Gardens - Container Gardening

Expert tips on container gardening

Carol Cowan
Photography by
Joe Kim/TC Media

Learn from the pros and create gorgeous mini-gardens in pots.

The word "garden" is being redefined. If it's your sanctuary and the place where, hands in dirt, you commune with nature, it's a garden. This might mean five acres in the country or a tiny urban oasis, the deck off the family room, a balcony in the sky or merely a stunning urn by the front door.

Perhaps the fastest-growing area in the gardening world is that of container gardening. At a recent workshop hosted by Plant World, a garden centre in Toronto's west end, and led by senior manager Paul Zammit, a group of garden writers experienced this evolving and increasingly sophisticated art form. As a result, a spiky dracaena surrounded by a couple of geraniums will never again suffice, at least not in my containers.

Here's how you can create your own traffic-stopping designs.

Prep work
Before creating your masterpiece, Paul Zammit recommends the following:

1. Change the potting mix every year. By the time the season is over, all nutrients in the mixture will have been used up. Recycle used potting soil in your compost or work it into existing flower beds.

2. First water all plants in their cell packs or store-bought pots.

3. Leave five to eight centimetres between the top of the soil and the rim of the container to allow water to slowly penetrate the root system rather than run off the surface.

Like meets iike
Think about where the container will be placed and select plants that require similar growing conditions (such as full sun or shade, moist or dry soil, sheltered or not), yet have different growth habits and bloom times. For high-traffic areas, consider adding fragrant foliage plants such as lavender, thyme and rosemary.

Thrillers, fillers and spillers
These three words, coined by garden designer Steve Silk, capture the essence of good container design. In the artful container, anything goes.

Foliage only, or a mix of annuals, perennials, shrubs, herbs, summer bulbs, ornamental grasses, small evergreens, vines and tropical plants are all appropriate. It's entirely your choice.

Thrillers: the tall, upright, eye-catcher placed either in the centre or off-centre in the container; plant it first. For a tropical look, try taro (Colocasia spp.), elephant's ear (Alocasia esculenta), cannas, papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), banana plants (Musa x paradisiaca ssp. sapientum) or a tall ornamental grass.

Fillers: take up mid-ground space without distracting from the thriller. Begonias, lantanas, coleus, salvias, parsley, low-growing grasses and numerous other foliage and flowering plants fall into this category.

Spillers: plants that flow over the edges of containers: sweet potato vines (Ipomoea batatas), ivies, trailing geraniums and petunias, Bidens ferulifolia and no doubt many more discoveries you'll make at your local garden centre.

Try using roses, a small Japanese maple, an azalea standard or your favourite shrub or evergreen as the star of your container. In the fall, remove perennials, trees and shrubs from containers and plant them in the garden three to six weeks before the ground freezes.

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