Wednesday, May 24, 2017


You've stepped into the third installment of my attempt to give advice 
relating to container gardening.  
When I started this series, I thought it was going to be one quick post. 
 Because...container gardens aren't that hard right?

Working on this post made me highly aware 
of many instances where container gardens go wrong.
Or just don't quite go right.
It's also made me more aware than usual of how easy it is to judge.
If you have a tried and true system that you love, then LOVE IT!
I'm glad you know what works for you and you're not required to change for me!
I don't always get it 'right' nor do I always care that I get it right.
There are some examples in my yard right now
of containers that are not display worthy.

I'm writing for the person who is overwhelmed,
has no idea how those containers they saw ended up so pretty,
and no idea that they could do it TOO!
After talking to several people and understanding where they went wrong
I revised my assessment for what could be helpful to non-gardeners.
There is a need for perspective and space assessment.
Today we're going to talk about how to use the installation step (actually planting stuff!)
to your best advantage (so you can be lazy too)
And then we'll have the big reveal.
As a refresher, I'm using a recent weekend project for my church as the example.

Before picture....
There's a lot of preparation and planning that goes into a successful container garden.
At this point, I know you want to get on with the planting
but I have a couple last things to plug.
Proper drainage and soil.
It is so easy to slam some dirt into a pot and then walk away.

By mid-summer, you're wondering what the heck happened-
why that pot is not draining or why your soil is hard as a rock.
If you've invested in big pots, then you will have a really hard time excavating 
in the middle of the season to figure out what is wrong.
So...we're back to boring old prep work again for a while.


Drainage is not a sexy word.
But in the container gardening world, it's important to understand.
Plants need watering-remember goldilocks?
Not too much, not too little...just the right amount.
That means the pot will have to hold water-but not too much.
Never use a pot that doesn't have holes in the bottom.
Pots without holes in the bottom are for decoration.
They need you to place a pot that will drain inside of them
and remove that inside pot to water.
Every time you water.

Your BIG pots should have holes in the bottom.
Sometimes they have a hole provided by 
the manufacturer but it will prove insufficient.
We drilled extra holes in the bottom of the large beige pots
used in this project so they would be sure to drain out.
It's a BIG plus if you can find one with self watering or 
extra drainage like the tall black one below.

Even when your pot has enough drainage holes at the bottom,
it's a good idea to add a layer of gravel.
I have skipped this step a few times and regretted it.
The plants go hog wild and before you know it, 
there's something clogging the holes at the bottom.  
Then they can't drain and it's a mud-pot.
Just bite the bullet, buy a $3 bag of gravel and put it in there.
Each of the beige pots have a bag of gravel in the bottom.

We used mixed river rock in the bottom because it was cheapest...any medium size gravel will do

Stage It

Before you plant....stage the pots where you want them to go.
This is especially important if you are the size of a hobbit (like me).
When you fill these pots with gravel, then dirt, then plants...
then won't be able to budge them.
If you stage them beforehand, you have one last opportunity
to make adjustments before you're committed.

The Dirt

Fill with a potting mix that is made for containers.
There are lots of ways to mess this step up.
I know that there are people who want us to use soil and compost and everything
...and you can do that too...
so long as you have a degree in soil science.
Most everyone else should just buy the Miracle-Gro 
or the extra special potting mix from the big box home improvement store.
You need to fill the soil to within two inches of the top.
This project took 8 bags.
Do not skimp.
If you skimp, your plants will be fighting to be seen over the rims of the planter.
They might also be sitting in water more than they need to be.
They won't get the proper access to sunlight and it will take a while for them to start growing.
They might end up weirdly tall and leggy.
Don't over fill.
If you overfill, your water is likely to run OUT of the pot 
instead of staying inside the pot-where the roots are.


Now we get to the planting part.  This is often the most exciting part but is...
sadly, an easy place for things to go wrong again.
Some plants you're planting will be brand new babies.
These need to be handled gently when taken out of
 the plastic store bought pots.
Gently....flip the plant upside down and squeeze the bottom
 of the plants while holding your hand over the soil line.
The little baby plant should fall out into your hand.
Stems between your first two fingers, soil keeping it from falling through.

Place the plants in the pot in the relative space that you want to put them.
You're trying to be gentle to these little babies.
Once you're happy with placement, then bury the roots so that the line of soil
is even with the depth of the soil in the pot..
If your soil didn't have an added fertilizer
then add some now.  
Osmocote is a slow release option or you can 
use more natural ones like blood meal and bone meal.
(yes, that is really what they are-blood and bone concentrated down)'re almost done.
Water that pot until water runs out of the bottom.  
It needs to be thoroughly soaked.

Demo Project?



Here's what our final project looked like on day one.
It will look very different in two weeks.
The tallest plants get 4-6' high so should stretch to the top of the brick.
The vines that drape over the side get 2-4' long.
I pinched the red tops off of the salvia in the auxillary pot...I may end up going back to pull them out altogether but didn't want to do that right away.
We have almost no repeats in these pots...there is one of everything EXCEPT deep purple petunias. There are repeats across the pots that tie them together (petunias, coleus, gomphrena, dahlias).
We used lots of foliage for color since it shows up better from a distance than flowers.  

Purple and lime green!  the best combo ever!

Side view

Sweet potato vine, dahlia , ornamental pepper, sage and canna lily in the back...

Friday, May 19, 2017


To celebrate spring and summer
and in an effort to stave off unnecessary plant death and associated shame...
I've decided to share some tips and tricks relating to Container Gardening.
You can see my first installment here:
where I talk about visualizing the space and determining 
project area size and grouping strategy.
As a refresher, the example project is a redo of the front of my church.

Refresher BEFORE picture for reference

This installment focuses on an important part of projects...spending money.
This post has some tips that should help you keep on track when you go shopping.
That sounds like something you could use right?
You will notice that I'm not saying that I'll be saving you money.
I'm offering tips to keep you focused so that you make the best decisions.
Not necessarily the cheapest.

First Confession

I bet the amount of money that I allocate in my budget for plants
or plant materials is higher than the average person's.
Some people like shoes, some people like sports.
I like plants.
And food.
Plants that make food get double points.
It's all connected for me but I just want you to know that 
I am aware that my spend on a plant nursery visit is
 different than the average consumer.
I don't know what your budget is for plants.
But I know a lot of people who work really hard 
every spring setting up about a million plants.
That are dead by June 15th.
I don't think that's a good use of money.
Hopefully, this will give you an easy strategy into how to keep 
the plants that you purchase alive.

Second Confession

I am a very lazy gardener.
I do not want to slave away on one little plant.
The more maintenance required for a plant, the less I like it.
Some plants need to have allowances made for their 
neediness (I'm looking at you tomatoes).
In general though, it is possible to have lots of beauty
and minimize the upkeep.
I have built my life around mastering that balance.
It starts with choices.

Let's talk about choosing a container.
For's no contest.


3 of the 4 big pots used in this project.....

Picture this....
You're at the big box store.
Surrounded by  hundreds of small to medium pots.
There are blue, green, ceramic or glazed pots.
There are metal pots with designs.
There are plastic pots in every shade that look like candy.
There are terra cotta pots that remind you of vacations 
you always wanted to take but never did.

You can't decide what you want....
More is more right?
So you buy a bunch of smaller pots-
and assume that you'll just mix them 
around each other.
After all, you can fit the same number of plants into the smaller pots.
It'll all work out....right?

First off-don't forget about the first two tips I gave you.
You've got a certain size space that needs to be filled.
But I can see that you want to find a way to make this approach work
So we'll give some grace here for a minute.
Let's just assume your pots are big enough to fill the space
and they are also in the appropriate odd numbered count.
Even if that is've got to stop and consider the plant.
This is not a knick knack to sit on your coffee table.
This is a home for a living organism that has needs.


The simple botanical truth is....Plants grow better in bigger pots.
There are lots of reasons....I don't have four months to give you Botany 101.
Here's a few highlights to hold you over:
Plants don't grow in pots in nature.  
When you put a plant into a pot, you are trying to mimic
it's natural habitat.
That's why you pay attention to things like sun exposure, 
water availability and the kind of dirt you put in the pot.
You want the plant to think it's in an nice comfy space where it can make a home.

What do plants do when they find a home?
Most plants who've found a new space want to stretch (aka grow).  
You're buying babies....many of them become giants.
Think about how often newborns up their clothing sizes.
Little pots are like newborn onesies.  
Within a few weeks, your plants will grow out of pots that fit them now.

Annuals grow all summer long if you're treating them right.
Those little 4 paks of tiny annuals in the spring, 
will grow as much as 20 times 
that size before the summer is over.
Plant tops grow in direct correlation to their roots. 
Squish the roots or keep them from growing 
and the tops will eventually stop too.
Little pots will suffocate eventually suffocate your plant through root strangulation. realize that plants need water right?
Most plants used in ornamental landscapes need 
evenly consistent water availability.
Don't know what that means?  
It means you don't want to drown them and you don't want them to get thirsty.  
Like Goldilocks, plants in pots like it juuuuust right.
All the time.
The smaller the pot, the more potential for the water to evaporate 
and leave a desert climate.  
It's something about surface area...
don't ask me to explain, I am not an engineer!
If you plant those little pots, you'll be running outside three times a 
morning by July to keep that sucker alive.
Do not even pretend that you love a plant that much.
No one does.

Trust me (the laziest gardener ever) when I say....
bigger pots give more root space, will hold water longer, and
 will also drain more like real soil.     
Use small pots for seedlings, succulents or TEMPORARY plants 
(think centerpieces for Mother's Day lunch).
They are not long term housing solutions for plants.
Biggest pot for the space available is always the way to go-
for aesthetic reasons and for botanical reasons.
When in doubt, particularly with outdoor spaces, go bigger.


Impulse hanging basket purchase....gave to my step-mom for Mother's day

This next one tip is hard....and there's just no getting over or around it.
You have to make hard choices and stick to some guidelines when you're purchasing plant material.
This can be really difficult in the moment.
You walk into the garden center and you are literally overwhelmed by choice.
Every possible color or plant that is full bloom is staring at you
screaming TAKE ME HOME!
Garden centers intentionally overwhelm you so you'll take home plants.
They put everything in a gorgeous mishmash of color.
The more blooms the better!
They push plants up beside each other that would never coexist.
They're working with small pots that they'll break down and repot
 (or toss) when they don't look so great.
Without a are likely to impulse buy plants
or throw some things in the cart in desperation as you fight your 
way towards the register.

Have a plan!

Make  a rough but flexible plan before you go. 
For example....I knew on this recent project that I needed the following 
for each side of the church entrance:
2-4 really tall plants (that were different)
6 trailing plants
6 bushy medium plants
2-6 tall plants that were 'showy'
2-6 low plants for filler 
I wasn't quite sure what the nursery would have in stock....
and I new these all needed to work together in context.
Your list will not look like my list!
I have a fricking horticulture degree
and I'm a plant nerd.
However...your list should say the number of plants at which height.
Also...know if you're putting it in the sun or the shade.

Notes I took to the nursery for this run.  I too get overwhelmed and need notes!

Consider the placement:  

Unless you are designing a pot for a theme park...
you are likely going to create a mixed pot.  
This will look more intentional (and drive your inherent OCD less crazy) 
if you add both height and drape.  
You want plants that fall into each of these categories:  
tall, medium, low and able to trail over the sides.  
Before you plant the plants inside the container, you need to consider how it will be seen.
Is it going to be stuck in the middle of something and view-able from all angles?  
If so, then you will want the tallest plants in the middle and the height to descend from the middle out.
If the plant is going to be up against something, then you will want the height in the back and the height to descend from the back to the front.  

This container is essentially a mediocre fail...they tried with height but it just looks like a baby with a ponytail.  Probably someone loves this planter-the flowers are beautiful.  However, with just a couple of tweaks, it could have been stunning.

This is a lot to ask if you don't know plants and is again why a list is your friend.
Use the google and Pinterest to find things you like.
Take pictures of things you like with you on your phone.
But just like going to the grocery, take a list.

Once you get to the nursery, you will be overwhelmed.
Accept it.
Prepare for it.
Ask for directions by using the tags that are in the plants!
Pay attention to two things:  height at maturity and sun exposure.

Why those two things?
Most plant material that you buy at the nursery will be under 18" when it's sold.  
This is because it's easier to stack into shelves and ship when it's this height.  
The first week you plant, most things will be a similar height. 
Within two weeks, you'll have a mess if you aren't paying attention to 
the average height at maturity. are unlikely to turn a shade loving plant into a sun-loving plant (or vice-versa).  Read the tags, take their advice.    
If the tag says the plant needs full sun, it needs full sun.  
It is not plastic or manufactured. 
Save your energy for fighting injustice or loving people.

See this gorgeous planter?  That plant in the middle is a Yew-essentially a baby bush.  It'll be chucked out in the fall but in the interim will give interest and height.

Although, there is another trick you can use for height or drape-but it depends on your flexibility.
You can use perennials and shrubs as temporary items within container gardens. 
Landscapers do this all the time in public spaces-
throwing in a banana tree or ivy for containers.  
The planter above is a mix of annuals, perrennials and a shrub.
It's meant to be a temporary arrangement in a giant pot
so it works.
It would not work as a long term home or in a smaller pot.
You can do this too if your budget and temperament allow it.

Pick a palette.  Stick to it.

The color wheel...


I cannot tell you how many times I get home with plants that I love....
but that don't quite fit in with anything else. 
I want them all.  
Think of container plants in the same way that you think of outfits...
things need to go together but not be too matchy-matchy. 
 Flowers are not the only color going on here-there are lots of foliage options. 

The best way to stick to a palette is to pick TWO colors and work around them.  
Yes, just two.  
Other colors will probably get in there and you almost always have green because of foliage.
If you focus on just two options though,
you can edit yourself more effectively.
Here's more on color combinations:  Bright Side Color Chart
And a few pictures that should help illustrate your two color choices 
(and how you almost always also have green as a color in a gardening mix)

Yellow with Purple
Yellow with Red 
White and Silver

Final note here about color...Your pot choice will often be part of the color.
Remember those brightly colored pots?
They can work in the right space and with the right material.
However, you will be tied into to a color scheme for the plant material as well.
Large pots are an investment that you'll want to keep around for a while.
The more unusual the color, the more hustle you may have to do to stay in the plan for future plantings.

Stage Things

It helps me to put all the plants together in one spot in the nursery-
either on a wagon or in a clustered staging spot.  
It can also help you see if you need more contrast or less.
Sometimes you need to back away from the plants too....
just step back 20 feet and see what your brain does with those plants.  
Sometimes pink and red will blend into one gorgeous blob.  
Sometimes they will look like your grandma's purse exploded.  
It's ok to take your time and look like a crazy person at the nursery.  
This is a staging spot in our yard....leftovers from a different project, still helps to see potential color combos.

For this particular project, I had an existing pot at the church 
(see pedestal pot below) that was going to be 
incorporated into the mix.  
That meant I either needed to use purple, yellow or red.  
My preference is almost always purple but I had to see what was at the 

nursery before I knew which of the other two colors needed to get nixed.

Another view of the too tiny pots....which still manage to have too many colors.

Once we were prepped, off to the plant nursery we went.

My favorite is this one: Big Bloomers

It has every perennial or annual or herb that my little heart desires.I am told that it is overwhelming to the non-plant freaks but I've never been disappointed by the selection.
Also-I can wander around for an hour, happily creating my staging zone.  No one bugs me or tries to get me to buy a  lawn mower or a washing machine.
I'm in the sunshine or the greenhouse and even on a spring day, it can be very peaceful.

Tune in for the next installment where you see the final product!
What colors did we pick?
How did we organize it?

Thursday, May 18, 2017


 Hey!  We're not going to talk about something super emotional and chewy this week!
Are you relieved?

There's a whole lot of gardening stuff floating through my world
 and the general gist of the conversations are..."plants are weird", 
"I don't know why I killed them but I have killed them many times",  
or "plants will just not do what I want them to do".  
Why do people think gardening is so hard?
I guess anything that is unfamiliar can be overwhelming.
It appears to be difficult to remember that plants are ALIVE
they need to be cared for in ways that are not the same as other 
living things we need to care for...say dogs or children.
As a total plant nerd in a family of gardeners....
this lack of general plant knowledge can be hard for me to remember.
I have put my foot in it lately by assuming that people know about plants.
Sometimes my arrogance shows up in odd ways.
Like say....laughing out loud when someone says they're going to grow all 
their produce needs organically in the (tiny) pots on their deck.
Oh were serious.

So...for the next few posts I want to share some info 
about how to successfully choose and grow plants-
specifically how to grow them in containers.
I'm offering some long winded advice
with some tips that should help up your game!

As an example, I'm going to use a small weekend redo 
of the main entrance of our church.  
If you like before and after stories, this is a good one for you!
The Peak Connecting the Disconnected

I love love love my church.

I hope everyone who walks towards those doors feels
invited in and welcomed with open arms.
Many people work to make that intention a reality-
they serve with their time, their gifts, their hearts.
The space where we come together is special.
My husband and I recently offered to use our gifts to 
enhance this space and over the next few posts, 
I'll break down the ways that we used our knowledge of plants 
and container planting to get the best result.


As you walk up....what do you notice?
 Part of the reason people garden is to add beauty to an area.
I know that beauty is a somewhat subjective topic-not everyone has the same style.
However, as marketers everywhere know....we do find some things universally pleasing.
We're not always aware of our preferences or our perspectives.
It can be easy to distract us from the bigger view by focusing on the little details.
There's an easy way to help shift your perspective now that we have digital cameras built into our phones.
Take a picture.

I take lots of pictures when I'm working on projects.  
It helps put things into perspective.
Here's a picture of the main entrance of our church.
Basically a simple, public space.  
Everything is symmetrical.
Neat and tidy.

When I look at this picture, I am noticing the planters-
I'm noticing that they don't seem to belong.
I'm not just being a plant-freak here...this will look off to most people.
There's nothing wrong with these planters per se.
In a different place, they would be great.
However, in this case, they almost disappear and seem accidentally placed.
It's not obvious what isn't working until you step back.
The picture helps solidify the scale and show you what is off.
They are too small for the space.

Bottom line for this tip - you need to know the scale of the space
before you can fill it appropriately.
A picture will help.


Take another look.....
In addition to being too small....there is something not right about the number of pots here.  
I mention this because I have fiddled with things for a looooong time 
before I realized that the reason it's not working is because 
I have an even number of things.
Why does it matter if you have an odd or an even number of things?
I don't know for sure but there is scientific data to support our innate desire for symmetry.
Here's a very small set of pictures to help you understand it visually.

One thing? Looks cool. What a statement!
One thing can be as wild and unstructured as it wants to be.
One thing is individual.
It can be small or large.
It can grow sideways or upright.
There's no point of reference.
Look how beautiful that is!

Two things?  The inner critic wakes up!
If you have an even number of objects,
then they better be symmetrical, identical, mesmerizingly perfect.
Two things need to be balanced and twin-like.
If one of the plants grows bigger or broader or just to it's own drummer
it can be difficult for your brain to appreciate it.
why is that one on the right so tall?

Three things? Back to cool. 
We can relax again into a zen-like hippie trance.
Three things can be more free and wild.
We don't expect them to match each other.

 Beautyberry clusters 

Another related thing is that even-numbers scream formality to us.
Even-numbered things are great for some spaces or projects...
formal gardens, castles, government spaces, medicine doses, baking recipes.
Even numbers should be reserved for spaces (or plants) that
can be measured and controlled.
They are not great for things that can grow and change on their own.
They don't give as much room for life to happen.

My advice is....Why risk the inner critic?
When in doubt, stick with odd numbers.
This holds true for filling the planters too.
Buy 1, 3, or 5 plants for each pot (or 7 or 9 or 11)
Avoid buying 2 or 4 or 6 for a single pot.

One small problem...this entrance is already symmetrical!

Has it been decided for us?
Do we automatically have to continue the symmetry?
Well....we could go that route.
In a formal space, that might be the choice to make.

Very formal symmetry here will say
'Come in and do things the way we've always done them'
It will not say 'come on in and bring something different'..
There can be comfort and value in's just not what needs to happen
at the church that connects the disconnected.

Instead....we're going to trick our inner critic.  
We're going to to add some odd numbers on top of the symmetry
to add some energy and welcome without upsetting the balance of the space.
It is possible-I'm not making this up.

Of course....sometimes it's hard to let go of the need for symmetry. 
Even in places where it doesn't belong. 

Consider reading other posts...I recommend anything tagged #controlfreak.

The yellow rectangles are the size of accent you need.  

Back to our picture of the church entrance for a minute.
For this particular space, I will need to have something about 5'x4'.
I don't know what that something is yet...but that's the size I need to fill.
You're probably thinking....5' x 4'....that's pretty darn big.
It is.  
It's bigger than me.
To go smaller will always look just a little bit off.
No matter what, I've got to have something in here that will be about 5 feet high.
I can do that in a variety of ways-with plant material, with trellis or sculpture.
 I'll need a collection of pots or a pot that expands out to fill the space around it to about 4 feet.
And since I want to invite people in, I need to find a way to incorporate lots of 
odd numbered things.
If I can't do that, then I need to just leave it alone.
Go big or go home.
So now what?  How do I decide what to put in here?

Stay tuned......