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?

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