No garden is too small or too large for fabulous plantings in flowerpots. Pots give gardeners in small spaces room to grow. In large gardens, flowerpots are a great way to develop the detail and to grow delicate plants that might otherwise get lost; pots focus the eye just as a frame sharpens the impact of a picture. In gardens of any size, pots are important architectural elements: They might mark an entrance to a garden or march two-by-two up the front steps. They allow you to bring spots of garden color up onto a porch. Pots are stylish and sculptural, whether their design is avant-garde, traditional or whimsical. The gardeners at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wis., plant more than 500 flowerpots for the gardening season each year. One collection of a dozen or more pots is an instant burst of inspiration right at the entrance, and other flowerpots can be found in every part of the garden. Jeff Epping, the garden’s horticulture director, teaches a popular class every year on planting flowerpots, helping gardeners put together sparkling plant combinations.
Part of the class focuses on building the confidence of beginning gardeners, who often don’t know quite where to begin. Epping talks about deciding where a pot will go and then filling it with plants that are adapted to that location and that all have the same requirements for moisture and sun or shade. He advises his classes to pay close attention to foliage because flowers aren’t always blooming, and because the colors and textures of leaves make any combination look more lively.
“Some of our pots don’t have a single flower in them, and I’m fine with that,” he says. “Foliage really is more important in any container than flowers.”
“In the rose garden, flowerpots are planted with romantic pink, blue and purple flowers. Elsewhere, in the perennial garden area, orange, red and yellow blooms predominate. The pots in the herb garden are naturally full of herbs, but the gardeners also spice up the combinations with bright edible flowers such as calendulas and nasturtiums, as well as with kale, lettuce and even okra plants.
Here are some tips from Jeff Epping
— Fill your flowerpots with good, brand-name potting soil.
— You do not have to throw away the potting soil in your pots every year. In his garden at home, Epping mixes old and new potting soil. “I sweep the garage floor, empty the containers, and then I just mix in new potting soil and shovel it into the pots.”
— Some potting soils include added fertilizer or moisture-retaining crystals, but you’ll still need to water and fertilize. A slow-release fertilizer may also have to be supplemented with occasional water-soluble fertilizer.
Look at your plants, Epping says. “They should always be growing. When they stop growing, they are starving.”
— Water thoroughly. “Everyone wants to give their plants just a little sip,” Epping says. “Water until it comes out of the drainage hole.”
— Plant densely, and let plants lean on each other and grow together in their pots, just as they would in a garden bed.
— Experiment: Epping planted some small, scraggly pine trees from a garden shop (he paid $3 each) in pots in his own garden, and pruned them to look like bonsai. “I’ve had them for four years, and I love them,” he says. He grows low sedums around the little trees.
— Don’t abandon reliable plants that work for you. “It’s hard to beat petunias,” Epping says.