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Creating Beautiful Containers-the Basics

There are few things that dress up an entry or outdoor seating area more than a thoughtfully planted and placed container (or grouping of containers). Whether you choose foliage or flowering plants, evergreens or succulents, they are a welcome addition for adding height, color and texture to the area.

Once you know the basics, you’ll be designing beautiful containers in no time:

1. Containers come in every size, shape and material. Any container can be used as long as it has drainage holes, but choose heavy containers for tall or weighty plants. If the space is very sunny or windy, choose a material like glazed ceramic, plastic or composite rather than clay or other porous materials. If the container is very large, filler material (such as plastic bottles or Styrofoam blocks) can be placed in the bottom of the container to reduce the amount of soil needed. Containers filled with soil and plants can be heavy, so consider placing the container before filling it.

2. Soil. The ideal potting mix is sterile, light and free draining. There are potting mixes that contain fertilizer and crystals that hold water in the soil. Some plants (like orchids and azaleas) need special soil mixes to meet their needs.

3. Watering. Plants in containers require more frequent watering, and as temperatures rise check containers frequently. The best moisture meter is your finger; sink your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle to check the moisture level and water when needed. When watering, pour the water slowly around the base of the plant and water until the excess seeps out of the bottom of the container.

4. Fertilizing. Plants in containers require more frequent fertilizing as well. Even if the potting mix has fertilizer added, mix a slow release nitrogen fertilizer into the soil at planting and then fertilize on a regular basis. Water soluble fertilizer can be diluted and applied with every watering, or used at full strength. The product label will give you the information you need.

5. Light is the single most critical element for healthy plant growth. Some plants require more light than others, and either not enough or too much will cause the plant to suffer. Consult a reference or plant label to determine the needs of the plant, but remember that full sun in other parts of the country is different than full sun in Texas. Most plants appreciate afternoon protection.

6. Maintenance. Regularly groom plants to remove spent blooms and brown leaves. Pinching out the growing tips of some plants will stimulate the growth of branching stems and avoid a tall and leggy form. Regular harvest of herbs and vegetables will keep plants compact and actively growing. If a white crust forms on the soil surface, this is caused by salts in the fertilizer. Flush the soil until this dissolves into the soil. At season’s end, discard annual plants and soil in the compost pile; perennial plants can be lifted and planted in the garden, or if tender can be overwintered indoors under artificial light. Disinfect the container by scrubbing it with a 10% bleach solution and store porous containers where they will be protected from freezing temperatures.

Here are some tips for designing containers:

1. Choose containers that are in scale with the area and choose plants that are in scale with the container. A pleasing proportion is 1/3 container to 2/3 plant height at maturity (but if you want to highlight the container, the proportion is reversed).

2. Bold plants (such as geraniums or ornamental cabbage) and evergreens (such as boxwood or crotons) can stand on their own; one plant per container.

When combining plants, the arrangement is most pleasing when there is a thriller, a filler and a spiller, and the number of plants used are in odd number groups (3, 5 or even 7 if the container is large). A thriller is a centerpiece plant; something big, bold and beautiful. They are the starting point in the container design. When the container will be viewed from all sides, put the thriller in the center. If the container will be up against a wall or fence, put the thriller in the back. Some examples of thrillers are Canna, Coleus, Geranium, New Zealand Flax, Ornamental Grasses, Plectranthus and Yellow Bells.

Filler plants are generally round, mounding plants that fill in the middle ground of the container and make the container look full and lush. Fillers are generally placed in front of or around the thriller (midway between the edge of the container and the thriller). Some examples of fillers are Abutilon, Ageratum, Alysum, Diascia, Euphorbia, Impatiens, Lantana and Nemesia.

Spillers are trailing plants that spill over and soften the edge of the container. Some examples of spiller plants are Bacopa, Ivy, Lamium, Lysimachia, Petunia, Sweet Potato Vine, and Verbena.

3. Texture refers to the overall size of the leaves, but also can refer to how smooth or rough the surface of the leaves are. To create drama, use a combination of textures. As a general rule, fine textured plants are placed in the front and the bold textured plants are placed in the back.

4. Color falls into two categories: hot and cool. Hot colors (red, yellow, orange) draw attention and are fun and festive, so they are good in areas where people congregate in a party atmosphere. Hot colors make spaces seem smaller.

Cool colors (pink, blue, purple and white) are calm and serene. They are good in areas when the desired mood is relaxation, soft music and quiet conversation. White is good in areas that will be enjoyed in the evening because the (lack of) color will shine in the dim light.

When assembling the container, the root balls of the plants should almost touch. Before shopping for plants, make a template the size of the container. Collect plants and place them on the template to allow you to creatively play with plant combinations and to assure you have enough plants in the container.

Take care to choose plants that enjoy the same light requirements and moisture levels (you don’t want to drown the Lavender to keep the Bacopa alive).

It’s time to assemble the container:

1. Place a coffee filter (or landscape fabric) in the bottom of the container to keep soil from washing out the bottom.

2. Fill the container approximately 2/3 full with potting soil.

3. Sprinkle a small amount of slow release fertilizer over the top of the soil.

4. Arrange the plants in the container with the root balls just touching. When placing plants, allow a half inch space between the soil line and the top of the container so that water won’t spill over the sides when watering.

5. Fill the spaces between the plants with soil and lightly press them to remove air pockets.

6. Water the plants to settle the soil.

7. Mulch the top of the container to conserve water.

All you have to do now is watch the plants grow and enjoy your beautiful containers!

PS: It's not too late to put together a pretty container with a Fall theme. Here are some ideas:

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