Flower Power: The Art of Container Gardening

Updated in June 2015 by the Manitoba Association of Home Economists

Container gardening continues to grow in popularity. Maybe it is because with just a few plants you can transform a small deck or patio into an attractive garden. Perhaps it is the flexibility and mobility of the containers. You can move them to suit the season, your mood or to brighten up a corner that needs something extra.

Long gone are the days of pots filled with just geraniums, petunias and lobelia. Although these are great “tried and true” plants that flourish in our growing conditions, Saskatchewan greenhouses are growing and offering many contemporary plants with new varieties available every year!

Tips for Creating Beautiful Container Gardens:

Location, Location, Location: The first step in creating your container garden is to decide where you will be placing the arrangement. Is it in full sun or shade? Is there easy access to water? Is it a windy location? Answering these questions will help you focus on the best plants to choose. For example, you would not want to place full sun plants in the shade or a flower with a delicate petal in a windy spot.

Colour Me Beautiful: Thinking of location will also help you decide on what colour combinations you would like. Perhaps you want to match the colour of your home, complement a garden feature or present a particular style. For an arrangement that has a simple elegant style, choose flowers or foliage that are similar in colour. For a more dramatic effect, choose complementary colours such as orange and purple or yellow and blue.

The Power of Three: To create a well-designed container pick at least three different plants as three distinct visual elements will make your arrangement more dynamic and appealing. Vary the height, colour and texture. If you are filling a larger pot and are using five or more varieties, use a ratio of three foliage to two flowering plants. This will keep the design from looking too busy.

Going Solo: As Newton said “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” and so it is true in gardening. While a combination of several plants does make for attractive containers, so too, does a simple, elegant, single panting of one variety. Sometimes ‘less is more’! Monoculture and single colour containers are definitely “in”.

Leafing Out: One of the absolutely hottest trends in container gardening is to use non-flowering foliage plants. All-foliage containers have a sophisticated feel and with the variety of interesting striped, ruffled and mottled leaves in bold colours and interesting shapes, it is easy to create some captivating combinations. Try combining different grasses, coleus, impomea vines and ivies.

Perennials in Pots: Most perennials do well in containers provided the pot is big enough. You can even try to grow tender or less than hardy perennials for our area and then winter them over in the house, a cold room or garage.

Kitchen Garden: There is nothing handier than stepping out the front door or onto the deck to harvest some herbs, lettuce or tomatoes for supper. Growing herbs or select vegetables in containers is not only convenient, but it also cuts back on weeding. Our kids love to be able to snack on cherry tomatoes while playing on the deck. It adds interest and is a conversation starter when entertaining neighbours and friends.

It Doesn’t Have to be a Pot: There is nothing that says you have to use a pot as your planter. Novelty containers such as old work boots or crocks add interest and personality to the garden. We get lots of comments on the old fashion bathtub and blue toilets (maybe not your style!) that we fill with flowers in the greenhouse every year. A container can be anything that will hold soil and has sufficient drainage so that the plants do not drown from over watering.

Growing Tips for Container Gardens

Pot Particulars: Plants need room to grow, so choose a container that will accommodate the plant’s root system and allow it to grow to its full potential. Unglazed terra cotta pots dry out more quickly than glazed ceramic pots or plastic containers. No matter which type of pot you use, be sure there are ample unblocked drainage holes for water to escape through.

The Dirt on Dirt: Vermiculite, perlite and sand keep soils light and well drained. Peat helps soil retain water. Use a blend that provides the right combination of drainage and water retention for healthy growth. You can use soil from your garden; however, if it is too dense your plants will not thrive. You may also have to battle weeds. We recommend bagged soil or a soilless mix designed especially for containers. It is also a good idea to change the soil each year to avoid disease and allow your plants the best opportunity to flourish. Some mixes contain water-retaining soil additives that will soak up water then release it slowly back into the soil – a great idea if you are busy and worried about missing a watering. When planting, be sure to leave about two inches of room at the top of the pot to hold water. Without that extra space, water will run off the soil before penetrating to the plant’s roots.

Picking Plants: Choose plants with similar growing needs. For example grouping varieties that prefer full sun together. For best results start with quality plants. With our short growing season there is no time to nurse low-grade plants back to health. Saskatchewan and Manitoban greenhouse growers take a lot of care in growing plants that thrive in our climate. They are also knowledgeable and a great source of information when choosing what to grow and where.

Water Works: Stick your finger down two to three inches to check for dampness before watering. If dry, water the container until water runs out the bottom of the container. If your soil seems adequately damp but your container plants still seem stressed, try moving them to a cooler location. If your container has dried out completely and the water runs down the inside edges of the pot instead of soaking in, submerse the container into a water-filled sink or large bucket and let the soil soak until rehydrated.

Plant Food: Flowers flourish when fertilized. New varieties, in particular, depend on plant food to thrive. If you have trouble remembering to fertilize use a well-balanced slow release fertilizer that is released every time you water. What is the best plant food? To encourage lush foliage growth and lots of blooms choose a fertilizer with slightly higher nitrogen in the mix. Ask your garden center staff what they recommend!

Pete’s Plant Pick

  • Ivy Geraniums: These are highly under- rated plants that make great hanging baskets in Saskatchewan. Not only are they showy, but also they are tough enough to stand a windy day. If you miss watering them, they are more forgiving than a basket of petunias.
  • Coleus: Everything old is new again. Growing up, I remember pots of coleus in my Mom’s house. Now they are all the rage in foliage containers. Every season there are more and more varieties of these jazzy plants. Coleus is probably one of the hottest plants this season.
  • Imponea: Again, these varieties sometimes called “potato vine” are popular in all foliage arrangements. Last year, we combined the light green, purple and bronze in hanging baskets. They sold out immediately!
  • Lamium: These flowers have very interesting foliage and are great combined with petunias. Not only do they support the petunias, they look great doing it!
  • Bracteantha: Again, an underrated flower that is hardy and will survive right through to fall. These straw- type flowers also make great dried flower arrangements.
  • Argyranthemum: The yellow variety sometimes called ‘butterfly’ is a hardy daisy -type flower that adds a cheerful touch to any pot.

Reprinted with permission from Growing Saskatchewan Saskatchewan Council for Community Development. http://www.growingsaskatchewan.ca

By Peter Sandercock, P.Ag, Blue Ridge Gardens, Lloydminster, SK