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Thu, Sept. 19

Column: Top container gardening tips

Courtesy photo<p>Use plants of varying heights and textures in containers.

Courtesy photo<p>Use plants of varying heights and textures in containers.

You probably already know these obvious, common-sense aspects of putting together container gardens: Plant sun plants with sun plants and shade plants with shade plants. Choose plants that have similar water needs (don't partner cacti with those water-loving plants.) Select some plants that spill over the edge of the container, some plants with height, and enough plants to fill in the middle plane of the design. But, in addition to these basics, there are some other things you can do to help your planters thrive.

Here are my tips for creating and maintaining great-looking containers.

The container: Large pots can accommodate more soil so plants don't need to be watered as often. When temperatures get up to 90 degrees in the shade, small containers must be watered at least once a day. More soil also means your plants can grow bigger root systems. Plants with lots of roots tend to be healthy, happy plants.

Clay pots and cocoa/moss-lined pots will dry out more quickly than pots made of plastic or glazed pottery. Plastic and glazed pots are slower to dry because water doesn't evaporate through their sides as quickly. These pots are ideal for summertime but are easy to overwater in early spring and late fall.

Potting soil: Be sure to use the best-quality potting soil. The better the potting soil, the better the plants will grow. A good potting soil should have the same consistency and look exactly like the soil the plant was in at the nursery. Plants should never be aware that they have been moved from a grower's pot into another container. If the right soil is used, the plants' transitions will be seamless.

It is best to replace all of a container's soil every year, but if last year's plants in a large pot were healthy, replace only the top half of the pot's soil. Use the bottom soil for one more year. Of course, if the previous year's plants in that pot had disease problems, it's best to completely replace the soil. Be sure to replace all container soil every other year.

Plants: A "living plant arrangement" is a stunning centerpiece. Have three differing heights in the same container. A tall plant at the back of container will add a touch of drama. Many times I use dwarf shrubs for this larger specimen. Mid-height plants will provide the bulk of the fill of the arrangement. Third, a variety of short flowers that will flow over the rim at the front of the design will add a graceful touch.

I rarely use a 6-pack-size flower in my container gardens. The more mature 4" or 1-gallon size plants develop more rapidly, require less frequent watering and almost immediately present a finished look. I definitely recommend buying fewer plants in favor of upsizing each plant.

Water: Water a container of plants when the soil's surface is dry to the touch, then water until some moisture comes out of the drainage hole in the bottom. Large pots are especially vulnerable to staying too wet because of their large soil volume, so remember that the water routine that works during hot weather must be adjusted for cool weather.

Feeding: The right plant food is essential for growing the best possible container plants. Organic foods are preferable to synthetics because organics release slowly so plants are fed over a longer period of time. Also, misusing synthetic foods can easily burn plants. I created a plant food that is perfect for container gardens. Just sprinkle my "All Natural Plant Food" on top of the soil, water in and watch for some amazing blooms.

One last tip: If one plant starts to take over a container, just trim it back to give the other plants room to grow. On the other hand, if you are like I am, you can let your plants duke it out in a veritable microcosm of Darwin's survival of the fittest!

Here are a few of my favorite plant combinations for containers. They grow together comfortably and look great! Use these as a guide and then have some fun experimenting on your own.

"American Dream" - Red geranium, alyssum, lobelia, spike.

"Autumn Riches" - purple sage, toffee twist sedge, mum, ajuga, purple and white pansies.

"All About Purple" - Supertunia, ajuga, dusty miller.

"Blowing in the Breeze" - Mexican feather grass, blue daisy, verbena, calibicoa.

"Blue Quartet" - Super bells petunia, blue bacopa, verbena, ageratum.

"Banana Split" - Banana plant, sweet potato vine, New Guinea impatiens, plectranthus.

"Begonia Buffet" - Your three favorite begonia colors planted with English ivy.

"Coleus Delight" - Coleus, oxalis, sweet flag.

Need some more ideas? Take your pot to your favorite garden center, or simpler yet, bring us the dimensions of your container and we can help you put together a look that is uniquely you and will deliver a touch of "WOW!" to your landscape.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Ken Lain says, "my personal mission is to help local homeowners garden smarter and get our local garden timing right." Throughout the week, Ken can be found at Watters Garden Center, located at 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or contact him through www.wattersonline.com.

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