Sunday, June 29, 2008

Virginia is for Lovers

That's according to the Travel and Tourism Board. Whether it's true or not is a topic for debate but one thing I can tell you is Virginia is definitely for Gardeners. By my count, three out of every five Virginians are sporting a green thumb. The remaining two have the makings for one, even if they don't yet know it. That's where I come in because I think anyone can put together a simple, attractive garden in a container and keep it alive all season long without much effort.

So for my friends and neighbors here in Virginia who are ready to release their inner gardener and have asked me where to go to get started, I have a few places to recommend:

Merrifield Garden Center: I shudder to think of what the final amount would be if I were to tally up all of my receipts over the years. Merrifield has managed to round up some of the smartest gardening folks I've ever come across. And what's even better is that they are always so eager to help experienced and novice gardeners alike. Their enthusiasm never wanes. Although they have a website, nothing can equal a personal visit to one of the three stores. I'm loyal to the one in Fairfax because it is just huge. If they don't have the plant, pot, tool or gardening product you're looking for, my guess is, you just don't need it.

Big box stores: Some of the more accomplished gardeners I know are quick to dismiss the big box stores. There was a time when that snobbery might have been legitimate. But believe me, Home Depot and Lowe's are not stupid. They have seen how the gardening industry has exploded in recent years and they have been particularly responsive to the increasing number of people who have developed an interest in container gardening. Now I will say that I've noticed they don't quite give their plants the same tender, loving care that you might find at a local nursery so midway through the season you are liable to see some pretty sad looking specimens. My advice is always to shop carefully no matter where you plan to spend your money. And if you want lightweight, fantastic looking faux terra cotta planters and aged urns, the selection has improved dramatically in recent years.

Target: Most folks have a store nearby and it is a great place to pick up some gardening supplies and containers--especially if you are new to gardening. I say this because it won't cost you an arm and a leg so you can tiptoe into the gardening waters to see if you like them (you will, I promise). After that, you can graduate to the fancier supplies if you wish. There's also a great selection of planters and containers in the store and on the website.

Depending on where you live, you might have a small local nursery near your neighborhood. It may be a permanent store or a temporary structure. For example, there is a huge tent that sets up in the parking lot near our local Whole Foods store in Springfield. The vendor is called GardenMasters and has no affiliation (that I know of) to Whole Foods. It is really a good sized operation for being temporary and they open up shop in mid-April and close in late June every year. It has a remarkable selection and I do quite a bit of shopping there. Driving around various parts of Northern Virginia, I see similar vendors everywhere though sometimes they may be in a parking lot near a school. Definitely check them out and if it's a temporary location, find out when they are going to close up shop because during the days leading up to that is when they start slashing prices.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ways to Spend Your Stimulus Check

I've had some people ask me to talk about where I shop for my plants, containers and gardening supplies. Typically I do a combination of online shopping and bricks and mortar. In this post I'll talk primarily about Internet sources. I've ordered from all of these sites (with the exception of one--I'll get to that later) and so I am speaking from my own experience.

Antique Rose Emporium: This Texas company specializes in old roses and I have mentioned them in previous posts. I have been thrilled so far with the two roses that I bought this season: Graham Thomas and Cecile Brunner. The Emporium has an entire category of roses that are particularly well suited for containers. If you want to try growing roses but don't know where to start, these are the folks to call.

White Flower Farm: Based in Connecticut, this nursery has every plant, flower and bulb you can imagine and then some. I've shopped with them for years and I have never been disappointed. They stand behind their product and will replace your plant or refund your money without any hassles. Also, their catalog is so informative that you'll always want to keep a copy on hand for reference.

Logee's Tropical Plants: One of the editors from Fine Gardening magazine clued me into this website. Here you'll find exotic and unusual plants and flowers. Honestly, some of them do not even seem to be of this world so check them out if you are looking for attention-getters. They have a summer sale going on now through July 31st if you need any additional encouragement.

Smith & Hawken: This is the place for all of the gardening accoutrements. I'm fortunate to have an actual store nearby but their website is a great source for tools (including my favorite Felco pruners), trellises (if you have climbers), planters, watering cans and lots of other supplies.

The Felco Store: The website has the entire collection of Felco products. They even have pruners for southpaws and those with small hands. I love that all inclusive philosophy.

Seibert & Rice (for drooling purposes only): I add this to the list not because I can speak about them with any sort of authority because the pots are way (way) out of my price range. But these are the pots of my gardening dreams. This company imports handmade terra cotta urns and planters from Impruneta, Italy. They are said to be frost proof to -20F and they are utterly gorgeous. I'm not so sure I'd even want to put dirt in them. You'll have to email them for a pricelist and as the saying goes: "If you have to ask...."(well, you know the rest). Never have truer words been said.

Target: On the more economical tip, Target's website and stores have very large and attractive planters, many of which are made out of molded fiberglass and I know from experience that they can be left out all winter long (with plants in them). Also, the store carries a line of Smith & Hawken products. They are not quite the quality that I have found in the actual Smith & Hawken store but the prices are lower and I find that to be a very fair trade-off. Finally, they have Bionic gardening gloves. I bought a pair for my mom last year from a different website and I'm not sure what her final word is on them. So Mama, if you are reading this, send in a comment to let the readers know.

West County Gardener: The coolest (and most functional) gloves around. I don't wear gardening gloves often but when I do, these are the ones. I have the Classic Glove in a wonderful berry color and the Rose Gauntlet. They wash and dry like a dream.

Next post, I'll discuss some local shopping for readers who live in Northern Virginia.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Filling the Gaps

A mixed planting looks complete when there is a focal point (perhaps even a little drama), a plant or plants spilling over the edges (to make it look like the container has been around a while), and a few things in between to fill in the gaps. My previous posts have addressed the first two elements and in this post, I'll discuss the third: "Fillers".

Almost any plant or flower will do in the role of filler so the objective is to consider the entire planting and aim for proportion and a cohesive look. There is no real formula so I just trust my eyes. You can pretty much tell right off the bat whether something looks weird.

Sometimes I might try to coordinate the colors of the mixed group. For example, I may pick up a foliage plant that has a mix of green, yellow and pink in its leaves (there are certain coleus that have this combination) and that will be my starting point for choosing the remaining elements for the container. Or I might try to vary leaf shapes, for instance, my thriller might be the long, pointy leaves of a Red Cordyline so I may choose fillers and spillers that have more rounded shaped leaves. Or I may consider introducing a different texture such as the fuzzy foliage of a Lamb's Ear plant and combine it with a plant that has smooth, shiny leaves.

Keep in mind that you really want to maximize the space of your container so that might mean choosing several fillers. They don't all have to be different, in fact, it might be best to choose two different plants and just buy multiples of them, that way you won't get too overwhelmed. And once again, my gentle reminder that all plants in the group need to have similar requirements for sunlight and water.

Each season I like to plant things that I've never tried before but there are some fillers that I go back to time and again because they are so reliable:

Coreopsis Moonbeam--delicate yellow flowers on airy foliage. Hardy to zone 4, it returns for me every year and it takes well to dividing and transplanting from one pot to another.

Coleus--I've become a fan despite my friend Barbara's vehement opposition to it. Shown in the photo at the beginning of this post, it comes in so many different varieties with foliage options that can help even the most color-challenged gardener coordinate a great looking container.

Geranium--the great thing about geraniums is you can find them absolutely everywhere, they bloom nonstop and love the sun.

Gaura--light, airy flowers on tall, thin stems. Blooms all season and mine return faithfully every year.

Also consider Butterfly Bush as fillers for large containers, New Guinea Impatiens for continuous bloom in shadier areas, Zinnia and Dahlia for color all season long, Heuchera for dependable perennial foliage, and herbs such as Sage for foliage interest (and for cooking--no pork, turkey or roast should be without it!).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Star Attraction

In the same way it would make sense to decide on your main course before choosing the side dishes, it occurs to me that I probably should have addressed the "Thriller" category prior to discussing spillers. Then again, I tend to seek out the mashed potatoes on the menu first and then decide which entree would make the best accompaniment so I guess I'm in keeping with my usual M.O.

Now back to our container "recipe" which I so wish I could take credit for but if I recall, it was a gardener and writer by the name of Steve Silk who should have all rights to the patent on the phrase. It was his article in Fine Gardening magazine that really started me on the road to seeing container plantings in a different way.

Recall that the thriller in the mixed container is the plant whose aim it is to grab your attention and reel you in. It is characterized by its height and/or its large and distinct foliage and/or its dramatic bloom. It should be, in some way, visually and structurally compelling.

In my opinion, the mother of all thrillers is the Red Abyssinian Banana plant. I'm sure you'll agree as you consider the picture in the upper left hand corner of this post. The photo was taken midsummer last year and, ultimately, the plant reached about nine feet in height. I had it in a good-sized terra cotta pot so I can only imagine how large it would have gotten had I opted for an even bigger container. It is a tropical, therefore, it cannot withstand the cold but I did not go through the trouble of overwintering it inside as I had absolutely nowhere to put it. However, it is my understanding that given the right conditions, preserving it during the winter months is a fairly easy thing to do provided you have space for a nine foot (or larger) plant. I bought another one this year for only $6.99 at the local nursery and I fully expect a similar performance. Some other thrillers:

Canna--another tropical that you can find early in the season in the form of tubers (its "preplant" form that you plant a few inches beneath the soil surface and it begins to sprout and grow into a mature plant). Or you can wait for the nursery to do that work for you, therefore you are guaranteed that a plant actually results. The canna bloom is spectacular but the banana-like foliage is stunning in its own right, sufficient to warrant a role in any container. Again, it won't survive the winter outside unless you are so fortunate as to live in zone 10 or 11.

Ornamental Grasses--of these, Pennisetum Rubrum or Purple Fountain Grass is my favorite. The foliage and the purple-red feather plumes that the plant produces sway in the most appealing way when the breeze blows. Definitely give this one a try.

Red Cordyline--long, sturdy leaves that are deep red and spiky. This plant makes a terrific centerpiece for a mixed container.

Mandevilla--the thriller can also be a climber. I love mandevilla and I have it in a large pot in which I have also put a sturdy wire trellis. I let the mandevilla climb and I fill the space at the base of the trellis with other plants. It never disappoints. But be sure it gets plenty of sun, lots of water and surround it with other plants that have the same or very similar requirements.

There are lots of plants out there to fill the thriller role. Some others that I've used: Japanese Maple, rose shrubs, purple salvia, colocasia (elephant ear), and in one very small arrangement that I planted, the thriller was angelonia.

Bookshelf: Container Gardening Books

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


In my last post, I talked about the "recipe" that I keep in mind when planting a mixed container or when arranging a grouping of pots. To be visually appealing, one would need a dramatic, preferably tall focal point, a plant (or plants) that trail or spill and then several plants that go in between to fill the empty spaces. So I thought I might make some suggestions for plants that would be appropriate for each category. In this post, I'll address spillers.

My all-time favorite I-would-die-if-it-ever-went-out-of-existence spiller is (say it with me) Creeping Jenny (also known as Lysimachia nummularia). Shown here, it's hardy to zone 3 so it comes back every year in my containers, it's a rapid grower and starts tumbling over the edges of my pots by mid-June. It seems to do well no matter where I put it on my deck whether it's in full sun or shaded by the leaves of my Japanese Maple. It takes all I have not to put it in every single one of my pots. But I have more suggestions and these should all be readily available:

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas)--some sophisticated gardeners would consider this a very pedestrian choice. That's just fine with me, I go with what works. I grow it every year and I love seeing the leaves spilling over the pots and stretching across my deck. By July, I am chopping these back every couple of weeks, that's how prolific they are. You can get different versions (colors) so there are options in terms of coordinating them with the colors of your other plants. Look for Marguerite, Sweet Caroline and Blackie. These are annual so don't look for them to come back next year.

Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia)--tiny flowers with a good spreading habit and it also reseeds. I will say that it doesn't perform the best in really hot weather but hang in there because when the dog days are over, it will bounce back and look great. Can usually be found in white, lavendar and pink.

Scaevola (or Fan Flower)--another annual, this baby loves the heat and seems to thrive on neglect, I love that in a plant. It grows 12 to 18 inches and cascades beautifully over your pot. I see them in white and in purple and invariably I buy the purple.

Thyme--just walk through the herb section of your nursery and you'll see all different kinds of thyme from English to lemon to coconut. Pick your favorite and plant it. It's a great spiller and the best part is, you can cut it and use it when you cook and the plant will continue to produce all season long.

So those are my "go-to" spillers. There are tons more including all kinds of ivy, although, be careful with those because they can sometimes be invasive. Also look for verbena, lamium and creeping wire vine. Just read the tag--usually it will say something like "makes a good trailing plant for hanging baskets and containers". If you see that wording and you like the plant (and you can provide the appropriate amount of sun/shade) then by all means, slap down that credit card.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tickled Pink

The pink and yellow foliage of the Magilla Perilla Purple is what jumped out at me at the nursery and thus began my afternoon's obsession with filling yet another container. I had not originally intended to go all pink, it just happened that way and I'm really hoping this combination works out. This arrangement will be planted in a wide, squat terra cotta pot that's about sixteen inches in diameter. In it I am planting the following: Creeping Jenny (2); New Guinea Impatiens Sonic Bright Pink (1); Verbena Quartz Rose (2); Veronica Red Fox (2); and Perilla Magilla Purple (1). The Creeping Jenny and the Veronica are both perennial so I will have to make a plan for those over the winter. Because the pot is terra cotta, I will not be able to leave it out all winter without risk of cracking. So what I might do is remove those two plants and transplant them into any one of my non-clay pots that might have some room at the end of the season and have them remain there as a holding place throughout the winter.

What I think makes this an attractive arrangement, aside from the uniform color theme, is the variation on plant heights and bloom shapes. There is vertical interest (Veronica and Perilla), there will be something tumbling over the edge of the pot (Creeping Jenny), and in the spaces in between, I'll have the Impatiens and the Verbena. For the most part, it conforms to the "recipe" I learned about from reading an article in Fine Gardening magazine a while back. The recipe brilliantly but succinctly captures what many successful container gardeners have put into practice for quite some time and that is the concept of "Thriller, Filler and Spiller". Think about it: you want one plant that has vertical interest and is the focal point providing drama to the entire arrangement. Then you want to plant some spilling and trailing plants to soften the edges of the container. Finally, you'll need to fill in the remaining spaces with plants that will serve as sort of the supporting cast of the mixed planting, giving it depth and dimension.

This little tip was well worth the price of a full year's subscription as far as I'm concerned because I think about it and put it to use every time I plant a new container.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Field Trip

Located on the US Capitol grounds and housed in a building of breathtaking architecture is the US Botanic Gardens (USBG). If you live in the DC metro area and you haven't been there, get yourself on the Metro and go (blue or orange line to Capitol South). If you are planning a visit to our nation's Capitol, make sure this is a stop on your itinerary. You don't even have to be a fanatic about flowers to love this place. On my stroll through the gardens on Wednesday, I saw countless people relaxing on the benches eating their lunch or reading their paper surrounded by perfectly manicured landscapes and it occurred to me: what an oasis amidst the rat race that can be Washington DC.

My purpose for being there was enjoyment and education. The USBG has a couple of resident experts in the area of container gardening. Beth and Margaret were conducting a workshop with the goal of teaching the participants the ABC's of container gardening and encouraging them to try something new. Here's the interesting thing: this was the second workshop of its kind at the USBG just this season. I tried signing up for the first one just one day after I saw it advertised in the Washington Post and the class was already full with a 41-person waiting list. Yeah, a lot of people have gotten hip to container gardening either because they lack space, lack time or lack the spinal strength to labor endless hours over large flowerbeds. Instead, why not opt for a couple of pots full of flowers on your front steps or your deck? Beauty and simplicity with minimal effort.

So my take away from this workshop was don't be afraid to take chances--go ahead and mix a cherry tomato plant in with your flowers and foliage or try some unusual color combinations. There are no rules, there is no formula. The way I see it, you are limited only by your imagination...and your pocketbook.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Second Chances

It was the tall, deep purple spikes that first attracted me. I pegged it as the perfect plant to have in a container because its upright growth makes for great vertical interest in a pot, adding wonderful depth and dimension. Not to mention that purple is one of the easiest colors to coordinate in a mixed planting. But I have to admit, the first season I planted Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna', I was a little bit disappointed. It bloomed early in the summer and after that, I was left with dried stems that provided a depressing backdrop for the remainder of the plants in my container. Here's what I didn't know: with a mere snip of the scissors, I had the power to bring about new life.

It's pretty simple: just take each spent bloom and trim the stem down to the next node where you see two offshoots. Within a few weeks, you will once again have fresh new stems with blooms ready to open. This technique is called 'deadheading' and many a perennial and annual will respond in a similar fashion.
This particular salvia is a perennial, hardy to zone 5. And it grows like nobody's business, multiplying in size year after year. In fact, this fall will be the first year that I divide it after having had it in the same galvanized tub for three years and I fully expect to have to take a hacksaw to it to break it apart. The good news is, I'll have at least five new plants as a result of that effort. Maybe I'll share.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Graham Thomas' Debut

The first bloom of my shrub rose 'Graham Thomas' appeared today and it is marvelous. This is one of the shrub roses I bought from Antique Rose Emporium about six weeks ago. I mentioned the company's website in an earlier post saying that it specializes in vigorous, old garden roses. Antique Rose Emporium is taking orders throughout the summer but they stopped shipping in mid-May and will not start new shipments until September so it's not too early to start thinking about fall planting.

I was told when I bought Graham Thomas that it was a fast grower and that it could be trained as a climber. With that knowledge, I put it in a very large pot with just a few annuals to keep it company and positioned the pot in front of a tall trellis. It is early in the season and I am thrilled to see how much progress it has made in such a short time. I certainly hope it blooms as abundantly as advertised. This is only its first year so I have not set my expectations too high but I will make a special effort to keep it protected over the winter so it can have an opportunity to really show off next year. This rose is hardy to zone 5 and I have it in a large, deep pot (about 22 inches in diameter) made of composite material. I think it should have a good chance of surviving our zone 7 winter.

I've seen a few aphids here and there so when I water, I just give the shrub a strong blast to hose them off. This first bloom is about three inches across, has a slightly spicy fragrance and is a true yellow. Love it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Web of Roots

It's still early in the season and I normally don't encounter this situation until later in the summer when I'm making some additions or replacements to my containers using plants I find on the sale shelves. But now is a good a time as any to talk about root-bound plants. When buying plants, I try to make a habit of dumping the plant out of the nursery pot into my hand to check the condition of the roots. I'm looking for a healthy root system and I'm also looking for any pests crawling around in there. I wasn't as vigilant about doing that up until now because most plants are fairly new in their nursery pots and have not had an opportunity to get too established. But when I went to put this chive plant in a container, I discovered that it was just a little bit root-bound. The pot was no longer sufficient to contain the plant so the roots began to wind themselves around creating a matted web. So what to do?

The roots of this plant were still pretty pliable so I was able to manipulate the soil enough to loosen most of the roots and spread them out into the hole I made in the soil that I intended to plant in. But when I buy plants midseason, I often encounter a stubborn network of roots that I cannot pull apart with just my hands. Depending on how badly I want the plant and how good the price is, I will sometimes buy it anyway (I might also ask for an additional markdown, a request that is often granted). For those gardeners who are faint of heart, I would recommend that you stop reading here. Next, I get the plant home, soak it, and then go to town with the scissors. I make four vertical cuts with my Joyce Chen scissors from the base of the plant, halfway up to the crown and then just start pulling it apart. Many roots get torn in the process. But it has been my experience that enough of the root system remains intact so that when I plant it, it is able to establish itself quite nicely.

What I'm saying is when you see a root-bound plant, make an informed decision. Just because it's severely root-bound doesn't necessarily mean it can not eventually flourish. You can choose to leave it on the shelf, or if you love it and must have it, you can try my approach.