Low Maintenance House Plants Are Back

Ok… I am old enough to remember the houseplant mania (usually with macrame) in the seventies, but people now are just rediscovering what we knew all along……that houseplants have been reborn and many are actually very easy to take care of. Many more varieties are available to growers now than ever before, and new ones are always hitting the plant nurseries.

House Plant Fashion Show

A nearby garden center/nursery, Valley View Farms, even put on a “fashion show” of houseplants so people could see the large variety that is out there, with lots of old stalwarts, like Philodendrons.

At a recent “fashion show” of houseplants at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, MD-showing off products to take care of your houseplants
Valley View Farms “fashion show”
Showing off plants at Valley View Farms

And it goes without saying, low maintenance is key with our busy life styles.  For a good article, read 9 of the easiest house plants that anyone can grow. 

 

A bay window of houseplants stage at the Philadelphia Flower Show
A bay window of houseplants staged at the Philadelphia Flower Show
Old fashioned houseplants fill a window
Old fashioned houseplants fill a window

Yes, that Monstera Philodendron that you have been growing for ages is suddenly very in and on Instagram. Who would have thought? The 70’s and 80′ s mod houseplants are the social media stars of 2019 and I don’t see any end to the trend. In fact, the bigger the plant, the better. Get rid of some furniture to make some room for plants. I removed some seldom used easy chairs from my living room to make space for some large plants.

Monsteras are huge

New Varieties

But, just like those old bell bottoms that are shoved to the back of the closet, there are new iterations of the same “old”. Take Sheffelaria……. you can buy a variegated one now.

Variegated Sheffelaria
Variegated Sheffelaria

Collections of houseplants are in. Not just one, but many- like over 100 specimens decorating your house or apartment. The more, the merrier!

All kinds of houseplants, from succulents to ferns to tropicals, are decorating indoor spaces
All kinds of houseplants, from succulents to ferns to tropicals, are decorating indoor spaces

Reasons to Grow

Why grow houseplants? If you are a city dweller, the reason is simple…..to bring nature in. If you live suburban, the reason is more complex. Bringing nature in is one of them. But also, growing things that you wouldn’t normally do outside, like growing a pineapple. Yes, you can grow a pineapple in your living room! Or bring in succulents and cacti that normally wouldn’t grow for you outdoors, but with such interesting forms and shape, and ease of growth, why not? Or maybe you are fascinated with citrus….. you can easily grow limes, lemons, kumquats, or oranges. Not enough to feed you, but enough to satisfy your green thumb curiosity.

Pineapple
Pineapple

Plants elevate empty spaces and large rooms and make them alive. If you have cathedral ceilings and wondered what could fill the space…look no further. Many can tolerate fairly low light conditions which allows them to be placed near doors, stairs, and in hallways. Be sure to look at the plant requirements and try to match the correct conditions for best success.

Display your houseplants creatively

One of the huge advantages of growing plants indoors is the improvement of air quality and the removal of toxins from the environment. Most of you will be aware from school Biology that plants convert carbon dioxide into the air we breath (oxygen), so it makes sense to allow some space in the home for them to promote good health.

Houseplants can be hung, elevated, and displayed creatively to suit your space
Houseplants can be hung, elevated, and displayed creatively to suit your space

NASA created a clean air study for space stations and produced a list of house plants that do more than just turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. Removing large quantities of benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene from the atmosphere is the normal everyday benefits of growing houseplants.

Bat Flower (Tacca chantieri) is an exotic flower that mimics a bat in flight
Bat Flower (Tacca chantieri) is an exotic flower that mimics a bat in flight
Woven Sanseveria makes a cool plant
Woven Sanseveria makes a cool plant

For the top 10 air purifying houseplants, go to Nasa’s Clean Air Study.

I like the weird ones though. The climbing onion is bizarre and a conversation piece.

The weird climbing onion, Bowiea Volubilis, is a unique addition to my houseplants

There is a houseplant out there that will satisfy anyone, from someone who wants to really get into the minutiae of growing-like orchids, or just to have something that requires little to no care-succulents.

Adding grow lights to your house is easy with these set ups
Anyone can grow succulents
Anyone can grow succulents; just give them lots of light
Wow! Cool Philodendron!
Wow! Cool Philodendron! White Variegated Split Leaf Philodendron
Sometimes my houseplants surprise me. This is a cactus bloom that appeared!
Something blooming in the middle of winter, Streptocarpus, lifts your spirits

 

Foraged Foliage & Berries For Fall

Porch pots are an old fashioned way to decorate a deck, porch, or other entrance to greet people with something colorful during the fall and winter season. Burning bush, dogwood, viburnums, hydrangea flowers, and other fall colored branches are available for the taking along road sides or your property.

Spicebush on the edge of the woods
Blue Amsonia, a great perennial for fall color is the yellow in this arrangement

Foraging in the Wild

Burning bush has escaped to the wild as an invasive and you can spot it a mile away on the side of the road with its flaming branches.  Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, a native, shines with a yellow light through the woods and Bittersweet, another invasive, tangles through trees.

I found this abandoned hornets nest
The nest is really beautiful!

Rose hips, wild Hawthorne, Jack in the Pulpit berries, Sourwood tree foliage, and Kousa Dogwood foliage and berries- the list is endless. Just walk down your neighborhood streets with pruners and start trimming off some branches. Be sure to be careful where you trim. If it is a neighbor’s property, ask permission first.

Jack in the Pulpit berries

I gathered bittersweet and also the lichen covered branches of this dead tree
The lichen covered branches are really interesting in porch pots
Japanese Maple, Hairy Balls, lichen covered branches, burning bush, blackberry lily berries, winterberry, and nandina

Christmas Porch Pots

Porch pots are an easy inexpensive way to dress up your entrance and they are especially valuable for Christmas entertaining. For my recent article on Christmas porch pots in The American Gardener, go to;

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Christmas porch pot

But in the mid-Atlantic our fall has been such a long Indian summer, the fall foliage is waiting for me to pick and use it.

Orange Fothergillia makes this porch pot stand out
The Oakleaf Hydrangea leaves and Winterberry make this arrangement

Safety Tips

Be careful as your forage for fall materials. Poison Ivy also turns a beautiful color!!  When stopping on the side on the road, pull off far enough that you don’t stop traffic. I always wear gloves, long pants, and good sturdy shoes.

Poison Ivy turns a great color, but beware!
My blueberry bushes turn a brilliant red in the fall
The large yellow leaves are Calycanthus or Carolina Sweet Shrub

Top 10 Materials for Fall Arrangements (Mid-Atlantic Region)

Gather materials and plunge them into a big bucket of water

1 Viburnum foliage and berries-the berries come in red, yellow, pink, and blue

2 Blueberry-flaming red foliage

3 Dogwood-foliage and berries

4 Maple-Japanese Maples and Sugar Maples have awesome colors in the fall

5 Oakleaf Hydrangeas-turning a burgundy color, these are long lasting for foliage or flowers

6 Sassafras-brilliant orange and red foliage

7 Nandina-berries and foliage

8 Fothergillia-beautiful burgundy and oranges

9 Grass Plumes-adds great texture

10 Burning Bush-flame red colored foliage with berries

Variety of fall berries that you could use
Fothergillia turns a brilliant orange color

The Process

Begin with a tall well formed branch as the backdrop

Starting with a pot of soil left over from  your dead annuals, simply insert the cut branches into the soil which will hold everything in place. Soil is better for these large pots rather than floral oasis as it holds up better and the large branches stay firmly in the soil.

Dogwood and Burning Bush branches with Viburnum berries are stuck in a container that had annuals all season
The addition of the yellow and red Viburnum berries add texture and color
Nandina berries draping over the edge adds dimension
Finished container measures 4′ x 4′
Japanese Maples turning color
Color spectrum of Japanese Maples

For the western part of the US, quaking aspens, Salal, and Eucalyptus are valuable additions to your tool box of foliage.

In Colorado, Quaking Aspens are great for yellow and orange foliage colors, photo by Amy Sparwasser

Containers With Pizzazz-Fall

Tear out those tired looking spent annuals from the summer and jazz up your pots for the fall season. This is the time of year when I am craving some color because most of the fall flowers have faded or been hit by frost. Petunias, angelonia, and million bells have all petered out and I feel good when I rip out the remains to make room for fall color.

‘Blue Bayou’ aster  and trailing rosemary, carex ‘Red Rooster’, ornamental pepper, mexican heather, with foraged osage orange balls

I still have some late bloomers going on, like Toad Lilies, Chrysanthemums,  Dahlias, Marigolds, and a few odds and ends. But mostly I am looking at the remains of my planting beds. Time for getting some fall color in the pots!

Use some colored ornamental balls to pick up and enhance colors in your pots. Try using foraged materials like osage orange balls, pumpkins, and gourds for great embellishments.

The copper ball picks up the fall colors
Asters make this container shine in the fall
Ornamental cabbage is a go-to for fall; it improves with cold weather
Curly purple kale is the standout in this container

Arrange groupings to make an impact
Use pumpkins with your fall containers

Container Bulbs For Spring Color

The days are getting shorter and the temperatures are moderating with some chilly nights. What does that mean?? Bulb time!!!

Bulbs peeking through in early spring
Tulips growing in a spring border

Planting bulbs around my house is a process. I add to my collection in the ground every year and also pot up containers with bulbs to strategically place around my yard for pops of color. This year, I am holding off on planting in the ground as we are in a drought here in the mid-Atlantic and the ground is hard as cement.  Containers are the way to go right now and I am getting everything lined up.

You can stuff a lot of bulbs into a large container

Bulbs in Containers

So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy dry clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture.
Texas Gold Tulips growing close to the house where I can enjoy them
Mini daffodils growing on my patio in April

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

 

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

Miniature Iris in a pot
Iris reticulata in a pot is one of my favorites; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Potting Bulbs Made Easy

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break if not insulated with bubble wrap); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside. This last winter, my pots stayed outside in a sheltered spot and they bloomed beautifully.
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots; set them where deer can’t go

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position. This would be in a unheated garage or shed or cold frame.

I overwintered my bulb containers in a cold frame last winter

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage or cold frame, until early spring growth appears is essential.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
One winter I wrapped my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Squirrels will clean out your flower beds of tasty bulbs
Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Bulb foliage starts to show in late winter

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
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First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (at least 16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 6-7 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Lasagna pot ready to come into full bloom
Full bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post is Longfield Gardens, my go-to source for bulbs.

 

 

 

Container Design Simplified

Whenever I see a fantastic container combo that stops me in my tracks, I study it and visually take it apart to figure out how a designer came up with the recipe. Each designer has their own way of putting together colors, textures, and styles, to come up with a winning formula, so I thought I would reveal my techniques. Some combos are serendipity but more than likely, I obsess and fiddle with a container until I come up with something that satisfies me. Go to Containers With Pizzazz to see some examples of Wow containers.

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Some Wow containers

Winning Combos

Have you ever taken a swatch of fabric to a wallpaper or paint store to match the colors? Or been inspired by colors found in nature? I love tropical bird colors, like parrots and peacocks and when I see something l like, I take a photo and hope to duplicate it to come up with a winning combination.

This parrot inspired me to come up with containers reflecting these colors

Signature Plants & Containers

My starting point is to find that signature plant. This means a plant that I love and want to build on the colors and textures of the special plant I have chosen. The combo below started with the Flap Jack Succulent, also known as paddle plant (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora) which has a ruby-red coloration. Picking up that red color from the flapjack plant with the ‘Red Head” Coleus was my next step and then I picked a lime Coleus to add contrast. Follow that with the rest of the plants, choosing something that contrasts well with the color combination.

Mix and matching colors at the nursery
Mix and matching colors at the nursery; here I was going for shades of pink with a limey yellow accent

 

Here I started with this fabulous gold and green bromeliad and starting to add purple tones
Here I started with this fabulous gold and green bromeliad and starting to add purple tones; this is a partial shade container
I started with the Coleus plant and worked from there with Rita’s Gold Fern and a trailing begonia

Likewise, if you have a special container and want to work off of that, then choose your plants to match and/or contrast. My favorite color containers are orange and blue. Both colors seem to set off plants with a big boost. But if your plants are really striking, you might want to go with a container that is an earth tone color and doesn’t dominate.

Drilling holes in an old bundt pan made this a perfect container to use orange hued plants
A great container is set off by the trailer
A great container is set off by the Vinca trailer; very few flowers but good foliage choices makes this shade container stand out
Signature container makes these succulents shine
Signature container makes these succulents shine
The signature plant used here is Croton and that is all you need
The signature plant used here is Croton and that is all you need
Signature plant used here is begonia vine

Light Requirements

Choosing each plant was also predicated on similar light requirements. Below, I was designing a container for partial shade so made sure that I used plants that needed about 5 hours of sunlight or less. I spread the plants out in a carrying crate that I transported them in and picked the ones that worked.

Mix and matching colors
Mix and matching colors; Lime – Rita’s Gold Fern – is one of my favorites
Spring container with glass ball, frizzle sizzle pansy, alyssum, trailing orange snapdragon, and orange pansy
Early spring container

Another technique I use is to pair bold gigantic leaves with fine foliage. It always works!

What makes this combo works, is the large Elephant Ear foliage
The bold leaves of the Colocasia and the begonia are contrasted with the fine frilly Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’
When you have a bold plant such as this Honeybush, Melianthus, you just need one other contrasting plant

Mix & Match

Usually when I arrange a container, I pick out more than enough plants that meld well with the signature plant. Once I am at the job site I like to pick and choose from my selections to fit the container size. Extras are used for different containers to make other combinations.

For early spring, I laid out my plants that I collected and picked some for a container
I rejected about 10 other plants before coming up with this

Accessories

We all love our flowers, but think about other things that you can add that make a container special- glass balls, sticks, drift wood, and statues. Accessories can calm down a container with a lot of flowers, and give the eyes a place to rest.

Adding accessories like this silver ball makes a container pop, plus the blue container adds high contrast
The addition of yellow twig dogwood sticks makes this container stand out
The addition of yellow twig dogwood sticks makes this container stand out

 

Peacock colors are my next goal for creating a colorful container-beigey brown, lime green, dark green, black and peacock-blue

Top 10 Annuals That Can Take the Cold

Snapdragons, Dianthus, Violas, Primrose, Alyssum, and tall perennial Foxglove make this an early spring container arrangement

Planting Containers Early

After a long cold winter, gardeners are itching to get some color outside, even as early as St Patrick’s Day, here in the mid-Atlantic region. Most hardy annuals tolerate light frosts, but not freezing.  April 1st marks the start of my container season, but I have to be careful what I plant. Hard frosts are still on the horizon and I don’t want to lose my plants or have them frost burnt.  Including edibles such as kale, lettuce, and spinach gives my containers double duty. And the leafy greens are attractive too.

A spring container with edibles, like spinach, kale, and lettuce

My Top 10:

Pansies/Violas-technically not an annual, but I treat it like one

English Daisy-comes in pink, white, and red, singles and doubles

Lobelia-a small flowered blue or white trailer that is a non-stop bloomer. It creates masses of flowers that cascade or trail out of a container

Alyssum-honey-scented white or purple trailer

Dusty Miller-good foliage foil with felted grey leaves

Nemesia-comes in a variety of colors and the scent is fabulous

Ranunculus-multi-petaled flower which loves the cold; looks like a rose

Snapdragons-upright flower used for height, seen in cottage type gardens

Ornamental Cabbage-Yes, this looks like a full grown cabbage!; Great foliage in pinks, greens, and whites

Dianthus-The quintessential cottage flower, pinks are treasured for their blue-green foliage and abundant starry flowers, which are often spicily fragrant. They come in pinks, whites, and reds and are sweetly scented

Dianthus can take lot of cold temps
Different colors of Lobelia and Violas in a broken pot

Some flowers can take ice and snow, like Ornamental Cabbages and Pansies; others can take a light frost and temperatures in the thirties, like Nemesia, English Daisy, and Primroses.

English Daisies, Bellis, is actually a perennial but I treat it as an annual
Flowering cabbage will take a snowfall and come back fine

 

A hanging orb of violas, bleeding heart, parsley, red mustard, and kale- seen at Chanticleer
I love this brown-hued Viola

Temporary Color

Yes, it is temporary color, but for a few dollars, you can extend your container season. I compare it to buying fresh cut flowers, but these last a lot longer. Lasting for 6 to 8 weeks, the containers will have run their course by mid-May, and it will be time to plant for the summer using heat tolerant plants. Most people wait to plant their containers until May in the mid-Atlantic region when the danger of frost is past. But why wait?  You are missing out on all the wonderful cold hardy varieties that will be done in by the coming heat, like Ranunculus and Violas.

An adorable Viola growing with Dinosaur Kale
Ranunculus comes in many colors
An array of Violas at a local nursery

Ranunculus is actually a corm, a small type of bulb, and the flowers look too perfect to be real. Exquisite, rose-like blossoms, they are often seen in wedding bouquets. Silky petals are layered like a rose in bright, paint box colors.

Yellow fresh cut Ranunculus are at the base of this sunflower topiary; You can cut your plants in the container and bring them in
Primrose, Alyssum, Snapdragons, Violas, Scabiosa, and Oriental Lilies

Acclimate!

Buying my plants from a variety of sources- big box, wholesale nurseries, and independent nurseries with a good selection – I hold my plants in my cold frame during March. Staying about 10-20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, it is convenient to stash the plants somewhere and to look at all my color combos before planting. Sometimes, when I place them in my cold frame without any thought for color, a new pairing of texture or color will leap out at me. If you don’t have a cold frame, storing in an unheated garage or shed will work too.

My cold frame full of annuals and Swiss Chard

It is really important to acclimate your annuals to the cold by gradually exposing them to colder temperatures than the warm temps in a greenhouse. Unless you are buying your plants that are already sitting outside in a holding area, the plants will be coming out of a greenhouse.

Simple container of Nemesia, African Daisy, Carex, and Phygelius, seen at Chanticleer

Accessories

Using accessory elements like statues, balls, and twigs, will make the container pop.

Alyssum, pink Scabiosus, Primrose, Dianthus, Heather, Violas, Yellow Twig Dogwood
Violas, Dianthus, Hens and Chicks, and Columbine

Attracting Pollinators

Having flowering plants out in March and April is extremely important for the pollinators that are flying in chilly weather and have trouble finding nectar sources. You are providing a vital source of nectar and pollen for these important native bees by planting out early, as well as giving yourself a boost of color therapy after our cold winter. See my post on Winter Aconites for another early season pollinator nectar source.

Honeybee on Winter Aconites blooming in February
Honeybee on Winter Aconites blooming in February
Parsley is one of my favorite fillers

Trailing white Alyssum makes this container look lush

A new Pansy called Frizzle Sizzle has ruffled edges
Violas, Pansies, and pink and orange Nemesia

Perennials

Perennials like Coral Bells, Carex, Bergenia, Hellebores, Scabiosus, Lamium, and Evergreen Ferns, can be used in the early spring container as accents and fillers.  Later, worn out annuals can be pulled out leaving the still performing perennials and newer heat tolerant annuals inserted in their place.

I will keep the pink Coral Bells and the strappy Alliums in this container and rip out the violas when they are done
I will keep the pink Coral Bells, the strappy Alliums, and the Lamium in the rear and replace the Violas later in the Spring when they are done

Table planted with early spring annuals and perennials

An early planting of a table with Lamium, Violas, Ferns, Pulmonaria, Polka Dot Plant, and Moss

Crescent Garden Planters-Best Self Watering Containers on the Market

White and black container in Crescent planter

What planters are light weight, 100% recyclable, will not fade or crack, withstand harsh weather and UV rays, and offer a 10 year warranty?  Drum roll please……… Crescent Garden Planters.  Oh, did I mention they are self watering? Containing a very large reservoir, I never had to water my Crescent Planter last summer,  not once! We did have a lot of rainfall in the summer, but I had to water all my other containers periodically. I have embedded the video explaining how the Trudrop system works below:

Trudrop

Starting the planter in the spring using a white and black color scheme-I called it my tuxedo pot-I enjoyed it on my patio all season long. Adding some granular long-lasting fertilizer like Osmocote to the soil, ensured that I didn’t have to add any additional fertilizer. Or if you prefer, you can add a liquid fertilizer and pour over the plants once a month. It really was my most successful experiment in low maintenance gardening! Having tried many self-watering containers, I had to see and experience it to believe it.

Cross section of a planter
Cross section of a planter
White and black container in Crescent planter
White and black container in Crescent planter

 

These turquoise shapes tell you if the reservoir is full on the container;one of the shapes isn't fully exposed to let you know that it is almost full
These turquoise crescents tell you if the reservoir is full on the container;one of the crescents isn’t fully expressed to let you know that it is almost full

The Crescent Garden Planters have a patented tru-drop self-watering system that is ideal both for indoor and outdoor use. Unlike traditional systems this will autoregulate even with rain water to make sure you have enough water when you need it and not too much when you do not need it. You just pop off the clear cover and insert your hose to fill the reservoir up, which will then be gradually used to water the container as needed.

Water alert system
Water alert system

Perfect if you travel a lot when you have containers outdoors or indoors. The enclosed water supply or reservoir holds enough water to last 6 weeks or more, depending on weather conditions. If used outdoors, there is an overfill drain designed to drain excess rain water.

Double wall construction
Double wall construction

Watering from the bottom up lets your plants take only the amount of water they need and lowers the risk of fungus and disease.

Crescent planters come in a variety of shapes and sizes
Crescent planters come in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes

Food safe for edibles is another attribute, and I will try growing some edible plants this summer in my planter. For the winter care, just make sure the container is drained if exposed to freezing temps. Available on Amazon and various local garden centers, I am going to add to my collection every year.

 

The Year in Review-Top Garden Posts For 2018

 

It’s that time of year again, where I review my most viewed posts from all over the world and I was surprised at some of the posts that were at the top of the heap. The top ten countries that view my blog in descending order are the U.S. Canada, UK, Australia, India, Germany, France, South Africa, Brazil, and New Zealand. I am always amazed at this! India is near the top and reading my blog in great numbers? And Australia and New Zealand are reading too! That just goes to show you that gardening topics are a universal theme.

Gardening is a universal theme
Gardening is a universal theme

I have about 5,000 followers that receive regular emails when I post and my average viewings per day is around 250 to 300 readers. And for the year, I ran around 100,000 visits or page views.

For 2018, I gathered the most popular posts for the year, some of which are old and are continuously viewed from years ago, but others that are new. I work on some posts a year in advance. For instance, I am working on Christmas ones for next year. And I am working on a book with all new projects.

So, here are my top ten posts from 2018.

Top 10 

Planted container in an old bundt pan
Planted container in an old bundt pan

1-Containers With Pizzazz

This is a golden oldie. Container plantings are one of my favorite things to put together, not just in spring, but all year long. Most people do their containers in the spring and are done! But I am coming up with ideas all year long. And with the recent addition of a greenhouse in my backyard, I am going coming up with lots of new ideas. Seasonal, and non-traditional containers are my specialty.

Shade container
Shade container
Succulents planted in truck
Succulents planted in truck
An easy but dramatic shade container
An easy but dramatic shade container

2-Christmas at Winterthur

Dried flower tree at Winterthur
Dried flower tree at Winterthur, picture by Amy Sparwasser

Winterthur in Wilmington, Delaware, has a tradition going back to 1986, of decorating a large tree with dried flowers. And the dried flowers aren’t your grandmother’s musty dusty dried arrangements that dotted the home. These are air dried and silica gel dried (think of those little packets that come with new purchases) to retain their jewel like tones that almost seem fresh. I made my own miniature dried flower tree that I will post about next season in time for the Christmas season.

Miniature dried flower tree
Miniature dried flower tree

3-DIY Birdseed Ornaments

This one was a surprise. There are a lot of bird watchers out there and there must be some super hungry birds that are getting a smorgasbord of home made treats. Easy to put together for anyone, these make great gifts for your bird loving friends.

Bird seed ornaments come in all shapes and sizes
Bird seed ornaments come in all shapes and sizes
Great gifts for the bird lover on your list
Great gifts for the bird lover on your list

4-Taking Root: Delaware Botanic Garden’s Progress Report

Meadow at Delaware Botanic Gardens
Meadow at Delaware Botanic Garden at Pepper Creek, photo by Ruth Rogers Clausen

Put this garden on your radar. It is a world class garden taking shape in Dagsboro, Delaware- on my doorstep! Designed by world renowned Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf (think High Line!), it has been in the making for some years and is scheduled to open in 2019. The development of this garden has been written about on my blog and I will keep you posted as it opens to the public.

 

Left to right: Raymond J. Sandler, President of DBG, Piet Oudolf, and Sheryl Swed, Executive Director of DBG, photo by Ray Bojarski
Left to right: Raymond J. Sandler, President of DBG, Piet Oudolf, and Sheryl Swed, Executive Director of DBG, photo by Ray Bojarski
Brand new Greenhouses have been erected
Brand new Greenhouses have been erected

5-Decorating the White House 2018

Though I didn’t participate in decorating the White House in 2018, I have done it three times in the past and have lots of friends who sent me updates and pictures of the current decorations. Take a look!

Closeup of the Blue Room tree, Photo by Marci Lindsey
Closeup of the Blue Room tree, Photo by Marci Lindsey
Gingerbread House in 2018, Photo by Marci Lindsey
Gingerbread House in 2018, Photo by Marci Lindsey
My volunteer aprons from past years
My volunteer aprons from past years

6-“Hairy Balls” -A Different Kind of Milkweed

Monarch caterpillars cover the Balloon Plant or Hairy Balls  Milkweed

A plant oddity that takes people by surprise when they see it growing in my garden. Having grown it for years, I am tickled when people exclaim over it.  Easy to grow and attractive to Monarch caterpillars, this is a fixture in my garden.

Hairy Balls are fun to arrange with
Hairy Balls are fun to arrange with

7-Pesticide Free Nurseries and Seed Companies

There is a real interest and need for sourcing of pesticide free nurseries and seed companies. Posting this information brought in a lot of comments and appreciation from gardeners who strive to garden organically as much as possible.

8-Miniature Gardens-Whimsical Creations 

My love of creating miniature little worlds has been with me as long as I can remember. The Philadelphia Flower Show has some of the best examples around and I visit every spring for my inspiration. I like to change my miniature gardens with the season and decorate my home with them.Miniature garden seen at Philadelphia Flower Show

Miniature garden seen at Philadelphia Flower Show

A seasonal holiday miniature garden
A seasonal holiday miniature garden
Halloween miniature garden
Halloween miniature garden

9-From the Ground Up-Choosing the Right Ground Cover For Shade

As a landscape designer, I am frequently asked;  “What can I plant in shade under a tree?” Besides Pachysandra, Vinca, and Ivy, in this post I give you lots of plants you might not have thought of that work much better than the “big three”. There are so many perennials suitable for this hard to work with area, and this post give you information on what works.

At the Bloedel Reserve near Seattle
Brunnera variegata, a great ground cover for shady locations that deer won’t eat

10-Floating Beauties

Bowl arrangements are easy and great for entertaining
Bowl arrangements are easy to make and great for entertaining-this picture is from Chanticleer, in Wayne, PA

Bowl arrangements are for those who are too intimidated to arrange flowers. I started making these with leftovers after making a floral arrangement and sometimes like them better than the arrangement that I spent more time on. No mechanics are needed other than a wide open bowl and a few flowers and /or some foliage. Staged inside or outdoors, I have made these in the dead of winter with some odds and ends from my garden.

A winter arrangement with nandina and dried alliums
A winter arrangement with nandina, red twigs, and dried alliums

Comments about my posts are very much appreciated and I always read them and learn from them.

Thanks to all my readers out there, where ever you are, and have a great New Year!

The Year of the Pepper

In the veggie garden this year, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash all bombed. Rotting zucchini plants were everywhere and tomatoes that peaked early and then languished was the norm.  The mid-Atlantic had record rainfall and it seemed every day there was a chance of showers. And shower it did! Non-stop for five solid months, it was mud season all summer.

Raised beds would have helped with my veggies garden as they help with drainage

From May through July 2018, much of the East Coast, especially the Mid-Atlantic, experienced rainfall up to 300% of normal according to NOOA. The soggy summer was described this way by NOOA, “in June and July, the epicenter for heaviest rains became focused over the Mid-Atlantic, as monthly rains near Washington, D.C. through central Pennsylvania easily eclipsed 200% of normal”. The rains here in Maryland have been so heavy that May to July was the wettest in the state’s 124 history. This pattern continued into October. Also, the heat was turned up so I call this summer our “tropical rain forest year”. It felt heavy and humid every day which translates to Heat + Humidity = More Disease. 

Mad Hatter is one of my favorite varieties; If you keep them on the plant, they turn red

The wet weather affected my vegetable garden yields greatly, and any vining veggies, like cucumbers, squash, and melons, totally succumbed to disease from wet conditions.  But to my total surprise, my pepper crop reveled in the rain and heat and broke all records for producing quantities of peppers. We have been eating peppers at every meal- sweet, hot, and slightly hot are all producing prodigiously even into the end of October.

Piles of peppers

I used all AAS Winners (All American Selections National and Regional Winners) for seed which have been tested for garden performance all over North America from a panel of expert judges. Reliable new varieties that have proved their superior garden performance in trial gardens is the way to go for me. Like a stamp of approval from experienced gardeners, my AAS peppers included: Cayenne Red Ember, Hungarian Mexican, Escamillo, Mexican Sunset, Habanero Roulette, Mad Hatter, Pretty N Sweet, and Mama Mia Giallo.

I grew some bell peppers for stuffing also

Growing all my plants from seed, I planted about 20 different transplants out in May and forgot about them for the next two months. Peppers thrive on neglect and yes, I neglected them while I constantly tried planting new cucumbers and squash to no avail. I didn’t harvest one. But when I totally despaired of my vegetable garden, the peppers started to come in and are still producing.

Growing some of my peppers in containers was the best choice I made this year. The ones in containers excelled and when frost started to hit in late October, I whisked them into my greenhouse, where they are still producing.

I placed my containers of peppers in my greenhouse

Peppers 3 Ways

What to do with all this bounty? I have tried these three ways this season.

Drying peppers
Piles of dried peppers; I store in the freezer as I found that they got moldy otherwise

Freeze Drying

Wash peppers and let dry. Cut in half and lay on a dehydrator tray and dry for about 24 hours. Store the dried peppers in plastic freezer baggies, and store in freezer. Pull them out as needed.

Freezing

Wash peppers and let dry. Chop peppers up into pieces and place in freezer bags. I like to mix red and green pepper together. I freeze them in small quantities that are recipe-ready.

Place chopped peppers into freezer bags squeezing any excess air out

Blackened

My favorite treatment by far: Wash your peppers and dry. Heat up some canola oil in a fry pan until hot and sizzling. Dump your peppers in one layer and stir to flip them to all sides until blackened. Squeeze juice of one lime into the pan and sprinkle with kosher or sea salt. Eat by biting the pepper right off the stem that will include the seeds. Delicious! Watch out for the hot ones!

Saute and blacken
Ready to eat

 

Containers With Pizzazz ! Not Your Ordinary Container!

Shade Container
Shade Container

Container Finesse

For an Updated Version of this post, go to Container Design Simplified, April 2019

I create containers for clients all the time and am always looking for inspiration to move away from the “geraniums with spike and trailer”  school of thought. With a little more planning and shopping, you can come up with a showplace masterpiece with WOW impact. For pollinator containers, go to Nectar in a Pot- Movable Feast 

Container with a variety of plants for all summer color
Container with a variety of plants for all summer color-Canna, trailing zinnia, trailing petunia, sweet potato vine, coleus, verbena, and salvia

Take pictures of creations that you like and copy them, but add your own personal touches to make it your own. Once you have done enough containers, the combinations are second nature, starting with just one really wonderful plant and working from there.

Succulents- you can go on vacation and leave these without worrying!

Artful Containers

The best piece of advice that I picked up over the years was a secret to coordinating your colors in an arrangement.  Choose a piece of fabric or piece of art that you really like, and take it with you when you plant shop.  Of course, you can’t take a painting with you, so grab refrigerator magnets with famous paintings on them from museums, cut a swatch from fabric, or cut out paintings from magazines.  Inspired by a Van Gogh, my most successful container used the colors from his iris painting. Van Gogh’s painting has that intense blue which so many people adore – also orange, greens, a touch of white and yellow. If you like it in a painting, you will like it in a container!

Beautiful colors from Van Gogh painting

Early spring container by Leigh Barnes

I have plenty of room to plant in my beds but I really enjoy planting in containers because they become a piece of art in miniature. This is my opportunity to try new annuals that are untested by me,  and go wild with the color combos.  Bold, vibrant,  and sizzling color, is the driving force for many of my combinations. To browse the new Pantone colors for 2018, check out Pantone. 2018 Ultra Violet. That inspired me to create containers with intense purples. I love the new AAS Winner Purple Evening Scentsation. It has wonderful color and an even great fragrance! I can smell this one from 20′ away!

Purple Scentsation Petunia, from AAS

Coral Bells waiting in my cold frame

Coral Bells are usually my starting point for color inspiration as they come in some unusual colors not normally seen in the plant world.

A variety of Heucheras
A variety of Heucheras or Coral Bells
Painter palette of colors
Painter palette of colors

I find that there are too many containers with pastel and hum drum hues, and that I rather create a bold and striking container.

Bold container
Bold container

 

Musical Plants-Rearrange for the Season

Portable and colorful, this single plant of Croton can be moved to accent anywhere in the garden
Portable and colorful, this single plant of Croton can be moved to accent anywhere in the garden

I rarely keep my flowers in the pot all season.  They just fizzle by the end of the summer and I get tired of them! Sometimes I have three seasons of containers –  a winter one with an evergreen and some pansies and other cool weather flowers, then I move on to petunias, supertunias, cannas, lantanas -everything that likes heat, and finally to fall plants –  mums, asters, grasses, cabbages, and ferns. I mix and match perennials, shrubs and annuals to get the most versatility and longevity out of my pots. To see my post on Fall containers, go to Creative Fall containers. For early season containers, go to Seasonal Containers.

Seasonal container-miscanthus, chrysanthemum, autumn fern, cabbage, artemisa, ivy

Edibles

Edibles in containers are big now and rightly so. So many leafy crops have gorgeous foliage and shouldn’t be relegated to the vegetable garden, and it is a great way to grow your veggies in limited space. One of my all time  favorite fillers is curly parsley. Colorful kale, lettuce, spinach, and other herbs like thyme are also great. Or, you can have an entirely edible container selection, and include eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, cucs. The sky is the limit. If it is too late to start seeds, there is a huge variety of midget sized plants available at any nursery that have been developed for container culture.

Little Prince eggplant from Renees Gardens grow great in containers
Little Prince eggplant from Renees Gardens grow great in containers
Container with edibles
Container with edibles-kale, lettuce,, pansies, angelina sedum

Large Containers Are Best

Choose a large enough container to avoid constantly watering it during hot summers.  A pot with a circumference of at least 15 to 18 inches is enough to get you going with a choice of different types of plants, plus enough room for them to grow throughout the summer. I like the light weight faux pots that look like real pottery,  but will not crack and will retain water better than terra-cotta ones. The faux pots will last for years and you can leave them out all winter, plus they are inexpensive and portable. There are even self-watering ones available which have a water reservoir built into the container.  Regardless of the type of container that you have, make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom.  If there aren’t any, drill some using a large bit on a portable drill and be sure to make them large enough, at least 3/4 of an inch in diameter. In addition, elevate your containers for air circulation. I use pot feet to elevate.

Pot feet elevates a container
Pot feet elevates a container
A great little trailer- Silver Falls or Dichondra

Good Soil – Good Plants

Good soil or potting medium is critical for the health of your plants that will be sitting in the container for months or years. Use an organic mix of compost, sphagnum moss, and perlite. There are a lot of commercial potting mixes on the market so be sure to choose one that has added fertilizer to it as container plants need a good boost of fertilizer to bloom all season long, plus regular applications. Make sure that you add a good dollop of compost in the bottom of the pot – a couple of inches at least.  This is where the roots are going to reach down and use up all those nutrients to produce flowers all season long. If you must reuse the same soil, then remove the top 5 or 6 inches and replace with fresh potting medium.

Container in full summer glory

Right Plant, Right Spot

Note if your container will be in all day sunlight, partial shade, or mostly shade.  Shady container plants can be just as colorful as sunny ones with careful selection of colorful foliage. Go to the nursery and ask a knowledgeable employee for suggestions on varieties.  For any situation,  you want something tall for the back, like a grass, cordyline, canna or caladium, and a cascader for the edge and something to fill in between- thrillers, spillers, and fillers!

A container with different types and textures of plants is more appealing
A container with different types and textures of plants is more appealing

It is an overused phrase, but it really describes the process well. For a pot 18 inches in diameter, you would need about 5 to 9 plants. Use a tall architectural one, a couple of fillers, and a couple of spillers. When I create a container, I want mature plants to make a big impact right away. Later on, you can prune and winnow out the ones that are failing to thrive.

Window Boxes

Shade Windowbox
Shade windowbox with begonia ‘Bonfire’

 

Succulent window box
Succulent window box

Planting window boxes uses the same principles as containers. To create depth you really make use of those spillers. Silver Falls, Dichondra, is a great asset for trailing down walls and planters for sun and shade, and the new begonia ‘Bonfire’ is valuable for bright color in the shade.

All three types of plants are used in this standing windowbox, thriller, fillers, and spillers
All three types of plants are used in this standing windowbox- thriller, fillers, and spillers
Trailing Silver Falls out of a windowbox
Trailing Silver Falls out of a windowbox
Silver Falls at Chanticleer in the ruin

Textures

When selecting your plants, consider your textures. I see too many containers planted with flowers and foliage that are similar in texture and look too busy.  Try mixing it up with some broad sculptural leaves, variegated foliage, and deeply lobed leaf shapes. Using varying forms will help your plants stand out instead of blending together in an indistinguishable mass.

Good textural contrast and variety-bubblegum petunia, variegated ginger, black and blue salvia, plectranthus, secretsea
More textural variety

Cannas and Caladiums -Focal Points

A variegated canna as a focal point
Caladiums
Caladiums

Cannas are good selections for sunny containers –  just make sure your pot is large enough.  I have seen cannas get 8 feet tall or higher! For shade, try Caladiums. There are beautiful Caladiums on the market with very colorful unusual markings and they will shine in the shade. But be careful when you plant these as they are very sensitive to cold. Make sure the nights keep above at least 50 degrees before setting these out.

Coleus

Varieties of coleus
Varieties of coleus

The Coleus on the market now are not your grandmother’s Coleus! Many of these new varieties are designed to thrive in full sun –  not shade –   though there are a few that prefer shade only. Literally, there are hundreds of varieties on the market and you could simply do lots of containers with just Coleus and have very colorful pots. Coleus are among my all-time favorites with beautiful striking foliage. I prefer not to let Coleus flower as the flowers detract from the foliage beauty, and when they appear, I pinch them off.


A beautiful Coleus – I forget the name!
Partial shade container in old fashioned lead pot-coleus, dragon wing begonia, fuschia, sweet potato vine, geranium

Maintenance-Nip and Tuck!

Maintenance includes regular watering, at least once a day when it is hot, fertilizing with a dilute or granular fertilizer at least once a week, and pinching back plants as they grow to maintain their shape.  I call this nip and tuck.  If you don’t do this on a regular basis, your plants will get leggy, unattractive, and woody.  If you don’t have good drainage, your plants will literally drown from lack of Oxygen!  Make sure that your drainage holes are large enough so they don’t get clogged up and don’t use gravel in the bottom.  I carry a long metal rod for unplugging clogged drainage holes.

Inserting a metal rod in a clogged drainage hole
Inserting a metal rod in a clogged drainage hole

Added gravel just makes the pot heavier and does not help with drainage. Drip irrigation is an option if you have lots of containers that need regular watering and you don’t want to be a slave to your water can.  Drip is pretty simple to set up, with all the components available at a local nursery or hardware store and they just snap together. I compare it to playing with Tinker Toys!

Grouping

Group your containers, especially if you have many small ones.  By grouping, you achieve a bigger impact and it is far easier to take care of them in one bunch.  If you do drip irrigation, grouping is essential as you use less tubing and you can hide the tubing in the adjacent pots. Grouping also makes it easier for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to find the nectar rich flowers.

A large grouping at the National Arboretum in D.C.
Great color combo-coleus, trailing petunia, lotus vine, verbena, silver falls, black and blue salvia
Don’t be afraid to plant just one kind of sensational plant in a container – here it is oleander

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