Contain yourself while waiting for spring

Using just one plant per container lets you appreciate the plant more. PHOTO: Mary Fran McQuade

Holy compost! I can’t remember a spring that’s been so slow to arrive.

I go out in the morning, peer hopefully for something new coming up, then disgustedly go back inside to fuss over the houseplants … again.

Lately, though, I’ve found something new to do in the garden: fuss over my many outdoor containers. I know when warm weather hits, it’s going to hit hard, so I want to be ready to get out there and PLANT.

The basics

If you’re new to container planting, here’s a quick overview. (If you’re an old hand at potting things, you can skip this section.)

Picking your pot

Look for containers with one or more holes in the bottom for drainage. You may be able to get away with a layer of gravel in a pot with no drainage, but most gardeners say that just creates a stinky swamp below the soil.

Get the right size, not too big and not too little. Too big, and all that excess soil will harden and be wasted. Too small, and your poor plant will have to undergo another traumatic move within a month or two.

Choose plastic, terra cotta, stone, ceramic – whatever suits your taste and growing conditions. Remember that plastic holds moisture better than most other materials. Ceramic is lovely, but chips easily.

How to plant it

One basic design follows the ‘thriller, filler, spiller’ pattern. The thriller is your ‘wow’ plant – an ornamental grass, a tall tropical, perennial or annual.

Fillers are shorter plants that bridge the gap between the thriller and the edge of the container. They can be soft and fluffy to contrast with a spiky thriller. Their colour can contrast or coordinate with the thriller lead player (also sometimes known as the diva). They can be a combination of plants or all one kind. Group them together before you buy and see what you like.

Spillers are easy – the ones planted so they tumble over the edge of the planter. Stick to one type of plant in one colour; green, grey or burgundy are popular spiller shades.

Beyond petunias

I spent some time recently with one of the big names in the garden world, Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon. You may not recognize his name, but he’s the guy who’s developed all those heucheras with yummy names like Peach Flambe, Lime Rickey and Chocolate Ruffles. And he’s a master of container gardening ideas.

He suggested going beyond the thriller/filler/spiller formula, to try things like:

  • Matching the container to the shape of the plant – low, rounded pots holding short, rounded plants like alyssum, for example, or lilies in a vase-shaped container.
  • Using containers with a little texture. Incised designs in plain terra cotta van turn a plain window box into a touch of Tuscany.
  • Instead of grouping plants together in one big pot, “use individual pots because you’ll appreciate them more.”

Dan also pointed out that you don’t have to restrict containers to a porch or patio; go ahead and add them to garden beds and borders. If you’ve got a fabulous container, like a giant, unused fountain, let it stand by itself in the middle of a patch of plants set in the ground. Think classic grey stone fountain surrounded by silver and grey herbs. In a twist on this idea, let the container borrow colours from the plants within and around it. A pale yellow ceramic pot holding green and gold foliage and flowers would be a show-stopper set near a border using lime, burgundy and yellow.

Be adventurous

A self-confessed “hortaholic,” Dan has stacks of photos of wonderful container plantings he’s seen all around the world. “This is a huge trend and it’s evolving,” he said.

Cast-iron Victorian urns are big in Britain, while the clean lines of hip Euro-style containers are in favour on the continent. Japan prefers subdued natural stone, but the small, rustic villages of Mexico are using primitive wooden planters that suit the hot, dry climate there.

In our own gardens, he rattles off a list of unusual things to plant in: tin boxes, old wooden crates, a green wall of succulents (maybe held in place by chicken wire), dish gardens of small tropicals and even a muffin tin with different succulent in each section.

Lots of stuff to dream on while you wait for our belated spring.

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