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Container Gardening Tips
by Lesley Reynolds
June 24, 2001

Container grown plants have enjoyed popularity throughout the ages—and for good reason. They offer endless design possibilities, low maintenance, convenience, and mobility. The ways in which container-grown plants can be used as a design tool are limitless. Here are just a few ideas:

*An attractive grouping of pots will transform a garden, patio, terrace, or balcony, soften the sharp edges of a pool, deck, or wall, or fill in an otherwise boring area of the garden. 

*Strategically placed urns can serve as a focal point at the end of a garden path or at the centre of a formal garden. 

*Use pots of bright annuals to put colour in perennial borders where it is lacking. Place containers in the border before perennials begin to bloom, or in areas where they have finished blooming for the season. They are also useful to prop up floppy plants and hide bare ground. 

*Creative gardeners love the flexibility and inspiration offered by containers. Try varying container locations and design from year to year. Even before they are planted, some containers may be artistic or ornamental in their own right. In addition, different styles of containers can stand alone as focal points or be grouped for effect. It is easy to rearrange containers if you are not happy with the design or effect.

*Try changing themes from spring to fall (and even winter). Use pansies in spring, annuals in summer and hardy mums or asters in the fall. Winter container arrangements can be made with evergreen boughs, berries, and texturally interesting or colourful branches or twigs. 

*Use container-grown plants for "vertical gardens". Wall pots, window boxes, and hanging baskets add interest to stark, unsightly walls and fences.

*If garden space is limited or non-existent, an entire flower or vegetable garden may be planted in containers on a balcony or rooftop.

Containers suitable for growing plants come in a variety of styles and materials, including wood, metal, clay, concrete, fibreglass, and glazed ceramics. Stick with pots of one style or material when planning an arrangement; introduce variety by combining pots of different heights, shapes and designs within the chosen style. An odd number of planters in a grouping is more pleasing to the eye than an even number.
Annuals do well planted in pots 23–30 cm deep, while perennials prefer pots deeper than 30 cm. Shrubs and trees require pots that are bigger still. Position large pots before they are filled with soil—otherwise they will be too heavy to move. 
Formal arrangements are often composed of plants of similar height. Informal arrangements frequently follow the scheme (from back to front): tall, medium, short, groundcover, trailing. 
The groundcover and trailing plants soften the rim of the container and add breadth and body to the arrangement. 
A combination of two or three bright colours, balanced by green foliage or highlighted by white, gives the most pleasing effect. Varying shades of one colour can also have visual impact if you select a diversity of shapes in the flowers and leaves. Avoid choosing plants that match the container too closely, and keep background colours in mind. Strong contrast shows plants to their best advantage and prevents the possibility of "losing" the arrangement through camouflage. Finally, avoid combining clashing colours, e.g., pink and orange.
Vary foliage shape, texture and size within a container: mix tall or spiky shapes with denser, lower-growing circular and pointed shapes; or place compact, formal foliage plants in the same container as less formal, sprawling plants. 
There are two types of growing medium for containers—soil-based or soil-less. 
A soil-based mixture consists of sterilized loam, peat, sand, and nutrients. It has good moisture retention and drainage, and requires feeding less regularly than the soil-less medium. The soil-less medium is peat-based and lightweight, and is ideal for filling large pots on balconies or roofs where weight is a concern. The lightness, however, may not be an advantage for large plants that can become top-heavy and blow or tip over easily. Soil-less mixture needs to be watered frequently, and if allowed to dry out completely is very difficult to moisten again. Try mixing a little compost with soil-less mixtures to improve the fertility and water retention. Do not use plain garden soil. 
Good drainage is essential for container grown plants. Use pots with drainage holes, or if this is not possible, add a layer of gravel to the bottom of the pot that is 1/3 the depth of the container. 
When planting, cover the root balls with about 1.2 cm of soil, keeping the soil level about 2.5 cm from the top of the container. Water plants thoroughly to give them a good start and to check the drainage. For window boxes, the plants may be left in their pots, arranged in the box, and packed with damp peat moss.
Since container-grown plants dry out quickly in hot weather, it is wise to mulch with moss, bark chips, or small pebbles to reduce moisture loss. Water plants early in the morning, emptying excess water from drip trays after watering. If you have arranged for someone else to water your plants while you are on vacation, group all container grown plants tightly, preferably in a spot that receives afternoon shade (to minimize drying), and close to the hose (for convenience). 
Pay special attention to feeding potted plants during the growing season, since the nutrients in small volumes of soil deplete rapidly. A flowering plant fertilizer, such as 15-30-15, will work well. Feeding at half the recommended rate on fertilizer packages, at twice the suggested frequency, encourages more uniform plant growth. Overfeeding causes a build-up of salts around the roots which can cause serious damage to the plants. Dry and wilted, or sick plants should be allowed to recover fully before applying fertilizer.
The technique of deadheading—the cutting of dead flowers back to a non-flowered shoot or bud—encourages bushiness and the production of more flowers to keep your containers beautiful all summer.

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