Category Archives: container gardening

How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

There’s something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers I’m always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesn’t count green unless it’s lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I don’t use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

California Natives for Containers

My ambitious plans to augment this garden here in Bonny Doon with California natives and colorful plants to attract birds and wildlife is not turning out exactly as I’d pictured. I thought that I had licked my gopher problem by planting everything in baskets. Not so, now they just come up next to their plant of choice at night and eat whole thing from the top, dragging the rest down into their neat little hole while leaving the root still snug in its basket. Hopefully, some will regrow from the roots.

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Western azalea

But I’m not giving up on planting for the birds and bees. I’ve got plans to increase my container garden collection. Gardening in containers is easy. I can control the soil, water and light and the gophers can’t undermine my efforts. There are a lot of California native plants that do well in containers and I’m going to place them where both the birds and I can enjoy them.

For some of my largest containers I’ll choose from natives like Western Azalea, Deer Grass, Chaparral Pea or Giant Chain Fern. Any of the taller growing ceanothus and manzanita would look great too by themselves or combined with smaller growing plants.

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Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

For small to medium containers I can use Conejo Buckwheat, Hummingbird Mint, Penstemon Heterophyllos, Mimulus, Woolly Blue Curls or Coastal Daisy, These combine well with colorful Lewisia, Dog Violets or Wild Strawberry.

I might combine a madrone with a Canyon Gray Coastal Sagebrush – Artemisia californica – which grows about a foot high and will trail over the side of the container adding beautiful gray color to contrast with the rich green of the other leaves. I also like the combination of California Hazelnut, Deer Fern, Redwood Sorrel and Wild Ginger.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Giant Elk Clover is one such California native that is an attention getter. Chilopsis linearis-Desert Willow is another great subject for containers as it is slow growing and beautiful in leaf and flower. Other architectural natives that will catch your eye as the centerpiece of a container are Hibiscus or Rose Mallow and Pacific Dogwood. The thriller goes in the center of the pot or if your container will be viewed from only one side it goes in the back.

Next come the fillers. They can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. Good fillers include Heuchera Maxima and Western Maidenhair Fern.

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California fuchsia

The last plants I’ll add are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container. Redwood Sorrel, Wild Ginger and Miner’s Lettuce are good choices. California Fuchsia would look spectacular with its red or orange flowers and grey foliage spilling down the side of my container.

The best overall soil mix for natives in containers sharp sand and horticultural pumice added to a good potting soil. Never use perlite or that puffed up pumice because it will float and look terrible. Happy Container Gardening.

Low Water Use Plants for the Garden

leucadendron_discolor2Has the hot, dry, windy weather made your garden look like mid-summer? Our meager spring rains have all but disappeared from the soil and what hasn’t evaporated the weeds have taken. The local water companies all have water conservation requirements starting last month. I’m getting lots of calls and emails asking for advice about the best way to use water efficiently in the landscape so the garden doesn’t look like the Sahara this summer. I’m helping others redesign their gardens with an eye towards ongoing water conservation.

Conserving water is now a way of life. This doesn’t mean you need to let your valuable trees and shrubs die. Water smarter with an efficient irrigation system set to run less often and encourage deeper rooting. It’s a good time to reduce the size of the lawn or better yet, replace it with a low water substitute and get a rebate. Allocate your water budget wisely. Pay attention to which plants are doing well and which aren’t. Be realistic about plants that don’t suit the conditions you have to offer. Remove them and replace with plants that have proven themselves adaptable and are well suited to your own garden. The key to preserving the earth’s resources is to choose the right plant for the right place.

Many of your most successful plants can manage on a lot less water cordyline_leucadendronthan you think.  These may be California natives or water-wise Mediterranean or Australian plants that perform well here. Plan now. Any new plant, even drought tolerant ones, require some irrigation to get established so maybe postpone that big garden planting until after mid-September when the weather is cooler but the soil is still warm which encourages rooting.

We gardeners will always find a way to enjoy our outdoor space. A plant in a pot doesn’t require much care and is easy to water. An interesting plant combination that will thrive in tough conditions is the burgundy, grass-like Festival cordyline planted with Leucadendron discolor. The burgundy foliage of the Festival grass looks great combined with the red and yellow flowers of the leucadendron. Both of these plants require little water once established.

succulent_gardensSucculent gardens are another fun way to have a garden and conserve water at the same time. Selecting an interesting container or hunting for a new one is part of the fun. During the winter you can cover or move the planter for frost protection so you can choose some of the more colorful but tender succulents.

As a reminder, many common garden plants that you normally consider not very drought tolerant like camellia require only a deep watering every 10 days or so in the growing season. Modest, fuzzy little lamb’s ears grow happily in sun or shade and any kind of soil. Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ grows only 12″ tall, blooms with purple flowers and spreads to make a beautiful edging or low border that is very drought tolerant.

Elfin thyme is the perfect groundcover. It’s a good lawn substitute for an area that gets only light foot traffic. Gorgeous when in bloom with light pink flowers in summer. It will cover dry slopes, fill in between stepping stones or creep over a rock. Elfin thyme likes good drainage and is very drought tolerant. In fact overwatering with impair growth.

I also recommend old favorites such as Jerusalem sage, gray or green santolina, low and upright forms of rosemary, manzanita and ceanothus as well as California fuchsia, scaevola and Homestead verbena. Low water use plants can be colorful as well as gentle on the water budget.

Vegetable Tips for Late Winter

albrightsouza_chardNow's the time to plant  cool season vegetables from starts or seed like chard, snow or shelling peas, spinach, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, lettuce, mustard and onions.  You can also sow seeds of beets, radish and carrots directly in the ground. Inside it's time to start your warm season vegetable seeds such as tomatoes as well as eggplant and peppers.  Usually you start them inside about 8 weeks before last spring frost. Counting back 6 weeks from when night temperatures stay in the mid 50 degree range also works to figure out when to start.

For those who enjoy container gardening, try combining some colorful chard with parsley, alyssum and some Johnny-jump-ups. In another large pot grow some kale, spinach along with Windowbox sweet peas. All stay compact and you can harvest healthy greens close to the kitchen door.
 

What to Do in the Garden in February

Blue Nikko hydrangeaYou know spring is coming when you see daffodils starting to open. You know spring is coming when plum trees begin their glorious show. And you know spring is coming when you begin to think of all those garden tasks that still need your attention.

February is one of those months that ease us into the gardening season. Didn't get the roses pruned at the end of January? There's still time. Didn't dormant spray for fungal diseases and insect control? There's still time. Didn't plant any new berries yet for summer desserts? There's still time – but don't delay much longer.

What is important to do in the garden in February?

Prune fruit trees and smother overwintering eggs and insects by spraying with horticultural oil. Combine your spray with lime-sulfur ( except on apricot trees ) or copper soap to kill fungal disease spores like the ones that cause peach-leaf curl. Spinosad has also been shown to supress fungal diseases. Do this when the buds swell but before they open.

Prune your roses if you haven't already.

Prune repeat flowering roses by removing spindly or diseased shoots and dead wood. Do this before they start leafing out which wastes plant energy. Cut back the remaining stems by about a third, cutting canes at a 45-degree angle just above an outward facing bud. Don't worry whether your pruning job is perfect. Roses are super forgiving and you can trim them up again later. You want to produce lots of roses not just a few of exhibition size. Aim for a vase-shaped  bush with an open center.

Prune old garden roses that bloom once in the spring after flowering. Climbing roses require little pruning. Cut out extra stems if there are too many and also cut back long established canes to about the place where they are slightly thicker than a pencil. Then cut each side stem down to several inches. This will cause the cane to flower along its complete length for a beautiful spring display.

If any old leaves still cling to the plant, remove them. Rake up any debris beneath the plant and discard to eliminate overwintering fungus spores. It's a good idea to spray both the bare plant and the surrounding soil with a combination organic horticultural oil to smother overwintering insect eggs and a dormant spray like lime-sulfur or copper soap to kill fungus spores. If you usually have a problem only with black spot you can use a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda with a few drops of light oil in 1 quart water and spraying every 7 to 10 days.  Thoroughly coat the trunk, branches and twigs.

Cut back woody shrubs. To stimulate lush new growth on plants like Mexican bush sage and artemisia to within a few inches of the ground. Don't use this approach on lavender or ceanothus, though. Lightly prune them after blooming and don't cut back to bare wood inside the plant.  Prune fuchsias back by a third and remove dead, crossing branches and interior twiggy growth. Container fuchsias can be cut back to the pot rim.

Cut back hydrangeas stems that bloomed last year if you haven't already done so and apply a soil acidifier if you want the flowers blue. Although sulfur is the traditional favorite for quickly acidifying soil it is not as kind to many beneficial soil microorganisms. Coffee grounds, pine needles, peat moss and cottonseed meal are kinder to your soil.

Don't cut back grasses yet if you get frost in the area where they grow. Wait until mid-March.

Don't prune spring flowering shrubs and trees like lilacs, flowering cherries, plums and crabapples,  rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, weigela or spirea until after they flower.  You can cut some branches during flowering to bring in cuttings for bouquets.

Wait to prune back perennials that may have their new foliage damaged in a late frost. Same goes for shrubs that got hit by those January frosts. That damaged foliage can protect the plant from further frost damage. Mid-March is the estimated date of hard frost in our area.
 

A Garden Reflects it’s Designer

To quote Luther Burbank, "Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul".  After visiting the garden of Bev Kaplan in Boulder Creek I couldn't agree more.

I never tire of being invited to spend time with a fellow gardening enthusiast. Everyone creates a unique garden which reflects their individuality and personality. To share a garden is a personal experience. To tell the story of each part and how it came to life is a special honor bestowed on those we care about. Here is the story of Bev's garden.

Bev and her husband, Jeff, bought the property in 1992. Then it was covered with poison oak and Scotch broom but they saw potential and got started on the dramatic transformation. A huge culvert that runs under the driveway used to be lined with old Texaco 50 gallon drums. Now redone with stone,  it blooms with agapanthus that were being given away by a friend. Groundcovers blanket the slopes now but in the winter the culvert carries a lot of water.

Bordering the driveway are planters built with concrete from the old pool. Her "designer" bearded iris have finished blooming but Bev bragged about the huge 6" flowers that they bear each spring. Deer can reach this part of the property so iris and grasses survive well here.

A steep slope along another side of the driveway is home to her resident deer. She pointed to the wisteria vines growing over the trees. When in bloom they cover the slope with purple blooms and a wonderful fragrance. She started the wisteria 14 years ago from one seed collected from the hamburger joint at the southern edge of Boulder Creek. It took 7 years for it to bloom but now when the seed pods burst they hit the kitchen window a hundred feet away.

Strolling under the Southern magnolia tree with those huge, white flowers that smell like oranges, we passed the "Bottle Garden". Bev explained she just gave up trying to grow anything in this shady area so made bouquets of colored bottles placed upside down in pots. It's charming, whimsical and the ultimate in recycling.

"Maple Lane" was our next destination. Her large Japanese maple collection grows happily alongside abutilon, which are also called Flowering maples.  Hummingbirds enjoy all of the flowers equally be they colored red, orange or yellow. Sweet violets and astilbe find homes here, too.

A welcoming flagstone patio under the shade of massive redwoods held a large firepit and lots of chairs. Calling her home, "Bev's Bread and Breakfast", she explained that many relatives come from out of town to stay and the warmth of the fire ring is welcomed by those who are used to warmer nights. Camellias and rhododendrons enclose this beautiful patio with a view of the San Lorenzo Valley.

Everywhere I looked in this garden, glass beads were sprinkled between stepping stones. Like jewels, I was told these "Pixie Fairy Gems" keep the weeds down and invite the fairies – clear ones brightened up the shade, blue ones nestled between the brick-red stepping stones in the hospital area.

Opposite the hospital area, which didn't house any current patients I noticed, a several bowling balls sat atop a patch of Mexican pebbles. These belonged to her husband's late parents and she wanted to remember them by creating this unusual garden.

Finally arriving at the pool garden I was speechless. This labor of love is a riot of color attracting dragonflies, hummingbirds and songbirds and butterflies by the score. I asked how she takes care of all of it. Bev smiled and pulled out a large serving spoon and a pair of kitchen shears. "With these", she said.

During a delicious lunch of spinach souffle and fresh lemonade with mint, I was surrounded by the fragrance of honeysuckle, star jasmine, scented geraniums, buddleja, nemesia, purple petunia and dianthus. Many varieties of salvia, calibrachoa, scaevola, dahlia and gladiola filled the many pots and hanging baskets around the pool.

Bev takes care of the entire garden with just a little help. She doesn't spray with anything, even organics, preferring to keep bugs at bay by washing the deck with simple green, hand picking and spritzing with the hose.

It was a day I'll always remember. This garden is a personal labor of love and I hope to be invited back to see the hawk babies when they fledge.