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Chockablock Containers
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost


First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b

January 26, 2002

How many plants are too many? This is a common question we hear from folks standing in the annuals section at the garden centres. Vibrant wave petunias, trailing snapdragons, fragrant heliotrope, rainbow coloured salvia, and the incredibly intense colours of tuberous begonia all clamour for attention.

Sometimes, Gentle Reader, it is all too much for me. I can't understand why folks impose arbitrary limits upon themselves. They reckon their flowerbeds can hold x number of plants. They add a few more for a decorative urn. And, amidst a plethora of plants, they splurge and pick up a hanging basket. Then they go home.

Now, I won't quarrel with the quantities they've selected for their permanent beds, as long as the plants will completely cover the surface of the soil. It's time to think outside of the planterbox. Annuals were created for container gardening.

"Containers" are very broadly defined as anything that can hold sufficient amounts of soil and water in such a manner as to allow the plant to thrive. An old watering can, a cracked flower pot, a wicker basket, an old rubber boot (okay, a brightly coloured "duckie"), a whiskey barrel, a rural mailbox, a tree stump, a milk can, ...the list is limited only by your imagination. Containers will fit anywhere.

How many plants will fit into a container? Well, it doesn't really matter as long as you cram in lots and lots of them. Check out a good quality garden centre's annual baskets. They are choc-a-block with scads of things. Some stick straight up, other bits dash madly off at all angles and another whack of them trail down over the sides. There is barely enough soil to hold them all in place.

Naturally, there are trade offs for such jam-packed indulgences. The first is the need for an increased frequency of watering. Using the proper container soil mix with water retaining additives, using white or other reflective colours for pots in the sun, and placing the container out of the way of drying winds are some strategies to alleviate this concern.

In some cases you can treat your annuals just like a houseplant. You know how they require a rest period? Sometimes they need potting up, sometimes a bit of root pruning and sometimes a fertiliser with a higher first number (nitrogen for lush vegetative growth) or a higher middle number (phosphorous for strong roots and bountiful fruits.)

Annuals can be approached in a similar manner if you considerably shorten the time lines.

Let's use Osteospermums such as Whirligig or Buttermilk, members of the composite family, as an example. (Unfortunately, this is one unfortuante chappie afflicted with an unwieldy botanical name and no known (to me) common name. Everyone knows it, can describe it, but have no idea what it is called.) It comes on like gangbusters early in the season and then flowers sporadically throughout the remainder. Just like a flowering houseplant, it benefits from a complete rest. Once the blooms fade, give it a break. A good drink of water, no nitrogen, and a good trim will work wonders. Leave it alone and in a month or so it will begin to respond nicely. You should be able to sneak a second "season" from this performer. Petunias will benefit from a serious pinching back, too.

Annuals planted in flowerbeds, i.e. into the ground, are treated no differently and the pack-em-in philosophy still holds. Annuals, usually seen in municipal or commercially managed gardens, take a lot of abuse from mother earth and bounce back readily. Use a good soil, amend it properly before planting, water the plants in well and then use a water-soluble fertiliser every ten to fourteen days. If you plant them closely enough, they will create their own weed free zone. The only difference is that it is wise to select self-dead heading species, such as petunia and begonias.

Spice your annual containers by mixing and matching vegetables and herbs with your flowers. There are no rules.

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