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How To: Color outdoors with container plantings

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's finally time to fill those forlorn pots and planters that have languished through cold weather with spectacular combinations of plants to brighten patios, porches and front entrances. Garden centers and plant vendors are stocked up with trendy plants and old-fashioned favorites.

They're so stocked, as a matter of fact, that the selection process can be a bit overwhelming. So let's start slowly.

If you're starting from scratch, your first choice will be of a pot. In general, bigger is better. Plants need room to spread out and grow.

An advantage of larger pots is that they dry out more slowly. A downside is the large amount of soil required to fill them. Bill Mills, garden designer and general manager of TerraSalis, sometimes circumvents that by placing a large container upside-down inside and setting a small pot on top. Or you can fill with dirt around the upside-down pot and plant as usual.

Pot selection is a matter of preference. Plastic pots are lighter and hold more moisture. Heavy terracotta and ceramic containers breathe more and will soak up some of the water. It's crucial that the pots have drainage holes. A layer of gravel provides some drainage, but a hole is best. Without proper drainage, plants' roots are more likely to rot, Mills said.

Pot in hand, it's time to purchase potting medium. Yes, you really should dump out last year's soil and start fresh.

"You don't want to use the same soil as last year. It compacts and loses its nutrients. All the watering washes them out. Reusing soil is one of the most common mistakes people make," said Mills, who advises the use of a lightweight medium that contains peat, perlite, vermiculite and some fertilizer and water-retentive material.

A heavy, dense mixture won't retain water and holds little air.

"The lighter the mix, the better for pots. The lighter mix acts like a sponge," Mills said.

Mills empties soil from previous years' pots and works it into his gardens.

Even experienced gardeners often make the mistake of packing pots with too many plants for the instant results. When filling pots in the springtime, gardeners are likely using young plants that need room to grow. They'll fill in soon enough, but they won't thrive if they're too crowded.

Another common mistake is mixing plants that have incompatible light and water requirements, and then placing containers in spaces that don't meet the plants' light requirements.

It's worth paying close attention to the sun's pattern to be sure you're placing potted plants in spaces with appropriate lighting. Plants labeled as sun lovers require five to six hours of sun. Shade-lovers are just that, although most will tolerate some morning sun, which is not as strong as afternoon rays, Mills said.

Once the pots are prepped and the lighting appraised, it's time for the fun part: plant selection. It's not a bad idea to make a list of pots that need to be filled and how much light they receive.

Or you could just wander willy-nilly through the aisles of tempting plants. That's my approach.

I usually pick up combinations of flowers, vegetables, herbs and even small shrubs that catch my eye. I pack them into an overflowing cart, matching plants as I go.

For complementary (hot and cool) color combinations, chartreuse and hot pink or purple is a favorite combination, as is orange and blue or purple. Think vanilla-scented purple heliotrope and lime green creeping jenny or sweet potato vine or orange verbena with purple/blue salvia.

A monochromatic container holds different plants with flowers in the same hue. Red celosia, pentas, zinnias and trailing red verbena would be an eye-catching combination for a sunny spot.

Combinations of three are considered visually appealing. The phrase "thriller, filler and spiller" helps some gardeners to remember the tried-and-true combination of a tall eye-catching plant (the thriller), a midsize full plant (the filler) and a trailing plant (the spiller).

The dramatic New Zealand flax, which Mills describes as "yucca on steroids," comes in pinks, reds and maroon and would draw the eye upward in the back of a large container.

For a practical and attractive touch, include vegetables and herbs in your flowerpots. Swiss chard, lettuce, radishes, carrots and kales are tasty additions. Soft green sage leaves, ferny dill, ruffled parsley and spiny rosemary are useful as well as attractive.

For a simpler look, don't worry about combining plants. One large plant or several of the same kind create a colorful splash. I've been known to transplant a thriving hanging basket into a large pot for instant results.

Group single-plant pots together for more impact.

"A line of potted boxwoods along a walkway is very effective," said Mills.

The work isn't over once the plants are in the pots. There's the watering, of course, but also fertilizing. It's a step many people skip, but the results are undeniable. They might not be quite as dramatic as the "with" and "without" comparison photos in fertilizer advertisements, but applications do make a difference.

"Anything in a pot needs fertilizer. The water flushes the nutrition out," said Mills, who uses liquid kelp and fish emulsion on his containers. "Just don't apply it right before a dinner party. It does stink."

Chemical fertilizer labeled for use on blooming plants should produce more flowers.

If the plants you brought in before the first frost last fall survived the winter indoors, it's time to bring them back outside where they'll be happy to breathe the fresh air and soak up the sun. Minimize shock to plants weakened by a winter indoors by introducing them slowly to the outdoors.

"Put them in a sheltered place with morning sun for a few days before moving them into sunnier spots," said Mills. Don't place them outside at first on a windy day, or they'll be wind damaged. "Plants get burned just like we do."

If you suspect you might not remember the care instructions for your new plants, keep the informative plant tags as a reference. Or take a photograph of the tags on a smartphone so they'll always be at hand.

Mills recommends photographing the pots as well.

"That way, you don't have to try to remember what was successful and what wasn't from year to year," he said.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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