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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Success with Flower Pots and Containers Requires Trial and Error

http://foreverflowercontainers.comWhen I began to design flower gardens, many clients asked me to fill their containers as well. That’s when I dived, head first, into a craft for which I was as yet unsuited and unprepared. Guided by the beautiful photographs in the trade publications, I copied the compositions in the pictures and sourced the same types of flowers that had been used. Unfortunately, the results were never spectacular.

It was only by reading several books on container gardening that I came to understand my own shortcoming and the limited power of the plants that I has selected. The first thing that I learned was that flower pots need potting mixture to grow successfully. I had been potting flowers with rich black garden soil. Containers, I now understand, need feeding every two weeks. I did not know that, but I do now. Containers also need frequent watering. I had been neglectful of that and now I know better.

My lack of experience was also responsible for me making the strategic error of believing that annual flowers in pots bloom all summer long. Who knew that plants could be spent by July and need replacing? I know that now. However, the biggest lesson learned from my trials and errors is not to trust the advertisements for annuals or to rely upon the professional flower arrangements that are photographed for magazines. Those pots look good when planted but not a few months later.

The greatest deception of all is the industry’s encouragement to use specific annuals because many of them are flowers that simply can’t deliver. Like most gardeners, I was so impressed with the hype and appearance of Calibrachoa and Bacopa that when they failed to perform, I was greatly disappointed. These plants are not nearly as attractive in a real container as they appeared in print. The colors are harsh, and do not project. Furthermore, they do not become more attractive after planting. They seem to be at their peak when purchased and then deteriorate until the end of the season.

Summers are short in USDA zone 4 and sometimes spring never comes. With such a protracted season for enjoying flowers, we require reliability. Here it is not OK for flower pots to appear spent by mid summer. By that time, the local merchants of annual flowers have dismantled their kiosks so that replacements are impossible to find. Another lesson learned, now that we are experiencing summers with unending rain, is that dahlias will rot if planted in pots if there is no opportunity for the soil to dry out.

When all of my attempts to creatively plant containers failed, it took a while for me to realize that so many of the most spectacular potted floral arrangements still depend upon pelargonium and begonias as main plants. In the end, what once appeared to me to be old fashioned and overused has turned out to be the most reliable.

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Reader Comments (7)

I totaly agree Allan, Dahlias are gone from my vocabulary in the heat and rain we have had the past summers. I do containers by color with some height, some filler plants and some trailing plants (found my dog eating my trailing petunias today - what a surprise).

I love doing planters always a challenge to see what works!


June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGatsbys Gardens

I grow million bells (I think that is calibrachoa) in all my containers in Maine and they are beautiful for months. Excellent vibrant colors and long-lasting. I grow them in a location where they receive no afternoon sun. Maybe they get burned out in the sun. They are one of my favorite annuals.


Great post! I totally agree. Containers are deceptively hard to garden in, and annuals are not as easy as I once thought. I'm glad you called out the marketers (ahem, Proven Winners). They have some good new additions, but others are not strong enough. For years I was limited to container gardens, and in the end, had more luck with perennials than annuals. But perhaps that's just because its what I know best. And foliage color was easier to rely on than bloom, especially for my permanent pots.

More and more, my taste in plants in containers has gotten simpler and simpler. I've gotten away from the fussy annual combos and relied more on single, permanent plants. My favorite pot has Horsetail (Equisetum) and Creeping Jenny. Super simple, but the bold verticality and the color contrast look great year after year. Or a perfectly clipped mugo pine in a tapered gray pot . . . or even an empty pot . . .

I really enjoyed this post. Do you have a favorite container recipe?

June 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

Ditto! Love, love, love the color combinations. I hope I can make one soon...

June 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCecile

-Nubeo swiss watches into a craft for which I was as yet unsuited and unprepared.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNubeo swiss watches

Glad to find another Montreal gardener who understands the unending rain, and seasonal kiosks. It is so true that container gardening has its own conditions. Choosing the correct soil specifically for containers is essential. I just tried some regular vegetable soil, and was told just to add perilite for better air, for containers getting too matted, and it would be o.k., but so not! Seems I inherited a load of mites, which may not effect a large garden, but will kill anything in a small space. Now I am sterilizing that pack of soil prior to use to kill them off, but I am loosing the bulk of nutrients while I am at it. Though it cost more, quality container specific soil fared much better.

June 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCedar-pine

I grew Bacopa in containers for the first time last year and was very pleased with their performance in 12 hours of bright sun. I used a potting soil with a water retaining additive, and watered daily.

February 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSheila

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