Credit: Darlene White

It’s an old practice, but B.C. gardeners continue to embrace it with real passion. In fact, the fine art of container gardening is on the increase. Even for those with hectares of land on which to lavish their green thumbs, it is still au courant to place eye-catching containers brimming with exciting, colourful plants at strategic points around the garden.

It’s been said that the creation of a garden is proof of man’s civilization, however, nowadays just keeping one’s front-door garden or patio effectively civilized all summer (and winter) can be a real challenge. It’s container plantings that make this eminently possible!

Alone or grouped, container gardens provide a focal point, add interest, and cheer up the garden when not much else is happening. At Butchart Gardens the gardeners plant up multitudes of pots, tuck them out of sight until they are paintbrush perfect, then place them in those areas in need of perking up.

“When I bring a truly unique, strikingly beautiful container into my pot shop, I can count on it going out the front door before noon, no matter what it costs!” says Dave Crampton, owner of Pots to You in Sidney, B.C. “Gardeners have gotten, in a big way, the idea that no garden needs to have a downtime. Just plop a spectacular pot down and you have instant drama. Plant it up or make it into a fountain, and, hey, the place could be filled with weeds and no one would notice!”

Certainly, container gardening is one of the easiest and most effective ways to boldly enhance your entranceway or patio. Well-placed, attractive pots can and will make any space instantly and continuously dramatic. Here, then, are a few ideas to get you going.

Where To Begin
In their book, Year-Round Containers, Baskets & Boxes, Graham Strong and Claire Phoenix suggest approaching container gardening by first asking yourself, “What do I want and what have I got?” To that I would add, “When do you want your entrance or patio to really shine?” If you will be away all summer, is there someone available to water your plants, or should you consider box spires or succulents such as aloe, kalanchoe, echeveria and cacti that can practically fend for themselves? Or do you want breathtakingly blossoms surrounding your front door before your departure and then knock-your-socks-off colours upon your return? You get the idea! Before you plant, think about what you want to achieve.

The Perfect Pot
First and foremost choose pots with panache. Forget using cheap plastic containers or hastily assembled wood planters. Not only do they lack pizzazz, they tend to fade or crack. Go for broke and seek out a container that takes your breath away. Buy one your grandchildren will ask to have left to them.

Laura Reeves, owner of Poppyseed Pottery in Richmond, reminds us that containers are pieces of art, and as such, should endure. “To last a long time, pots should be high-fired, that is, fired at 1300°C. If they are low-fired (like most, but not all, Mexican pottery) the clay remains highly porous, allowing moisture to seep in. When it freezes, the pot cracks. Pots from Vietnam, China and Malaysia are usually high-fired.” If the pot of your dreams is not high-fired but you cannot resist buying it, then plan to empty it each winter and invert it, preferably in a dry storage area.

You should also check that a pot has good drainage – one to three generous-sized holes in the bottom. Sometimes these drain holes get jammed with rocks, soil or roots, leading to moisture build-up. One winter in this condition can mean the end of your beautiful pot and its plants, so before you fill it with soil, line the pot bottom with landscape fabric to keep those drain holes open.

Make sure the pot you are considering is in correct proportion to your home’s front-entrance garden. The most common decorating mistake is choosing accessories far too small proportionately for the space allotted. The resulting effect is cluttered and underwhelming. If your home is near-mansion-size, 15-centimetre pots won’t work – unless you creatively organize them so the group itself forms an attractive unit that is in proportion to the house and garden. Thomas Hobbs calls such groupings “staging an event.” It helps me to put a large piece of cardboard in the spot where I need a pot, then cut it down until it looks right. I take the cardboard along to assist me in finding just the right size of pot. And I always consider a purchase temporary until I see the pot where I envisioned it. Only after it passes this in situ test do I plant it up.

Having decided on a container size, the container type must be considered. A key design principle is that your garden should initiate the colour and style statement your foyer continues. For example, you might decorate your front entrance, inside and out, in a marine theme. I also like a front garden to imply something about you. It could say romantic and artistic people live here, or here is someone with a flair for drama. It may even suggest the dwellers within are young and short of rubles, and, my gosh, aren’t they creative! Your containers should be the finishing touch to the overall design.

Planting Your Container
Once you’ve selected a pot that’s perfect in every way it’s time to plant it up. I’ve created a container planting of my own to help walk you through the process. You will need: 

• One good-sized bowl with a drain hole. I used a cobalt blue-glazed pottery bowl.

• A small piece of landscape fabric to cover the drain hole.

• Chunks of Styrofoam to lighten your pot. • Potting soil with several handfuls of organic fertilizer blended into it, or osmocote or nutricote, or Plant Prod’s new seven-month time-release product Smartcote, which I am going to try this year.

• One tall plant that will soar over the bowl and last all season. I used a dracaena, but heucheras and fountain grass also work well.

• Three plants that will provide instant colour now. Look for plants that have one or two open flowers and lots of buds. If you consider these three removable, you can change this container through the seasons by varying only three plants. I am using rose double-flowering anemones now, then later will replace them with rosy tulip-flowered geraniums.

• Three plants that will last all season and will spill over the edges of the bowl. I used a silvery variegated ivy, but you can also use rhodochiton and bacopa.

Begin by covering the bowl’s drain hole with the landscape fabric, then drop in a few chunks of styrofoam. Half-fill the bowl with soil and tamp down. Centre and plant the dracaena, handling it gently, and filling in soil around it. Follow with the instant colour plants, one at each corner of a triangle, then add the ‘spillers’ in the remaining spaces. Carefully fill more soil in around the plants and gently tamp down. Fill the container so there is about one centimetre of space between the pot top and the soil. Water well between the plants.

Easy to prepare and instantly dramatic, container gardens truly are a gardener’s joy and now is the perfect time to get started. Enjoy.