but the following year, it was just weak and spindly. Unfortunately, it didn't make it. Perhaps I did not sufficiently protect the pot from the winter elements or maybe I didn't prune it properly, it could have been anything. I just figured that roses were way too fussy and I'm a pretty low-maintenance kind of gardener. So I was talking to my gardener friend Barbara and she asked me if I had heard about Antique Rose Emporium. I hadn't and I was all ears. It's a company that specializes in old roses, which is to say, roses that have stood the test of time and, more importantly, neglect. They can thrive in the poorest of conditions and are said to be exceedingly resistant to pests and typical rose ailments such as blackspot. Plus, they don't require excessive pruning. Well, this checked all my boxes so with the help of their knowledgeable staff, I ordered two.

The first is what I hope will be a successful climber. The second, Cecile Brunner, arrived today. As you can see, it was very carefully packaged and the box included the Emporium's informative catalog. If you want a rose that climbs, that's ideal for containers, that will grow 4 feet or 40 feet, that can withstand partial shade, that's extra cold hardy, it would appear that they've got the rose for you. Be advised, they only ship from mid-September to mid-May. Cecile Brunner is a shrub that will reach 4 feet and is supposed to bloom mid-spring until frost. My kind of plant. I'll keep you updated on the progress. I certainly hope this time around, I have more success.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Save a Few Bucks

My recent order from Smith & Hawken just arrived. I ordered a trellis because I want to grow a couple of climbing plants for some vertical interest in my garden. I have found it to be a great way to make maximum use of a small space. This technique works not just for gardens but for housing which is how I got the idea in the first place because I live in Northern Virginia near D.C. where space is at a premium and townhomes are everywhere.

Anyway, with my order came some promotional codes that offer 10% savings on purchases through June 1st, 2008. If you order online, the code is WEB192. If ordering by phone, mention SPR308. I've been a customer for years and now am lucky to have a couple of stores within driving distance. The selection of pots and planters is very nice and they have an amazing array of tools and gardening supplies. I have my eye on that Rustic Mossy Urn......