Container Gardening 101…a la Helen Weis with Unique by Design
Oh the signs of Spring! And one of the surest signs of spring for me has to be the overwhelmed, bug-eyed expressions that I see on peoples’ faces in big box stores or plant nurseries…not knowing what to buy from the vast selection of flowers to choose from. I know. I’m right there with you.
And things get even more overwhelming when you try to figure out what plants to pull together for a container. So as I’ve done for a few years now, I wanted to share with you the post I did with container gardening expert, Helen Weis with Unique by Design.
This container gardening 101 post is one of the most popular post we’ve done on RYGblog. On it Helen spells out all you need to know to create your very own container garden masterpiece…while giving you license to have fun and be creative. And hopefully it will help you be a tad less overwhelmed when making plant selections this spring. Enjoy!
I’ve probably gotten more requests to do a post on container gardening than anything else…and with the entrance of spring when everyone is trying to fluff things up, there’s probably no better time to do it than now. Today’s post will provide you some basics on container garden design and installation.
Since I’ve been on this Redeem Your Ground journey, I have had the incredible fortune to meet a number of people who share the same love of family, design, and the outdoors. One such person is Helen Weis. Helen is the owner and designer extraordinaire of Unique by Design – a container and landscape design & installation firm out of Edmond, Oklahoma.
I’d like to say that her work says it all…and it does come really close – her container designs are ah-may-zing! (As you can see for yourself from these pics of some of her creations below!) But what they don’t fully capture is how gracious and giving of a person she is. This post is an example of that.
When considering my post on container gardening, I thought that there is no better person to provide true insight into this popular topic than my friend and container design expert. So, on a whim I reached out to Helen to see if she’d be willing to invest a bit of time and insight into me and my fledgling blog. And boy did she! Below you will find her answers to several questions I had on the basics of container gardening. [Click here to see my spring container garden plant combinations.]
Golden Rule of Container Gardening
The golden rule of container gardening is to think in terms of tall, full & trailing. Or some will say … thriller, filler, and spiller … kinda catchy.
- Your taller plants should be at the center of a round or square container that sits away from your home…or in the back of a rectangular container. If planting a long window box I like to be repetitive with my centerpiece plant.
- Around or in front of your taller plants you will place your fuller and medium height selections.
- Lastly, in front of all of these you should place your trailing plants.
In all, think of your container garden in terms of a painting – making sure to include a background, middle ground, and foreground.
I always plant containers full. In a container you don’t need to go by the space requirements listed on the plant label, since you’re not permanently placing the plants here. However, you will need to make sure you accommodate enough space for the root zones. My rule for containers and plant size is that you always use a centerpiece plant that is at least as tall as your container. This keeps you in proportion. I always find it odd to see a very short plant or shrub in a tall container. To me it makes the plant look stunted and dwarfed. Once you have established the proper centerpiece the surrounding plants will grow together cohesively, bringing the pot and the centerpiece together in harmony.
Soil is very important when planting containers. You want to hold water in, but you also do not want to keep air out. Obviously, you’ll want to use the type of soil that’s proper for the plants you’re using and the conditions for which they will live.
- If planting succulents, agave or cacti you are going to want a cactus type soil that drains well.
- When planting edibles you want to make sure that you have composted material with your soil to give them all those natural extras.
- When you are planting ornamentals it’s fairly simple and you should be able to use any quality, well-draining, mixed potting soil.
- When planting large containers it is not necessary to fill the entire container, but you can. If you don’t want or need to fill the entire container with soil, you can either fill the bottom with a lighter filler material (e.g., packing peanuts) or create a false bottom.
- If planting a centerpiece you want to have planted for many years, I suggest giving it as much root zone as possible and fill the entire container.
- I live in a state that is windy almost all of the time and those winds can easily surpass 50 mph. So I am often filling the bottom of my pots with rock or gravel, most certainly if using a top heavy centerpiece.
- It is only necessary to have 12” of soil for most annuals, but I always use at least 24”. You have to remember that the less soil you use, the quicker the container is going to dry out – so if you live in an area where it is extremely hot for months, you may want to consider using more soil or a larger container.
There are basic rules to selecting containers, but the most important one is selecting the proper type of container for your situation.
- If you are in a zone which gets extremely hot or is surrounded by concrete, then you will want a large container which will hold moisture. You do not want a container which will increase in temperature due to its surroundings.
- Stay away from iron and steel as these will literally bake your root zones.
- If you are in a windy area you obviously do not want to use foam or ‘light’ substances, otherwise you will be picking up your container and putting it back together on a regular basis.
- I would also shy away from tall narrow pots in a windy area.
- Personally, I have never liked anything with a ‘liner’ as a container for ornamentals, such as coco-fiber – simply because it dries out the root zone the quickest. Of course, there is a place for such things, but more often than not you will become a slave to watering it.
- Zinc or galvanized is my preference for metal and concrete pots are wonderful when used in shady areas.
- I prefer using baked ceramic pots whenever possible.
The Dali Lama has a great saying … “Know the rules well so you can break them effectively”. This statement proves to be true. Then again, who says there are absolute rules to container design? When it comes to containers your only limitation is truly your imagination. If you can grow it in the ground, chances are you can grow it in a pot. It’s all about proportion and size. Remember, containers are not permanent plantings. Knowing this opens up a whole world of ways to experiment and effectively challenge your own set of rules.
Thanks so much Helen for graciously paying it forward and giving all of us some of your awesome insight into creating beautiful container gardens! So much appreciated!
Now…with the basics of container gardening in hand hopefully you’ll be a bit less overwhelmed when you go plant shopping later this week. Making your shopping experience more enjoyable…and more importantly, your container garden masterpiece more beautimous.
Lastly, as I’ve suggested on other posts, try not to get wrapped around the axle for not knowing everything or never having done something before. Just do it! You’ll learn what works & doesn’t work…and what you like & don’t like as you go. I’m certain you’ll not only enjoy the end result, but getting your hands dirty along the way too – I guarantee it!
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