6 Tips for Container Gardens

My garden is my test ground. Most of what I know I learned by screwing up at least once.

So here’s some tips I’ve learned through trial and error.

1. PLAN!

Typically I’ve combined plants that I have rather than plants that I’ve designed to go together.Image

I was given the little Buxus (boxwood), so I stuck it in the green planter, then some time later I acquired the hellebore, (Lenten rose) and added it to the pot. Do they go together? No. Could I make them go together by adding more stuff. Probably not. The only way (IMO) they will look good together is to let the boxwood grow bigger (pruning it a bit in the spring and fall so that it will bush out and up) and wait for the hellebore to multiply. And since I’m not in any hurry, and after all, my garden is my test ground anyway, I’ll do just that. In fact, it was my PLAN! (not…)

2. Where do you expect your container to live? Full sun or full shade or a combination? We usually think we’ll need lots of sun to get the colourful container garden we want, but in fact there are LOTS of colourful shade loving plants. My favourite would be coleus, with it’s stunningly coloured foliage and completely insignificant flowers. Image

If you don’t have full sun, how many hours of sun do you get? Or if no direct sun, how deep is your shade? Only morning sun, or shade from trees that are high overhead, might be called light shade, or dappled or bright shade. But shade that is on the north side of a tall building with another building close by would be dense shade.

3. Is it going into a small space or a big space? Small spaces don’t necessarily need small containers, in fact sometimes just the opposite. A small balcony can be visually enlarged by filling one end with a large extravagant container garden.

4. How big an object do you want? Do you want one big pot or a bunch of coordinating small pots? The larger the container, the better it tolerates hot dry days, and the more nutrition it holds. But more smaller pots may give you more “terracing” effect—ie, lots of levels. ImageThis is a small pot that just barely fits on a front step: a bunch of different sedums, some creeping thyme for summer flowers, and mini-daffodils that are just beginning to bud out.

5. Special considerations for hanging baskets:

  • Bigger is better. Have you noticed the size of Victoria’s hanging baskets, or New West’s? They’re enormous. And therefore are able to hold onto more water. The most important thing about hanging baskets is water, because they’re completely open to evaporation. Many garden centres recommend moisture crystals, but my favourite  expert on everything horticultural, Linda Chalker-Scott from Washington State U says they’re pointless (or worse).

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  • This on the other hand is a small hanging basket: of course, it’s my own. Remember, test ground…Image
  • Buy potting mixture for hanging baskets. In fact, always buy potting mixture for containers rather than something that’s called topsoil, or compost, or anything that is “soil based”. Real soil is way too heavy for containers of any kind, and containers don’t have the advantages of the ground (full of microbes and worms to do all the real work of growing plants).

6. One of my favourite links for growing things in our location: Great Plant Picks for maritime northwest garden.

Do you need help figuring out your container garden(s)? Just ask. You won’t be my test garden. Or leave a comment.

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Do as I Say, Not As I Do!

I’ve been digging. I don’t  really like digging, unless it’s just digging into the soil in order to put something into a hole and then fill it again. Today (and yesterday and the day before) I was digging up mostly dead sod, shaking it free-ish of soil, and then digging a hole and putting something into it and mostly filling it again.

Two tips today:

If you’re going to shortcut something, make sure you’re doing it right.

You probably know about “lasagna gardening”. It’s a system of building an organic space by layering material over what’s already there. You save the “structure” of the soil, prevent new weeds from springing up because they stay smothered and light-free, and the worms love it enough to chomp through all the layers giving a rich plantable bed in a few months’ time.

The key is LOTS OF LAYERS. I did NOT do lots of layers, mainly because I didn’t have ready access to lots of layers. The layers would be leaves, straw, compost, and starting it all off, cardboard. I had the cardboard–went to The Edmonds Appliance warehouse and got quantities of giant refrigerator boxes. But that was only after I’d already started with some very light weight boxes, so light weight that they began to disintegrate before what was underneath them– ratty grass and buttercup–had died off.

But never mind, I still had layers– 3 metric tons of hand shovelled compost to be exact. But compost, even at the end of the season when it’s been pretty dry and the compost is relatively unsaturated, is heavy, and 3 metric tons of it doesn’t go as far as you want it to go.

And then other layers? Leaves are hard to come by on a street that’s 100% conifer-treed. Went down to BSS where the boulevard is full of maples and harvested about ten giant bags, but once those were shredded, there was only enough to mulch the important bits, not enough to layer the lasagna bed.

You’ve had enough of the sordid story. The end result is that if I hope to plant into this bed this year, I have to dig out the not-nearly-composted, mostly-dead turf/buttercup.

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This is the potato bed on the right edge, the brick edge on the left will be where the path will go in between what was previously there and what will soon be there. Which leads me to tip #2:

Plan out your garden before you do anything that will require a lot of undoing! 

Do as I say, not as I do!

Here’s the bed a few years ago, when I’d dug out quantities of turf to make what I thought was a perfect sized bed.

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And this is today.

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Before, there were stepping stones, but not enough room around them to escape the giant rose (“Jude the Obscure”), the various peonies that take up a lot more space when they’re 5 years old than they did when there were infants, and everything else that’s growing in girth. I guess that’s why it’s good to know the mature size of plants in order to PLAN. There was no path leading to anything in the garden, so it looked full, but kind of…pointless. Like getting in the car to go somewhere, but you don’t quite know where to go.

So last fall, 5-1/2 years into my tenure here, I tried to design a pathway through to back beds, knowing that I’d have to undo an awful lot of what’s been done before. Oh well, gardening is always a work in progress.

So I would save you from my mistakes: hire me to help you plan!!

If you have a similar story leave me a comment.

Lover of Clover

This isn't clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

This isn’t clover of course, but it is a happy bee.

I remember reading a few years back that grass seed mixtures, up until 50 years ago, always contained a percentage of white clover (Trifolium repens, also known as Dutch clover). The chemical companies that developed herbicides managed to persuade lawn growers that seeing white clover in their lawns was a bad thing, and consequently, the seed suppliers began to produce mixtures that had no white clover. Which of course made the chemical companies very happy, because now not only were they selling herbicides, because of course, white clover will inevitably invade your lawn without herbicides, but they also had a new target customer for their nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizers. As you will now see…

I’m sure you enjoyed reading my last post about legumes and nodules and nitrogen fixing. Well this post is Part B: the benefits of clover in your lawn.

Natural fertilizer:

Clover is a legume, and hence, its little rhizobiums (that would be “rhizobia”) are busy gathering nitrogen from the air (do you remember nitrogen accounts for 78% of air!) and transferring it in a plant-usable form to the soil. Hence nitrogen-fixing. Now you probably know that grass–that is, lawn turf–is hungry for nitrogen, as are most of our green leafy plants. So when we lost white clover from our grass seed mixtures, there was nothing to add nitrogen to the soil, and hungry little grass plants removing nitrogen from the soil. Nitrogen deficit. Not good. Now weeds really will love to invade, and we end up using either herbicides or elbow grease to get rid of them. But if we sow white clover in the lawn, we have nitrogen added, and a little apparently goes a long easy. I read that if you’re sowing a new lawn, your clover-to-grass ratio should be 1:15 by weight. That’s not much clover. Your grass doesn’t need added chemical fertilizer, they’re happy co-existing with the few clover plants, and because the soil is in better condition, (of course assuming you’re doing all the other things that make your lawn happy), weeds will find the environment inhospitable. (Weeds in general prefer poor compacted soil to rich airy soil.)

So that’s the first benefit–rich soil.

Green Green Green

The second benefit (and I’m sure there are a lot more, but I only know of these two) is that white clover is much more drought tolerant than grass. Which, face it, is a very thirsty plant (hungry and thirsty), needing at least 1″ of water once or twice a week. Or you can do as I do, let it go dormant in the summer drought months–usually late July to early September here in Metro Vancouver–and tolerate a brown lawn. Or you can sow white clover, and have a green lawn all summer long with little or no added water.

So get out there and sow some white clover! But a few important notes:

Clover flowers are very tasty to bees or all sorts, (another benefit!), so if you’re allergic to bee stings, I highly recommend mowing your lawn whenever there are flowers.

And your clover plants will die out after two or three years, so you’ll need to overseed from time to time. But you may already be overseeding every fall anyway, so just make sure you’ve got some Trifolium  repens in the mix.

Master Gardener Spring Seminar

From the Speakers’ Bios: “Dr Marion Brodhagen is a former farm girl who has never lost her interest in agriculture. She teaches at Western Washington U in microbiology, molecular biology and cellular biology. Trained a a molecular plant pathologist she is better at killing plants than growing them! She does research in the chemical communication that occurs between plants and microbes (both good ones and bad ones). She is learning to tango, writes poetry and kayaks whenever she has the chance.”

That preface didn’t at all prepare us for the amazing and hilarious hour that was to come. Chemical talking between species is unbelievable! For example, did you know that there is a mucousy phase around all the root hairs of a plant the the plant secretes itself. And into that phase the root hairs leak specific sugars and amino acids that attract beneficial organisms which then take up all the available space making it inhospitable to pathogens.

Here’s another tidbit. We all know that clover is a legume, and legumes are Nitrogen fixing plants, right? Wrong. It’s the bacteria that the clover attracts that does the N-fixing. The clover secretes flavonoids which are “come hither” chemicals that attract the N-fixing bacteria. The bacteria then coat themselves in a friendly sugar that the clover recognizes as something it needs, and invites them in. The bacteria literally invade the roots of the clover and the clover is so happy about it that it forms a protective covering around the rapidly growing colony of bacteria. Those are the nodules you see at the end of roots when you pull up a legume plant.

Rhizobium-infected roots