Grow your garden in containers — it's easy

Spring can be an intimidating season for the casual gardener. Garden centers overflow with bounty. Large beds of annuals begin sprouting up in yards and parks.

Inspiring, sure. But most of us simply don't have the time for all that digging, planting, fertilizing and weeding, especially if the plants are annuals and need to be replaced in six months or less.

Containers are ideal for commitment-averse gardeners, the easiest way to energize your outdoor space whether you have a big yard, a small patio or balcony. They're especially practical for renters. And creating one takes 30 minutes or less after you have gathered your materials.

New planters for spring are in stores now, and there's a wide variety of styles, colors and prices to suit your taste and budget. Besides the usual terra cotta, plastic, wood and ceramic pots, look for outrageously colored fiberglass, self-watering containers and eco-friendly planters made from natural materials. .)

The pot

The universal rule for container gardening is the bigger the planter the better. It will hold more soil, more nutrients and more roots, which means less watering for you. If you don't have time for frequent watering, avoid unglazed terra cotta containers, which wick moisture from soil the fastest, and cheap plastic pots that hold heat and don't weather well in the Florida sun.

Drainage holes are a necessity to prevent root rot. Since you can't poke holes in ceramic, concrete, terra cotta or metal, use a slightly smaller plastic pot (with drainage holes) inside the container. Check the outer container occasionally for standing water and drain when needed.

Always use a clean container. If you're reusing a planter, remove and discard the old soil. Clean the inside using dish detergent and household bleach; rinse thoroughly.

The soil

One of the best perks of container planting is that you can control the soil — for once, you won't be fighting Florida's naturally sandy, porous and nematode-infested soil. Use a high-quality potting mix that contains ingredients such as sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, aged composted forest products or sand. This mixture will help the soil retain moisture, nutrients and oxygen that roots need to produce healthy stems, leaves and flowers.

Some potting mixes are formulated with time-release fertilizer pellets, but some experts caution against their use. If excess moisture formed in the bag, the fertilizer could break down and burn roots of new plants. Instead, use a good-quality product such as Scotts' Osmocote time-release fertilizer. You can also add water-retaining polymers to the soil; look for products such as Soil-Moist.

Some gardeners line the bottom of containers with pebbles, Styrofoam "peanuts" or other objects to create air pockets and improve drainage, but that's not necessary with a good-quality potting mixture. Fill the container with the soil mixture, add plants and add remaining soil no higher than about 2 inches from the container's rim. Don't sink plants too deeply; they should be planted at the same depth as in their original pots. Top your container off with organic mulch to help retain moisture.

The fun part

Now you can indulge your artistic side in choosing how to compose your container garden. Forget rules. Buy what you like, bearing in mind that the point of a plant is to grow and you don't want to crowd too many youngsters in the bed. You can create a riot of texture and color with a blend of plants or a serene monochrome with a single type. You can mix annuals and perennials. You can take chances since you are risking very little. And you will be amazed at the beautiful rewards.

Yvonne Swanson can be reached at yvonnesgarden@gmail.com.

Inspiration

Some of the best ideas come from Florida's theme parks such as Busch Gardens and Epcot, where millions of flowers are on display next month during the International Flower and Garden Festival.

Mix bright-colored flowers in sun-loving containers. Early spring favorites include pansies, impatiens, snapdragons, petunias and bright yellow and orange Wonderland Citron, an alyssum that resembles a cabbage plant.

Deep yellow marigolds, brilliant red salvia and geraniums in a variety of shades can weather warmer temperatures.

Use a colorful, hardy anchor plant in shade containers. Good choices include "Mammy" croton; variegated varieties ("Gold Capella" and "Trinette") of dwarf schefflera; the tall, stalklike ti plant in reddish shades and variegated varieties; and yellow "Florida Sunset" and deep orange-red "Maui" varieties of ixora, which produce flower clusters.

Add seasonal plants around the anchor plant. In shade, choose vibrant bloomers, such as impatiens for fall and winter and leafy caladiums in summer.

Throughout the year, add long-lasting color with ornamental bromeliads, hanging orchids and the succulent kalanchoe. Look for "Kalanchoe Calandiva," which produces multiple, rose-shaped flowers in shades of purple, pink, orange, red and white.

Care and feeding

Fertilize often. Container plants are big feeders. If you want really spectacular results, Joe Parr, horticulture project manager at Busch Gardens, recommends a half-strength solution of 20-20-20 water-soluble fertilizer every time you water containers. (That's in addition to the time-release fertilizer you added when potting.)

Trade secret

This is the real secret at theme parks: Rotate

your showy plants in and out of pots so there's always something fresh and blooming. Put

hanging baskets on a swivel and turn them daily

to promote even growth. Remove dead blooms (called deadheading) regularly to encourage

more blooming.

Getting the goods

You'll find outdoor planters at most garden centers, big-box retailers, home decor and discount stores. Thrift stores and yard sales also are good sources for used containers. Don't forget your own closets or garage; all kinds of items can become outdoor planters with a little imagination.

For an even bigger selection of containers, there are numerous online suppliers, including Gardeners Supply Co. (www.gardeners.com; toll-free 1-800-843-1819). At www.simplyplanters.com (toll-free 1-800-971-4269), more than 400 planters, urns and planter boxes are available.

Many garden centers have gorgeous planted

container gardens and hanging baskets. Usually they are too small for long-term survival so

consider them a fleeting pleasure or repot in a larger planter.

Grow your garden in containers — it's easy 02/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:30am]

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