Classy and Sassy Containers
Thrillers, fillers and spillers in bloom
It’s May at last, and we can put away our fears of frost — at least after May 15 — and start planting for summer. The big excitement for gardeners every May is the chance to finally get our hands on annual plants, especially flowering varieties, which feature so prominently in containers. Creativity is all the rage these days, with amazing new plant varieties and gorgeous containers just waiting to be filled.
“It used to be you put in a spike, a red geranium and a vinca vine and you were pretty much done,” recalls Joe Heidgen, co-owner of Shady Hill Gardens in Elburn. While Heidgen says that classic combination is still popular, new plant pairings and varieties are taking over from traditional selections. He likes to use plants that are bred for containers, such as the more controllable versions of sweet potato vine called Sweet Caroline and Illusion, and million bells or calibrachoa that look like mini-petunias and flower like crazy. But even old-fashioned plants can be unique. Shady Hill specializes in growing unusual varieties of geraniums, such as Pandora, a pretty-in-pink version that dates back to the 1800s, as well as scented geraniums and fancy leaf varieties.
Principles of Good Design
You may recognize a beautiful container design when you see it, but how do you create one? According to Debra Phillips, landscape designer and owner of Scentimental Gardens and SG Geneva, the home’s architecture should dictate the type of containers and plantings you select. “You want to match the flower colors and the container and the chosen plants,” she says. “All three components should mirror the architecture.”
Phillips, who draws inspiration from her travels as well as her work in home design, often includes elements that are unusual to containers. “One of my favorites is a big massive urn with a vintage horse hitching post driven into the middle.” She also favors simple designs such as oversized olive jars planted only with lavender to stand at the front door, and urns ornamented with a statement piece, such as a statue, obelisk or wire sphere, along with the plants.
For containers that combine more than one type of plant, Clark Hudmon, manager of the Barn Owl Garden Center in Carol Stream, says, “The rule of thumb is to use a filler, a thriller and a spiller. Usually the center plant is tall, such as elephant ears or canna, the filler might be a classic petunia to add a little bit of color, and the spiller is usually ivy, such as Swedish ivy. I like to put lettuce or herbs in mine as the thriller. There’s nothing better than to have fresh vegetables or herbs in your garden.” He also suggests strawberries as a spiller, which is particularly popular with children.
“Base your designs on the container,” advises Tom Weaver, horticulturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, who teaches classes on container gardening. “If it is an elaborate urn with lots of pattern, go with simple plants. If you have a plain terra cotta pot or a glazed pot with a single color, go wild with your combination of plants.” The containers at the Chicago Botanic Garden this summer will be planted around the theme of Brazil in the Garden, which Weaver describes as “very tropical, with big, bold foliage.”
Picking the Right Plants
Garden centers are overflowing with an abundance of plants and containers of all kinds. But before we rush in, we must consider the basics of growing container gardens. If you are combining different plants in a single container, their growing habits must be compatible with each other and suited to your garden’s growing conditions.
Lizzie Holmberg, co-owner of Lizzie’s Garden in Naperville, advises that you select plants based on their ability to thrive in your garden. “From my standpoint, performance is most important. Studies show that people really get upset if they plant something and it doesn’t work.” For summer-long performance, she notes, “Heat tolerant plants are really important. Even a simple geranium basket is just beautiful all season long and into fall.” For containers, she likes to incorporate interesting new varieties such as Night Sky petunias, Crazytunias, Prince Tut dwarf papyrus, EverLast dianthus and Green Ball dianthus.
How much sun? The first consideration in plant selection is the location of the planters and how much sun each will receive each day. We must not fool ourselves that a couple hours of sun is enough to satisfy sun-loving plants. Experts say that at least six hours is the definition of full sun. If your container will get that much sun, you’ll want to combine plants that require the same amount of sun exposure.
If you have to fill shady spots with containers, you will be happy to see that growers have boosted color in shade plants with fancy, multicolored foliage in coleus and brilliant bloomers like begonias. For shade, Weaver of the Chicago Botanic Garden likes New Guinea impatiens, coleus and acorus ‘Ogon,’ a bright green grass. “I don’t recommend the traditional impatiens because of downy mildew,” he says of the pesky disease that tends to come back year after year and wreak havoc.
Laura Kirin, who manages the container design department at The Growing Place in Naperville, encourages people to combine perennials with annuals in their containers. “When you pick a perennial, since it only blooms once in the season, it’s best to base your choice on the foliage.” She favors heuchera (coral bells), perennial grasses and groundcovers that can trail over the side of the planter. “Perennials are good transitional plants. You can put in a heuchera in the spring and it will still look nice all season.” That said, she cautions that perennials in containers will not last through the winter. You will need to transplant them into the ground in the fall.
How much moisture? Plants have different needs for watering, so be sure to pair plants that require the same amount of moisture. Some plants require watering daily or even twice daily in the heat of summer, while others like succulents must have drier conditions.
The amount of water needed also will depend on the type of container you choose. Matt Davison, general manager of Platt Hill Nursery in Bloomingdale, observes that container choices are expanding every year. “Some of the newer ones coming out are fiberglass or concrete with fiberglass, really unique ceramics, cement pots, and cast iron pots,” he says. “Metal is starting to get more popular.” Wooden containers are also making a comeback.
You will want to select containers with drainage holes so that plants don’t get too soggy. Window boxes and wire baskets with coco liners will dry out more quickly than glazed pots. Davison recommends adding SoilMoist to potting soil, which retains water and releases it when needed.
How much maintenance? Very few home gardeners have the time to fuss with maintenance, so it is important to understand how much tending, watering and fertilizing are required for the plants you pick. You can guarantee a better result when you use the right potting soil mix (never garden soil) and incorporate a slow-release fertilizer.
Help from the professionals
Garden center staffers, garden designers and landscape firms offer an array of services for container gardening — from planting containers at your home to special orders for pick-up and even on-the-spot planting at the garden center itself, whether you do it yourself in the potting shed or enlist an expert.
“We have designers here if customers want help with plant combinations,” explains Kim Schroeder, landscape designer and perennial manager at Wasco Nursery in St. Charles. “People also can come here and purchase the pot and plant material and someone will help put it together.” You are also welcome to bring your own container to most garden centers for help with planting.
At Blumen Gardens in Sycamore, designer Laura O’Loughlin helps shoppers pick out plants and offers advice on tried and true combinations. She also encourages people to experiment. “I may suggest a dwarf conifer for height, rather than a grass or spike, or a few curly willow branches,” she says. “People are afraid to put too many plants in a container, but really you can jam it full. It looks better and they only grow for three or four months.”
If you’d rather not be involved in the design process, garden centers offer all sorts of pre-planted containers and “slip-ins,” which are plant combinations in plastic pots designed to fit into standard container sizes. The Growing Place showcases sample containers next to colorful, painted doors, where you can get inspired with out-of-the-ordinary color combinations and find the plants you need right in front of you.
With all the plants and planters available in May, the hardest thing you may have to do is to decide.
What Mom Really Wants for Mother’s Day
Here’s a little secret: Mother’s Day is not only the biggest day of the year for dining out — it’s also the biggest day for garden centers. If you want the best selection of flowering plants, it’s best to shop before May 14. Here’s a preview of what garden centers will be offering as special Mother’s Day gifts.
Look up while you wander through the garden center and contemplate your choices of hanging baskets for sun or shade. You’ll see plastic containers as well as cone shapes and wire frames with coco liners. At Lizzie’s Garden in Naperville, some hanging baskets will be monoculture, such as all geraniums or begonias, while their Victorian baskets will feature a mixture of plants such as impatiens with euphorbia.
Potted flowers and pre-planted containers
At Platt Hill Nursery, Matt Davison says, “We make nice wicker baskets with plants in individual pots, covered with Spanish moss.” They also offer smaller combinations such as a dish garden with a flower and a bit of foliage, and even smaller items
“if a child wants to buy it by himself for mommy.”
The Growing Place puts together “romantic” baskets with blooming flowers and herbs, which come with a recipe for using herbs in food preparation.
Pansy bowls are popular at Wasco Nursery for gifts, as are pre-planted containers in general and fairy gardens in particular, which are small-scale gardens in containers with tiny plants and accessories like furniture, fences and, of course, fairies.
Garden center gift certificates
Joe Heidgen of Shady Hill may have the best idea of all. “We see mothers here alone, and their gift is a gift certificate. They say, ‘I like to shop by myself without my husband or children to make me hurry.’”Edit Module