How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

There’s something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers I’m always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesn’t count green unless it’s lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I don’t use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

Tales from The Mountain Gardener

In celebration of my 600th column for The Press Banner here are some amusing highlights from the past 12 years including some featuring my sidekick Sherman. My springer spaniel has been part of many of my adventures or should I say misadventures and I suspect his collaboration will continue.

The author in her own garden

Time flies when you’re having a good time and that’s exactly how I feel writing my 600th column for the Press Banner. It all started back in Oct. 2005 when I wrote my first column about the benefits of fall planting and this unique area we call home. Since then I’ve covered everything from attracting birds to zucchini pollination and barely touched on all the gardening tips and advice that you might find useful.

Gardeners love to swap stories and I’m no exception. I remember helping someone with a planting plan.They were quite pleased with their new garden but the next time I saw them they told me the husband had pulled out a whole section of plants that turned red and then died. They wanted help to uncover the possible cause. I laughed when he showed me the plant tag from one the victims. They were Japanese barberries that turn red before losing their leaves in the fall. Guess that’s a lesson for us all. A gardener needs patience and a sense of humor.

Years ago I took a trip to Guatemala, Honduras and Utila, an island off the coast of Honduras. It was on Utila that I saw plants growing in washing machine baskets. I thought it was a clever way to re-use old appliances but wondered why there were so many old washing machines on a tiny island. A local laughed and told me the baskets protect their plants from the big blue crabs that come out at night. Seems the crabs will sever the stem right at ground level and drag the whole plant into their hole. Also the baskets protect the plants from the iguanas who will eat anything within two feet of the ground. And you thought deer, gophers and rabbits were a problem?

Sherman, moss eater.

I moved up to Bonny Doon a couple years ago. The existing garden has some beautiful old rock walls created from many varieties of fieldstone and covered with moss. Another section has a new concrete block retaining wall lacking any character. So when fall weather arrived I scraped off some moss from the old wall and mixed it with buttermilk hoping to spruce up the plain wall when the moss took hold.

With bucket and 4 inch paintbrush in hand I tackled the new wall slapping on the moss slurry with abandon just before the winter rains started. I had almost completed my project and looked back to admire my work imagining how beautiful the wall would look covered with dark green moss.

What I didn’t count on was Sherman, my Welsh springer spaniel. He had been following me licking off most of the buttermilk. I added hot sauce to the remainder of the slurry but that barely slowed him down. The rain washed off most of the mixture so there is only a smattering of moss here and there on the new wall but it’s a start. Hope springs eternal for a gardener.

I always make the most of any excursion. You don’t have to go to an island off Honduras to find interesting solutions to gardening challenges.

Perennial garden in Poland

The gardens in eastern Poland were spectacular. The soil here, deposited by glaciers, is rich with sediment and nutrients. Sunflowers border neat plots of cabbage, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and leeks. Black-eyed Susan cover the hillsides with swaths of gold blooms. Berries such as currants, blueberry, blackberry and raspberry are grown in large plots and fenced with wire. Every 10 feet or so plastic bags are attached and wave in the breeze. I was told this keeps the wild boar, roe and red deer at bay.

I love to receive emails from readers with questions and ideas for columns. Inquiring minds want to know. Email me at janis001@aol.com.

Tranquil Blue in the Garden

With the heat of summertime upon us I’m drawn to those areas in my garden that have blue, white and lavender flowers. A hot day just seems cooler there.

Washed out magenta is nature’s favorite go-to color and the shade that hybrids will revert to it if allowed to go to seed. Among gardeners, red is a favorite color. Orange and yellow come next, then pink and purple with blue and white both comparatively rare in nature last on the list.

geranium ‘Orion’

So naturally, most of us gardeners want the elusive blue flower in our gardens. Knowing that cool colors recede, place them around the edges or at the back of a garden to make your space appear wider or deeper.

True blue flowers are rare. We use words like cerulean, azure, cobalt, sapphire, turquoise, electric blue or steel blue when describing blue flowers. Hybridizers have tried for years to produce a true blue rose or blue daylily. Blue plant pigment is hard to manipulate. It occurs in the daylily as a sap-soluble pigment and is difficult to segregate. Lilacs, purples, orchids and mauves we have and working with them hybridizers may eventually get near blue, but pure blue probably never. Recently, some companies have found a way to insert some blue in the center of their daylily flowers but a totally blue daylily has never been produced.

Rose hybridizers striving for true blue have come close by

hydrangea macrophylla

crossbreeding lavender hybrid teas in order to produce offspring having optimum amount of cyanidin, the pigment that imparts purple or magenta tones and flavone, the pigment that gives light yellow tones.The results have been more of a silvery lilac or mauve. A blue rose is still in the future although labs in Australia and Japan are genetically modifying the pigments from petunias to produce a blue rose. Their results are not yet perfected and these roses are more of a lilac in color and can not survive conditions outside the lab. It is apparently very difficult to isolate the pigment cyanadin. Delphiniums have a monopoly on it.

omphaloides

The color blue is calming and tranquil. It is the color of serenity and peace and is said to slow down the metabolism and reduce the appetite. When brightened with white or combined with yellow or orange in a complementary color scheme the results of blue in the garden are breathtaking. The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll used plants with golden leaves or clear yellow flowers to spice up blue gardens. Just remember that blues and purples are the first flowers to fade as darkness falls so be sure to have those whites and yellows to carry your garden into evening.

There are many blue perennials as handsome as they are durable that we can enjoy in our gardens today.
Some of my favorites are old fashioned hydrangeas, violas and campanula. Both are valuable in the shade garden along with omphaloides and brunnera. The blue spikes of a long blooming peach-leaf campanula just go together with the white and green variegated foliage of Jack Frost Siberian bugloss.

agapanthus africanus

In early spring we are dazzled by our native ceanothus which bloom with deep blue, sky blue or electric blue flowers. Emerald Blue phlox subulata carpets the ground in spring with clear blue flowers that top creeping stems. Penstemon Blue Springs, a California native hybrid, carries dense spikes of bright blue, bell-shaped blossoms.

Make sure your garden has a blue section to cool you on a hot day.

Designing a Garden Path

You can be led down the garden path or get off the beaten path or take the path less traveled. Everywhere are references to paths in literature and philosophy. Paths make a garden more interesting, too. Simply by changing the shape of your path or the materials underfoot or adding a focal point at a bend, yours can change the look of your whole garden. Consider some of these ideas to update your path.

Cottage garden flagstone path

Every garden path begs you to wonder where does it lead? It’s the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. As you walk, the garden should slowly reveal surprises. An architectural accent plant might appear, a wonderful scent greet you, a distant view open up or a drift of colorful flowers at the edge may beckon you to stop and enjoy the scene.

In the front yard you want a solid path directing visitors from the parking area to the front door. It should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side with interesting views along the way like low walls or plant materials to create a sense of enclosure. You want a person to feel they are walking through a defined space and although you may alter the direction of the entry walk to make it more interesting the purpose of the path is to find the front entry area.

But what about all those other paths that wind around the house and in the back garden? Here’s where you can get creative.

Paths can be designed to slow people down. Plan pauses along the

Abkhazi Garden, Victoria, BC, Canada

way, widening it at some spots while placing a sitting bench nestled beside a bird feeder at another spot. Place a unique piece of garden art next to a tree with interesting bark or a view of distant mountains. You can route paths in ways that direct your sight toward beautiful things and away from the compost pile and trash cans. Good paths have entries that are easy to see and pull you in.

When I design a path in a garden I think about how it will fit into the rest of the landscape and the look of the house. Flagstone, brick or pavers are great for paths you’re likely to travel on barefoot. You can soften the path’s look by planting low ground covers between pavers. Allow at least 2 inches of soil between flagstone or pavers and amend the soil so it won’t pack down with foot traffic before planting.

Bark or gravel looks great for natural looking paths and a gently curving path invites you to stroll among the plants. If it leads you to a small circular patio all the better.

Bluestone path-mortared with accent boulders

How wide should you make an informal path? If you want to soften the edge with low plants, allow 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Small grasses, aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers and colorful foliage plants look natural beside a path.

An interesting path I encountered once was created from materials found onsite. Old untreated redwood timbers were cut and installed at an angle every 6 feet or so along a packed decomposed granite path. In between were small pieces of flagstone connected with bands of 2 inch black Mexican pebbles. The look was interesting and inexpensive to achieve.

Look around your own yard for found items that would give your path that personal touch. Old bricks and broken concrete will find new life and you’ll save the expense of having to haul it away.

 

Why Prune in the Summertime?

Pruning is a good way to spend a couple of hours in your garden. I’m not talking about trimming plants into little balls but the kind of pruning that makes for a healthier and happier plant.

Sango kaku Japanese maple- summertime

If you grow Japanese maples now is the time to remove dead branches and train your tree to look like one of those specimens you see in the magazines. Thinning cuts build your ideal tree limb structure. If yours is a young tree, though, don’t be tempted to head back long branches too soon. As these mature they give your tree that desirable horizontal branching.

This principle is important to keep in mind when you train any young ornamental tree. Lateral buds grow along the sides of a shoot and give rise to sideways growth that makes a plant bushy.

Summer pruning of fruit trees controls size by removing energy-wasting water sprouts. Summer is also a good time to remove leafy upper branches that excessively shade fruit on the lower branches. Winter pruning is meant to stimulate the tree. Summer pruning uses thinning cuts-where the branch is cut off at its point of attachment instead of part way along the branch- and these cuts do not encourage new growth but control the size of your tree making fruit harvest easier.

Summer pruning also can control pests like coddling moths, mites or aphids. Just be sure to dispose of these trimmings and don’t compost them.

Espalier apple tree

If you have apricots and cherries, summer pruning only is now advised as they are susceptible to a branch killing disease if pruned during rainy weather. Prune stone fruits like peaches and nectarines after harvest by 50%. They grow quite rapidly. Apricots and plums need to have only 20% of their new growth pruned away.

Be sure to thin the fruit on your trees. That’s another good reason to keep them smaller so you can more easily reach the branches. The best time to do this is when the fruit is still small. Thinning fruit discourages early fruit drop and improves the quality of the remaining fruit. It helps to avoid limb damage from a heavy fruit load. Also it stimulates next year’s crop and helps to avoid biennial bearing. Left to their own devices, a fruit tree may bear heavily one year and then light or not at all the next year. Some types of fruit trees like peaches and Golden Delicious apples are likely to bear biennially if the current year’s fruit crop isn’t thinned.

While I have the pruners out I’ll be shearing back early flowering perennials to encourage another round of blooms. And I’ll add some more mulch to areas that are a little thin. I’ll be checking the ties on my trees to make sure they aren’t too tight and remove the stake if the trunk is strong enough to support the tree on its own.

Also I’ll be looking for any pest problems so I can do something about them before they get out of hand. I’m OK with a few holes here and there but a heavy infestation should be trimmed off or sprayed with an organic insecticide. I also inspect the tips of my fuchsias regularly for fuchsia mites and clip off any distorted growth. I hate to spray even organics on them due to the hummingbird activity.

Most importantly, enjoy your time outdoors. If a task is too big to do at one time, break it down into smaller sessions. As they say, take time to smell the roses.

 

Plants that Hold up in the Heat

What happens to a plant when the thermometer tops 100 degrees like it did a couple weeks ago? Planning for more hot weather this summer is a requirement for a successful garden. Are there some plants that can survive tough times more easily?

Bees Bliss salvia

Photosynthesis is one of the most remarkable biochemical processes on earth and allows plants to use sunlight to make food from water and carbon dioxide. But at temperatures about 104 degrees the enzymes that carry out photosynthesis lose their shape and functionality. A garden that provides optimum light and water but gets too hot will be less vigorous. Tomatoes, for example, will drop blossoms and not set fruit if temperatures are over 90 degrees. Plants that endure hight heat can be stunted, weakened and attract pests and diseases even if water is available.

Plants do have natural systems that respond to heat problems. Some plants are better at this than others. Plants can cool themselves by pumping water out through the leaves for a kind of swamp cooler effect. They can also make “heat-shock” proteins which reduces problems from over heating. All these strategies do take resources away from a plants other needs like growth, flowering and fruiting.

It’s no surprise that many California natives are adapted to high temperatures. In my own garden I grow several plants that are doing quite well without irrigation and handled the heat wave just fine. One is Bees Bliss Sage, a low groundcover that can reach 6-8 ft wide draping over rocks and walls. It has an extended bloom time from mid-spring to early fall with whorls of lavender-blue flower spikes. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all find it attractive.

salvia clevelandii

Another plant that can handle high temps is salvia clevelandii. Right now it has just started its blooming cycle of electric blue-purple flowers. They will last through the summer. This salvia survives without any supplemental irrigation but if I give it an occasional deep watering and wash off the foliage every so often its much happier.

mimulus arantiacus

Who doesn’t like color in their garden? Mimulus or Sticky Monkey Flower blooms are showy and the hummingbirds love them. The Jelly Bean series has added bright pink colors in addition to white, orange, red and yellow but the traditional aurantiacus types are the most tolerant of drought.

As summer comes along the California fuchsia will provide the color in the garden. I like it that they spread by underground rhizomes and self sow. Free plants are always welcome. I have them planted on a slight slope where they tumble over a rock wall. My bees and hummingbirds find this plant irresistible.

penstemon heterophyllus

Other California native plants that can handle the heat with little water include eriogonum, manzanita, artemisia, California milkweed, ceanothus, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, bush lupine, native penstemon, monardella, mahonia nevinii , fremontodendron and holly-leafed cherry.

Other well adapted plants that are known to be more tolerant of heat include butterfly bush, germander, rosemary, smoke tree, rudbeckia, coreopsis, lantana, plumbago, gaillardia, lilac, sedums, oregano and verbena.

These plants can be the rock stars of your garden. Some natives can survive with no water after 2 years many look more attractive with a few deep waterings per summer. And don’t forget the organic soil amendments and wood chip mulch to encourage the soil microbes and keep the soil cool.

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