Tag Archive | container gardens

Container Gardens Bring New Possibilities

by Master Gardener Tammy Borden

originally printed in our Fall, 2015 newsletter


Many who know me, know my mom. We’re often seen together on some grand adventure, whether traveling half way across the state to discover a new garden center or attending one of the many local Master Gardener events. It’s no surprise to many that I get my love of gardening from her and maybe just a little of my spunk, too. For those who’ve met her, you know what I mean.

Anyone who visits her yard will recognize her green thumb at a glance. Perennial beds dot her landscape, bordering a small orchard of apple and cherry trees, as well as her gooseberry bushes from which the most delicious jam on the planet is made.

She’s become accustomed to the aches and pains that 88 years of living can bring. And when I say living, it’s to the fullest breadth and depth of the word’s meaning. She doesn’t quite have the stamina she once did. The doctors can only replace so many parts to alleviate the aging process — for her, a hip and two knees. Throw in a heart condition and weakened kidneys. Many others her age might decide it’s time to hang up the garden gloves. Instead, she’s adjusted to a new way of doing things to accommodate some of her physical limitations. Don’t get me wrong, she can still run circles around most people half her age, me included sometimes.

Her garden process begins in spring with many trips to local greenhouses and quite a bit of “shopping” from my own plants that I start from seed. From there, she hauls out the planters and pots that were put away in her shed the previous fall. Bags upon bags of potting mix start filling the containers and she lovingly arranges plants in each one – impatiens, zinnias, vines, petunias, million bells, coleus and a host of others. She then puts them in her wagon and wheels them around her yard to their new home for the summer.

Container gardening has become a new passion for her. The perennial beds shrink a little each year, replaced with more containers. And I’ve recently been “commissioned” to help her with a new project to put pavers in the center of her flower ring so she can put more containers there at varying heights. With container gardening, the chore of weeding is virtually eliminated. Weeding has become her greatest gardening challenge. It requires lots of bending, stooping and physical exertion. Watering is easier, too, and to keep her plants looking as lush as possible, she fertilizes them at least once a week.

A visitor to her garden asked how many flower pots she had. At the moment, she estimated around 25 or so. After doing an actual count, she realized she had more than twice that many, at 52.

To me, her garden looks more beautiful today than it ever has. Her eye for color and flower combinations is evident with the beautiful hanging baskets and unusual pairings she creates.

If you struggle with physical limitations, consider container gardening as an alternative. The impact can be just as great, if not greater. As the summer season comes to a close, plan now for your spring containers and don’t allow those aches and pains to hold you back.

Battling Invasive Tree Roots

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

When I moved to the country and a home surrounded by beautiful, mature trees, I was thrilled at the prospect of filling each corner and pathway with beautiful woodland perennials. I thought I found my paradise for growing what had become my obsession — hostas. What could be better for growing this tough, shade-loving perennial than towering trees that provided high, filtered shade? So, with shovel in hand, I began digging. In some areas, the soil was a beautiful, rich loam. But, to my surprise, I had difficulty slicing through the ground with my spade in some locations. While the soil was still beautiful, there was a mass of fibrous roots. Despite my concern, I decided to plant my beautiful established hostas that I brought from my previous home.


Within two years they shrank to one-third their size in the new location. The competition from the tree roots was too much for my beloved hosta to endure. Through the years I became accustomed to this battle in certain areas of my yard and have made adjustments with some success. Here are a few tips that will hopefully help if you battle a similar problem.


Container Gardening


Cobalt blue containers make a beautiful counterpoint to the hosta leaves

I have a new fondness for hostas in containers. I am especially fond of cobalt blue containers, which contrast beautifully with the many shades of hosta leaves. I am overjoyed at the results. If you choose to plant hostas in containers, make sure you give
them enough room, keep them well-watered, and after they have died back in the fall, bring them into your garage. I had some hostas double in size in one season using this method. I love placing them out in the garden among other perennials. The added height and color of the containers adds interest and a great focal point.


Where I’m determined to plant hostas in the ground in competitive root situations, I have resorted to planting them in two gallon (or more) black plastic pots and burying them right in the ground. I left several in the ground over winter and they came up beautifully this spring. Obviously, this can eventually limit the size of your plant, so bury as large of a pot as you can and plan to lift it out every few years to divide. There are large pliable mesh containers used in the nursery trade that are coated with copper hydroxide on the inside. The chemical regulates and deters roots growth of the nursery stock planted inside the pot. When hostas are planted in containers that are turned inside-out (so the coating is on the outside), exterior roots from surrounding plants and trees are deterred from penetrating the mesh. Some online forums rave about this method and I hope to trial it this year.

Planting the Right Tree

If you plan on planting a tree with the hopes of beautiful perennials beneath its shady canopy, keep the following good and bad in mind.

The Good: Top picks for friendly tree roots
• Oak – White, Pin, Burr, and other varieties
• Ash – although the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer makes this a futile choice
• Japanese Maple
• Magnolia
• Shagbark Hickory
• Japanese Chestnut
• Ginkgo
• European Larch
• Japanese Tree Lilac
• Crabapple
• Pagoda Dogwood
• Honey Locust

The Bad: Trees with invasive tree roots • Box Elder
• Maple – Silver, Norway, and Red
• River Birch

• Beech
• Hackberry • Spruce

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

In some locations in my yard, I have become resigned to the fact that I cannot grow hostas. I have dug them out and relocated them to a friendlier location. Rather than abandon the perennial bed completely, I have found some plants that seem to coexist with those pesky roots. While these varieties don’t thrive, they do well enough to warrant their placement:


• Japanese Painted Fern
• Lady in Red Fern
• Brunnera
• Lamium (ground cover)
• Sweet Woodruff (ground cover) • Perennial Geranium


Give some of these techniques and recommendations a try. I’m still battling in some areas, but I’m determined to win!


UW-Extension Tips

We’re based in Wisconsin and can’t say enough good things about the expert help that is available to us through the University of Wisconsin – Extension. In a recent email to all Master Gardener members, there were two really good articles and I’m reproducing them here.

Expert’s Tip: 10 Tips for A Successful Tomato Container Garden

Ann Wied, Waukesha County UW-Extension Consumer Horticulture Educator

Not enough time or space for a garden?  Tomatoes grow great in containers. Here are a few tips to use yourself or share with others …

  1. Choose a compact, bush, or dwarf tomato variety. These tomatoes are often labeled at garden centers as “great for a container gardening”.
  2. Buy healthy, resistant varieties.  Choose varieties that are resistant to diseases prevalent to where you live.  Look for this information on the plant tag or garden catalog.
  3. Choose a container large enough to provide support for your tomato.
  4. Don’t rush to plant your tomato. Plant near the recommended planting date for your area. Even if you can protect the plants from frost and/or cold night air, cool temperatures can keep growth slow, cause nutrient deficiencies, and prevent fruit set. In addition, once fruits start to form, cold temperatures can cause the tomatoes to become deformed.
  5. Place the container in an area that has at least 4 hours of direct sunlight each day.
  6. Water your tomato plant whenever the top 2 to 3 inches of soil is dry. This may be every day or every other day if the weather is hot and dry.
  7. When you water, water until it drains through the bottom of the pot and don’t let the plant sit in excess water.
  8. Fertilize once a month throughout the growing season with a fertilizer labeled for vegetable plants.
  9. If the tomato gets too large or bushy, support it with a small cage or stake and/or prune out some branches.
  10. Monitor for disease and insect problems. If a disease occurs, remove and destroy infected leaves or the entire plant if the disease is severe.


Click here for a version (pdf) you can print and hand out to clients!

Expert’s Tip #2: Tips on preventing seed production when hand-pulling garlic mustard plants

Mark Renz; Associate Professor and Extension Specialist; University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ever wondered about these questions:


  • Is there a developmental stage where garlic mustard plants can create viable seed if pulled?
  • How does different disposal methods impact seed production?


I have summarized the results of research done on this topic (read the reference for all the details and their specific conclusions):

What stages can garlic mustard produce viable seeds when hand-pulled?

Plants were hand-pulled over three consecutive week sand separated into three phenological groups:

  1. flowering: < 5% of flowers developing into fruit
  2. early-fruiting: 40%-60%of flowers developing into fruit
  3. late-fruiting: > 95% flowers developing into fruit

Of these stages only the flowering stage didn’t produce any viable seed or seedlings the following year. While lots of variability existed with the later two stages, each of these produced viable seeds. Although this experiment was conducted atone site in one year other studies using phenology have found consistent results from year to year and site to site. Thus this is clear evidence to me that the flowering stage is a safe timing to not worry about seed production if plants are hand-pulled.

What is the best method to dispose of hand-pulled garlic mustard plants?

Three disposal treatments were evaluated where plants were left in field conditions for three weeks:

  1. left in a pile on the ground
  2. scattered on the ground
  3. hung over tree limbs

Results found that regardless of disposal method, similar viable seed and seedlings the following year were found. While these results are encouraging, they were conducted over one year in one location in Ohio. I would caution about over-interpreting this information as different environmental/physical conditions may alter the result.

Can second-year garlic mustard plants resprout from taproots if just shoots are removed?

Plants were cut at the soil surface at one of four phenological stages:

  1. budding: no flowers
  2. flowering: < 5% of flowers developing into fruit
  3. early-fruiting: 40%-60%of flowers developing into fruit
  4. late-fruiting: > 95% flowers developing into fruit

While some plant stages resprouted quickly from the first three timings (bud, flowering and early fruiting) no resprouting occurred with the late late-fruiting timing. Regardless of timing, all treatments did not result in the production of viable seed and plants did not survive the following year. Thus stage of shoot removal doesn’t appear to be that important, and while resprouting can occur it may not produce any viable seed. Similar to above I would caution about over-interpreting this information as lack of shoot resprouting could have been the result of site specific factors.

The big picture:

In summary, this research confirms that viable seed production can occur if hand-pulled after the flowering stage. If you are hand-pulling after this timeframe it is recommended to plan on some of the seeds being viable. Realize that while zero seed production is the goal, all treatments had large reductions in the production of viable seed (largest # of viable seeds per plant was < 20).

Consideration of the level of infestation should be included in the decision making process as well as this information. If hand-pulling plants in an area recently infested with few plants and limited to no garlic mustard seed bank I would recommend not taking any chances and bagging/removing plants if past the flowering stage. However, if the location has been infested for multiple years, a seed bank is likely present and I would be more willing to leave plants after flowering on site. A few additional viable seed won’t be the end of the world as repeated trips for multiple years will be needed regardless of the success in any one particular year.   


Chapman, JI, Cantino PD and McCarthy BC. 2012. Seed Production in Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) Prevented by Some Methods of Manual Removal. Natural Areas Journal Jul 2012 :Vol. 32, Issue 3, pg(s) 305-315.

Container Gardening — Finding the Right Soil

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

There are many ways in which we display our plants: indoors, outdoors, in pots, hanging baskets, and many more. Depending on your situation, there are different considerations when choosing the soil or growing medium you will use. Below are some basic rules of thumb.

Starting Seeds

Use a sterile soil-less seed starting mix. One brand name example is Jiffy Mix. However, there are others available. In fact, I used Fafard Super Fine brand mix this year and absolutely loved it. As its name suggested, it was super fine without clumps or filler. I tried Schultz brand seed starting mix and found that it was too lumpy and my finer seeds like impatiens and nicotiana had a hard time germinating in it.

Outdoor Potted Plants/Hanging Baskets

Once your plants have germinated in your seed starting mix and have a couple true leaves you can transplant them into a container with potting mix. Do not use straight seed starting mix for your transplants because it has very little nutrient value, and as your plants grow they need nourishment. Also, do not use regular garden soil. It is too dense and can smother you’re seedlings, plus it may contain weed seeds and unwanted disease and pests.

downloadA proper soil mixture is important for potted plants because the roots are restricted by the pot and not free to spread. It’s important to find the balance between good moisture retention and good drainage. There are standard potting mixes available at garden centers, or some potting mixes come with fertilizers already in them. One common brand is Miracle Grow. However, there are generic brands available as well. If you prefer not to spend the extra money for the fertilizer type, you can mix in about 1/4 – 1/3 compost and peat moss into your mixture for an added boost. Or you can add in your own time-release fertilizer. A little sand or perlite added to the soil will also improve aeration and drainage.

There are some potting mixes that tout “moisture control” as a feature. I personally do not like them. All they’ve really done to attain this is add more filler like wood chips, then charge you more money for it! If I am concerned about keeping my outdoor potted plants from drying out, I use a product called Soil Moist and mix it in the soil. It is a granular moisture absorbing product that has worked great for me. It is especially useful in hanging baskets which seem to dry out quickly. I have even used it directly in the garden bed around those plants that prefer wet feet. It’s important to not use more than the recommended amount or you may actually drown your plants.

Indoor Potted Plants

Much of the same directions apply to indoor potted plants as outdoor potted plants. However, there are some things to avoid. Do not use compost or manure in your indoor pots. The reasons may seem obvious, but in addition to the potential odor, you may be introducing unwanted disease and pests into your home. Also, since your indoor environment is a controlled atmosphere, elements like wind, rain and fluctuating temperatures are not a factor. So, the use of moisture retentive products is unnecessary. Even more crucial than with outdoor plants, always use a container with a drainage hole in the bottom to avoid root rot and disease. To avoid disease and pests, you can sterilize your growing mix in an oven at 400 degrees for an hour. This kills most bacteria, larvae, weed seeds and insect eggs.

Cactus Mixes 

Cacti require much more drainage and aeration than regular house plants. You can imagespurchase a pre- packaged potting mix especially formulated for cactus. However, if you want to concoct your own mixture, try the following simple recipe: Equal parts commercial potting soil and builders sand. You can add a tablespoon of lime to a gallon mixture of this as well. They prefer an alkaline soil. Cacti prefer to be in unglazed clay pots with a layer of course gravel and charcoal in the bottom. Most Cacti have far ranging lateral roots so a shallow, wide clay pot is preferred. Put a thin layer of crushed gravel on the top of the soil surface to help stabilize the plant as well.

Keep these tips in mind for the next time you’re transplanting your favorite plants. Give them the right conditions and they’ll thrive!

Container Gardening: Thrillers, Fillers, and Spillers

by OCMGA Master Gardener Holly Boettcher

container-garden-design-ideas-uk-idea-gardening-cubtabThe curb appeal of a well-designed flower container shouts WELCOME to you and your guests! It is this time of year that gardeners flock to local garden centers in search of that perfect plant combination to adorn the entrance of their home.

A quick stroll through the plant selection can turn an exciting adventure into a frustrating disappointment, because you just don’t know where to begin with plant selection. Let me share a few tips to keep you smiling.

Sun or Shade

One of the biggest mistakes people make, is to forget to consider if the container will be placed in sun or shade. Sun lovers will not do well in shade, and shade plants will wilt in full sun. Always read the labels.


Begin by selecting a Thriller! This plant is the star of the show and should be somethingCosta-Farms-summer-container-garden bold, sexy, and beautiful. Find an interesting plant that will be your tallest and most exotic in your container garden. Some good picks: Canna, Banana Plant, Elephant Ears, or Purple Fountain Grass.


Next you need to look for a plant or several that will fill up the space. Search for something with interesting foliage or blooms. These plants should complement and not overpower the Thriller. Some examples are Coleus, Begonias, Heliotropes, and Lantana.


Now the fun part is selecting for example a Sweet Potato Vine, Creeping Jenny, or Nasturtium that will literally spill over the edge! Think of the Spiller as a plant that tumbles over and reaches out to anchor your pot to the ground so it looks like it belongs there!

Final Tips for Success

 Experiment with color, texture, and shape to make your container POP! Remember, this is your creation, so enjoy experimenting with different combinations before you finalize your plant selection. Arrange the plants in a cluster inside your cart so you can visualize how they will look together once you take them home. When planting, don’t be afraid to select a unique container but be sure it has ample drainage, and use a good potting soil mix. Once planted, use your finger as a moisture meter because most containers need water everyday once plants are established. Push your index just below the surface of the soil. If it is still moist, do not overwater since that can cause your plants to develop diseases. Also consider an all-purpose fertilizer once a week to keep them at optimum performance.

Good luck with your trip to the local garden center! Plant your container garden, and ENJOY the SHOW!

Fall Container Gardening

by former OCMGA Master Gardener Jess Wickland

Fall-Containers_100450460_webI remember climbing the steps of my grandma’s house when I was little, examining the containers on her front porch. In summer, she had the typical spike, red geraniums and vinca vine. Once fall rolled around, the declining summer annuals were replaced with splashes of maroon or yellow mums, or sometimes some purple asters. I love my grandma dearly, but sometimes you have to break away from the mold and explore other options. (sidenote: this year she planted begonias — livin’ on the wild side!)

I have seen a lot of creative container ideas each year, some better than the last. One particular display I was very impressed with used pumpkins and squash in the larger containers, planted between flowers, and they were set on hay bales to give it that autumn feel. Some people like to use corn stalks to decorate their front doors; why not use that as a back drop and carefully place some containers around them? It’ll still let you have the vertical appeal of the corn stalks, but adds a little extra color. Some people even prefer to use different colored pots for fall decorations. There are greens, blues or blacks for summer arrangements, but as the autumn colors peak on the trees, the maroon, copper or even terra cotta pots come out to hold the vibrant fall arrangements.

What plants can be used in these arrangements in the fall? Some may prefer to use the stand-by: mums or asters. Mums now come in a rainbow of colors, and asters are a few shades of pink, purple or lavender. However, if you want to have plants that are bolder and don’t resemble my grandma’s fall containers, there is quite a selection to choose from at garden centers these days. My favorite plant for fall containers is the temperennial rudbeckias. Their blooms are much larger and showier than the perennial ‘Goldsturm’ we are accustomed to seeing, and are now being hybridized to be available in maroon, with green centers, or with bicolored petals. Ornamental peppers are making their way to the top of many homeowners’ lists, too. Most have small fruit that start out green and change to red or yellow as the nights get cooler. However, a newer variety has purple peppers on it if you prefer the darker colors or want to create a container with asters or kale. Speaking of kale, it’s a wonderful addition to the fall landscape. Many times, if we have a milder fall, kale can be seen “blooming” until Christmas. The colors become more pronounced as the temperatures get colder. There are a lot of different types of kale — some are more upright, while others are shorter and resemble small cabbage heads instead.

If corn stalks aren’t your cup of tea, but you still want a vertical accent for your fall arrangements, consider using ornamental grasses. CabagecontainerThere are quite a few varieties that will do well in this climate and can be planted into the perennial gardens (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ or Miscanthus purpurescens are just a couple of examples); however, there are some shorter grasses that still pack a punch, such as Toffee Twist. If perennials are what you prefer to use, fall blooming Sedum may be the way to go. One favorite of mine is called Sedum sieboldii, or October Daphne. It’s foliage is a small rosette of blue succulent leaves, and the flowers are round pink balls that open in late September or October. You can use this one to trail over the edges of pots.

Of course, there are the tried-and-true uprights like ‘Autumn Joy’ or ‘Autumn Fire’, if vertical height is what you need. Another great perennial for fall container gardens are coral bells (Heuchera). With so many colors on the market, you’re sure to find the size and shade you’re looking for. Breaking free of the mold is something that a gardener needs to do from time to time. Why not start a trend and try to incorporate gourds, squash or pumpkins in with your fall blooming plants. Try something new — you may be pleasantly surprised!