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  1. The Best Shrubs for Container Gardens

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    There are lots of reasons to grow shrubs in containers.  You may have a small garden or no garden at all.  The only sunny spot on your property may be covered with concrete, or your soil may be so poor that even poison ivy fails to thrive.  Then again, your “garden” space may be a porch, terrace or balcony.  Perhaps you have acres of space but want distinctive potted garden accents.  Whatever the reason, container gardening is in vogue, with the selection of beautiful, small shrubs and landscape pots at an all-time high.

    Why Compact Shrubs?

    When choosing “compact” shrubs for containers make sure that they will stay compact.

    Breeders are riding the container-gardening trend, producing compact versions of many of the most popular shrubs. But, don’t assume that words like “compact”, “miniature” or “dwarf” are synonymous with a “manageable size.”  The compact version of an 8-foot shrub may still be 5 feet tall—too big for many containers.  Always check plant tags and reference sources for the mature size of any plant before purchase.

    Most small shrubs can flourish in containers that are between 18 and 24 inches wide and equally deep.  If you live in a cold-weather climate, and the containers are going to stay out all winter, avoid thin ceramic or terra cotta pots, which will crack in very cold weather.  Heavy, high-fired, glazed ceramic pots as well as metal, plastic, and resin containers won’t crack.  (Click here to learn more about the best containers to overwinter outdoors.)

    So, commit to container-grown shrubs.  Pick your favorite shrub species, and do a little research to find small varieties.  Attention to cultural requirements—sun or shade, drought-tolerant or moisture-loving—will prepare you to enter the universe of compact shrubs for containers.  The following are a few of the better shrub options for the task.

    Compact Evergreen Shrubs

    Anna’s Magic Ball® arborvitae and Oso Easy® Lemon Zest rose are perfect for containers. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

    For lovely rounded shape, it is hard to beat Anna’s Magic Ball arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Anna’s Magic Ball®, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7, 10-15 inches).  Thriving in sunny spots, the Proven Winners’ plant boasts soft, almost ferny evergreen foliage that holds its color through the winter.  At maturity, it tops out at around a foot tall and wide. Another rounded specimen, Wee Willie Korean boxwood (Buxus sinica var. insularis Wee Willie®, Zones 5-9, 2 feet tall and wide), has all the boxwood virtues—neat rounded appearance and fine green leaves, plus manageable dimensions. A pair of potted Korean boxwoods look wonderful framing an sunny or partially sunny entrance.  For something a little less formal and a little bluer, try the sun-loving Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’, Zones 4-8, 2-3 feet tall by 3-4 feet wide).  Another sun lover, it has textural foliage of dusty blue-green.

    Cavatine andromeda (Pieris japonica ‘Cavatine’, Zones 5-8, 2-3 feet tall and wide) combines small size with a floriferous habit and evergreen nature.  The prolific spring bloomer covers itself with honey-scented bells and performs well in light shade.

    Compact Shrubs Full of Flowers

    Buddleia Lo & Behold® Blue Chip Jr. is the perfect butterfly bush for containers. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

    Flowering shrubs grown in containers give great garden value, and it’s easy to find old favorites in smaller sizes.  Rhododendron lovers can rejoice in Ginny Gee rhododendron(Rhododendron ‘Ginny Gee’, Zones 5-8, 1-2 feet tall and wide), a pink-and-white flowered beauty perfect for containers.  The leaves are dark green and small, and the habit is dense.  Like most rhodies, ‘Ginnie Gee’ flourishes in light shade.

    Hydrangea breeders have extended the range of offerings of this popular shrub and one of the best is Invincibelle® Wee White hydrangea(Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle® Wee White, Zones 3-9, 1-2.5 feet tall and wide ).  This early summer bloomer pumps out pink, globe-shaped flowerheads that age to white.  Unlike older hydrangea varieties, Invincibelle® Wee White also flowers on new woods, so blooms appear throughout the growing season. Give it full sun to partial shade, good potting soil, and regular moisture.

    Simple potted boxwoods (shown with potted Boston ferns) add a formal flare to garden spaces.

    There are plenty of little butterfly bushes (Buddleia hybrids) to attract all kinds of garden pollinators, whether the shrubs are in-ground or in containers. Lo & Behold® Blue Chip Jr. butterfly bush (Buddleia Lo & Behold® Blue Chip Jr., Zones 5-9, 1.5-2.5 feet tall and wide ) features deep blue-purple flowers that bloom in mid-summer and beyond. All Junior requires is a sunny spot and don’t self-sow prolifically, like standard buddleia.


    Compact English patio roses stay small but don’t have miniature flowers.

    Container gardeners can also cultivate wonderful rose gardens full of color and scent.  Patio roses boast all the winning qualities of their larger relatives in smaller packages. Some of the newest and best are all of the colorful, compact landscape roses in the Oso Easy ® Series. The double-pink-flowered Oso Easy® Strawberry Crush (Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet ) and yellow-double-flowered Oso Easy® Lemon Zest (Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet) are both effortlessly beautiful high performers.

    Or you could consider an English patio rose. The rose-red, repeat flowering Sophy’s Rose (Zones 5-11, 4 feet) is the largest size one would consider for a container rose. James L. Austin (Zones 5-11, 4 feet), with its large, fully double flowers of fuchsia pink, is another good choice. Those wanting a less demanding color should consider the highly fragrant, palest yellow, double rose Vanessa Bell (Zones 5-11, 3 feet).

    Colorful Leaves for Extended Interest

    Dwarf variegated aucuba looks good year-round with good care.

    Container-grown shrubs, like their in-ground relations, can be the workhorses of the garden, providing interest in multiple seasons.  The leaves of the southern favorite dwarf variegated aucuba (Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata Nana’, Zones 6-10, 4 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide) are dark green splashed with gold, lighting up the garden.  This shrub is best in a large pot placed in partial shade to full sun.

    Lil Miss Sunshine® Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis L’il Miss Sunshine, Zones 5-9, 2-3 feet) is a stunner, sporting golden-green leaves and azure blue flowers in late summer.  Grown in full sun, this sunshiny plant will provide interest throughout the growing season.

    Bearing Fruit

    Raspberry Shortcake® stays small and performs beautifully in containers. (Image thanks to Bushel and Berry®)

    Compact fruit-bearing shrubs are also gaining momentum, and the little blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries in the Bushel and Berry® series have quite a following. One to try is Bushel and Berry® Peach Sorbet blueberry (Vaccinium Bushel and Berry® Peach Sorbet, Zones 5-10, 1.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide ). The leaves attract attention, ripening from peachy-pink to green and eventually turning red in the fall. Bell-shaped white flowers appear in spring, followed by blueberries in early summer. Supply full to partial sun, fertile acidic soil, regular water, fertilize and blueberry harvests are guaranteed.

    Raspberry lovers can rejoice in Bushel and Berry® Raspberry Shortcake® (Rubus Raspberry Shortcake®, Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet tall and wide).  Single, white, spring flowers give way to big red raspberries.  The canes are also thornless, which will please raspberry pickers.  Like most other fruiting plants, Raspberry Shortcake ® produces best in full sun.

    A Few Words About Culture

    If the plant’s roots are pot-bound, be sure to loosen them before planting.

    Success with shrubs in containers starts with the right pot.  Make sure it is three times wider than the plant’s root ball and contains drainage holes at the bottom and a saucer to catch water. When you have matched a shrub to a container, fill the container with a quality potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed that feeds plants for up to 6 months. The addition of a continuous-release fertilizer will help plants grow their best.

    At planting time, make sure the plant’s roots are not pot bound and intertwined when you remove it from the container. If they are, gently loosen them. Make sure the final soil level is 2 inches below the rim of the container, and firm the soil around the new shrub, making sure there are no air pockets. The top space will allow plenty of room for water. Water thoroughly until it percolates through to the bottom of the container.  Potted plants require more water than those grown in-ground, and that often means daily watering while the plant establishes roots, as well as in dry seasons.  In general, water when the top three inches of soil feel dry to the touch.

  2. “Cannatainers” or Cannas for Container Gardening

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    Canna ‘Striata’ graces the center of an impressive patio pot. (Image by Mike Darcy)

    Cannas emerge from dormancy and hit the horticultural market in late winter and spring, so now is the time to get the show started. Numerous varieties are available from on line and local nurseries, either as potted plants or as bare-root rhizomes (the technical name for the thickened underground stems that give rise to all that splendiferous summer growth).

    Newly purchased plants should be grown indoors in a suitable potting mix until danger of frost has passed, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix.  Ten- to twelve-inch plastic pots and a two-inch planting depth work well for this initial, indoor growth phase.  For their outdoor, summer home, cannas need containers of a grander and more massive order planted in a water-holding mix, such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix.  An 18-inch-plus clay or ceramic pot (or something in the way of a cast iron urn) is ideal.  Large wooden or terra cotta planters also work well.  Simply knock the plants out of their temporary, indoor containers and place them at the same depth in their outdoor quarters.  Then stand back and watch the fireworks happen (making sure to water liberally and fertilize regularly through summer).

    Although spectacular on their own, containerized cannas make an even more extravagant statement if combined with other heat-loving plants.  For example, the flowers and foliage of gold- and red-hued Coleus provide a striking foil for the sunset foliar tones of Canna ‘Phaison’ (right).  The possibilities are practically limitless, given cannas’ wide range of floral and foliage colors.
    When choosing cannas for container gardening, the sky’s the limit. For a lavish summer display on a less colossal scale, use a “dwarf” canna cultivar such as ‘Pink Sunset’, which offers dazzlingly variegated leaves and soft pink flowers on 3-foot (rather than the usual 5- to 10-foot) plants.

    Or you can go the other direction and opt for something outrageously gargantuan such as the banana canna, ‘Musaefolia’, a Victorian-age behemoth that towers to 14 feet.  A bathtub of a container (and lots of water) is recommended.

    Cannas slow their pace in fall, requiring reduced water as they gradually die back to their rhizomes.  Dormant plants can be moved indoors, pot and all, for the winter, or the rhizomes can be lifted and stored in paper bags in a well-ventilated location.  Either way, cool temperatures (below 60 degrees F) are best for storage.
    In early spring, move containerized cannas to a warmer niche and water sparingly until growth resumes.  Split overwintered bare-root rhizomes into divisions of 3 or more “eyes” (the red, swollen growth points spaced along the rhizomes), and plant them in containers (as described above).   And start planning this year’s summer spectacular.

    An orange-flowered ‘Wyoming’ Canna looks in the back of a pot of tall red cannas and elephant ear. (Image by Pam Beck)

  3. Miniature Water Lily Pots for the Patio

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    Lotus leaves-5

    The white pygmy water lily is tiny and perfect for container culture.

    Nothing is more cooling in summer than a water garden filled with water lilies. Lack of space and resources for a garden pond keep most gardeners from growing these beautiful aquatic flowers, but what if a pond isn’t needed? Spacious troughs or large pots without drainage holes can be converted into small water gardens for miniature water lily varieties. If you have a partially sunny patio, deck, or flat garden space that can take the weight of a water-filled pot, you are set!

    Choosing a Container

    stone pot with leaves of water lilies

    Any deep, spacious, water-tight pot will hold miniature water lilies.

    Water lily pots have to be large and spacious, so start with choosing a container that’s at least 15-18 inches deep and 24-40 inches wide. This will give you enough water-holding space for your lilies and their roots.
    Pots must be water tight. Specialty “no hole” pots designed for aquascaping are sold, but you can also fill line large pots with pond liner, which is often the cheaper option. Simply cut the liner to a round that will fit in your pot and fit it snugly along the inner lip of the pot. Its helps to apply a strong, non-toxic adhesive along the edge to keep it in place.

    Choosing Miniature Waterlilies


    The yellow water lily ‘Helvola’ is a classic compact variety that grows beautifully in containers.

    True miniature water lilies are so tiny that some even have flowers the size of a quarter. Many are pygmy waterlily (Nymphaea tetragona) variants, which are very hardy—surviving winters as cold as USDA Hardiness Zones 4-11, with good protection. They come in a suite of colors that include ivory, pale yellow, pink, and red. The best for home gardens are easy to find online or in specialty stores.
    One of the tiniest miniatures is the white pygmy water lily (Nymphaea tetragona ‘Alba’). The hardy plants reach 18 to 24 inches across and sport tiny white flowers that float alongside teensie white flowers. Another beautiful white-flowered variety with much bigger, tulip-shaped flowers but a small growth habit is ‘Hermine’.
    The peach-pink-flowered ‘Berit Strawn’ (Nymphaea ‘Berit Strawn’) has larger flowers (3 to 4 inches) and pads of deep green with some reddish mottling. The tiny plant is perfect for container growing, is very hardy, and will bloom nonstop from early summer to fall. Plants will spread between 24 and 30 inches.
    white lotus flower in pots

    ‘Hermine’ is a stunning, white-flowered miniature water lily.

    One of the smallest red-flowered miniatures is ‘Perry Baby Red’ (Nymphaea ‘Perry Baby Red’). Its rosy red flowers compliment dark green pads. Plants spread 12 to 36 inches.
    An old classic mini water lily is the hardy ‘Indiana’ (Nymphaea ‘Indiana’). Its tricolored, 2- to 3-inch flowers are in shades of rose-red, yellow, and orange. The diminutive plants have a spread of 12 to 28 inches and small green pads with reddish spots.
    One of the best yellow-flowered water lilies is the cheerful ‘Yellow Pygmy’ (Nymphaea ‘Helvola’). Flowers are only a couple of inches across, but they are bright and pretty. Plants reach 18 to 36 inches across.
    There are lots of great sources for miniature water lilies. Lilypons and Texas Water Lilies are good sources that offer quality selections.

    Planting Waterlilies

    Nymphaea 'Pygmaea Helvola' JaKMPM

    Water lily ‘Helvola’ in full bloom. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    Water lilies grow from fleshy tubers that must be grounded in smaller pots sunk below the surface of your water container. Choose a wide, shallow plastic pot that will fit in the bottom of your container while providing plenty of head space. Planting depth can be 5 to 24 inches from the water surface. Pots should be placed where they can get 6 hours of sun per day or more.
    Line the pots with porous but tight-knit plastic burlap. The base soil should consist of a 3:1 mixture of heavy loam and Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. The compost and soil must be well combined before planting. Finally, add a small amount of a slow-release, all-purpose fertilizer to the mix. Over fertilization can cause algal bloom.
    Sink the tuber into the soil, so the top of the plant meets the soil line. Once it is planted, line the top 2 inches of the pot with pea gravel to help keep the soil and plant in place. Place the pot on the bottom on the container and stabilize a flat, 1 to 2 inch thick rock along one side of the pot, so it sits at an angle; this helps with gas exchange for healthy root growth. Gently fill the pot with clean tap water to a depth a couple of inches below the lip of the pot.

    Maintaining Potted Waterlilies

    Lotus and lotus leaf background.

    Clean, fresh water is important to the health of potted water lilies.

    Keeping the water clean in your water lily pot is important. Remove any debris that falls in the water, and cut old leaves from your water lilies. Refresh the water regularly as it recedes. Small- to medium-sized water pots don’t need aeration filters.
    Water-filled containers cannot be allowed to freeze in winter, even if your water lily is hardy. Freezing and thawing can also cause containers to crack. The best course of action is to drain the container before the first freeze of the season, remove the lily pot (being sure to cut back the leaves), and store it in a water-filled bucket in a cool place. Water lily tubers should be divided every two to three years.
    Water lily pots are colorful, impressive, and will brighten any summer garden spot. If you want the tranquil beauty of a pond without all the work and hassle, plant one this season.

  4. Waterwise Container Gardening

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    Pentas JaKMPM

    Pretty pink pentas and purple-leaved pennisetum are both drought resistant and look great in containers.

    Container plantings are notorious for drying out quickly and needing extra water through the worst summer months, lest they dry and shrivel in a day’s time. Miss one morning watering and the most beautiful contained petunias or impatiens can go from great to a ghastly full wilt by evening. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the need for daily container watering while also ensuring lots of pretty potted plants for porch and patio.
    The four factors to consider when designing water-wise container gardening are 1. pot size and type, 2. soil and soil additives, 3. plant drought tolerance, and 4. pot placement. Get these factors right and your containers may require half the water normally supplied to summer pots.

    Container Size and Type

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Glazed and plastic pots hold water better than terracotta. (image care of the National Garden Bureau)

    Container size and type are things that most gardeners don’t consider as water-saving, but the larger and more water impermeable the pot, the more it will conserve water. Think about how plants move water. They take it up through the roots, the water travels through the plant, and then it’s released from tiny pores in the plant’s leaves and stems. Basically, the plant pulls water from the soil. A larger pot holds more water and provides more root space—offering a bigger well of needed moisture. And, an impermeable pot surface simply means that less water will be lost due to evaporation. Terra cotta pots are the worst when it comes to evaporation while glazed ceramics and plastic or resin pots keep water at the root zone.

     Soil and Additives

    1722fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front WEBSome soils and amendments like peat moss hold water well and others like perlite encourage drainage. Our best water-holding potting soils contain lots of rich organic matter in addition to water-reserving additives, such as the Moisture Pro™ water-holding crystals Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with extended feed and RESiLIENCE®. The RESiLIENCE® additive, which is OMRI-listed for organic gardening, helps plants further by helping plants reduce water stress during hot, dry times. The addition of coco coir (we recommend Black Gold Just Coir) or Fafard Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss further enhanced water-holding to reduce the need to water every day.

    Drought-Tolerant Plants

    Lantana camara 'Bante Rossa' (BANDANA™ ROSE, BANDANA™ SERIES) PP18148 JaKMPM

    Lantana camara BANDANA™ ROSE

    There are so many beautiful container-friendly garden flowers that stand up to heat. For containers, it’s great to choose heavy-flowering annuals that look nice until frost—either with their foliage, flowers, or both. It’s also nice to try new garden center offerings, in addition to solid standbys, that will wow and impress.
    Pennisetum glaucum 'Jade Princess' JaKMPM

    Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’

    For warm container color, try the new Bidens Campfire® Fireburst with its tiny hot daisies of orange-red and gold. Annual Bidens bloom continuously and look great alongside the red and orange flower of Lantana Rose Bandana, and gold-, -orange, and magenta-flowered Zinnia Pinwheel Mix, which are also compact. All stand up to hot, dry weather once established. The outstanding Cuphea Vermillionaire® is another super tough, super pretty bloomer producing lots of orange-red, tubular flowers through summer that attract hummingbirds. These glow container plantings when placed alongside tall, Angelonia Angelface® Superwhite and soft, airy Mexican hairgrass (Nasella tenuissima). Another great hummingbird flower for heat and containers is the new Salvia Ablazin’™ Tabasco with its taller stature and scarlet flowers that shine alongside the chartreuse leaves and purple plumes of Pennesetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’.
    Containers of bold succulents are also welcome for those wishing to water as little as possible. Pots of colorful Agave, Aloe, cacti or sedums look great through summer and can be brought into a sunny indoor spot through winter. The only caveat is that these plants tend to want a better-drained soil, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix.

    Container Placement

    IMG_9028Where you place your plants can make a big difference in how quickly they lose water. Exposed areas with hot sun and wind will always dry plants out more than protected areas shielded from the wind and sheltered from the sun during the hottest time of day. Morning and afternoon sun is always less beating, so place planters in spots where this level of sun dominates and light shade it provided around noon.
    Planning ahead with these four steps for water-wise containers will save water, time, and headaches through summer. Your containers will still need regular care and water for best health and looks, but you will be able to enjoy them more and worry less about summer container insta-wilt.

  5. Beautiful Indoor Begonias

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    Begonia 'Irene Nuss' (Superba Group)

    There are so many begonias to choose from for indoor color, such as this Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’ (Superba Group). (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Begonias are so much more than summer bedding plants. This dizzyingly diverse genus encompasses more than 900 tropical and temperate species and 10,000 cultivars – most of which are not Semperflorens hybrids (the botanical name for the ubiquitous wax begonia). Growing in a wide range of forms and habits – from elfin perennials to cascading vines to large shrubs – they offer a myriad of possibilities for garden and greenhouse.
    1760FF Pro Potting Mix 2cu RESILIENCE FrontThey also offer something for every season. Winter, especially, is a great time to have some begonias around the house – including those types that bear splashy evergreen leaves in a range of fanciful shapes and colors.

    Cane Begonias

    Cane begonias, for example, are a group of shrubby species and cultivars distinguished by their thick, fleshy, bamboo-like stems and typically large, flamboyantly marked leaves, often of “angel-wing” shape. Numerous varieties are available, including:

    Begonia maculata ‘Wightii’, whose elongated, olive-green “angel wings” are decorated with silvery-white dots and maroon undersides. Clusters of white flowers hover over the foliage in summer.

    Begonia aconitifolia ‘Metallica’, named for its shimmering deep green, purple-veined, hand-shaped leaves with red-purple reverses. Pink-flushed white flowers appear in fall.

    Begonia ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, with pleated, shiny, dark olive-green, pink-dotted leaves with maroon undersides. New leaves are suffused with copper.

    Begonia 'Silver Angel'

    ‘Silver Angel’ has striking silvered leaves with purple-red undersides that look great all year long. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Rex Begonias

    Also noted for their flashy leaves are the prima donnas of the tribe, the Rex hybrids, which trace their lineage to the begonia species of that name (it arrived in Europe from Northeast India in the mid-nineteenth century). Most Rex begonias have heart-shaped leaves with brash silver splashings and unequal lobes that sometimes spiral at the base. Rather fussy in cultivation, they require high humidity and porous soil kept neither too wet nor too dry. Cultivars include ‘Raspberry Swirl’, with relatively jagged, red-purple, silver-edged leaves; and ‘Fireworks’, distinguished by its crisped silver-washed leaves with black-purple veins and purple margins.

    Numerous other begonias make great winter foliage plants. Among the many possibilities are ‘Caravan’, an easy-care, shrubby cultivar thickly clad with lime-green-veined, chocolate-suffused leaves that bring elephant ear (Colocasia) to mind; ‘Connee Boswell’, whose deeply lobed, maple-shaped, heavily silvered leaves have dark green, purple-flushed veins and rims; and ‘Madame Queen’, unique for its heavily ruffled, olive-green, red-backed leaves that have the look of an ornamental kale.


    Fancifully swirled leaf bases distinguish the foliage of Begonia ‘Escargot’. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Brazilian Heart Begonia

    Perhaps most desirable for winter display are the begonias that go one better by flowering during this season. The cascading stems of the easy-to-grow Begonia solananthera are frothed with fragrant, white, sometimes pink-tinged flowers from early winter into spring. Fleshy, lettuce-green, heart-shaped leaves provide a year-round display. The B. solananthera hybrid ‘Potpourri’ one-ups its parent by producing rosy-pink blooms over an even longer season, sometimes flowering into early summer. A few cane begonias add to their value by blooming on and off throughout the year (‘Paper Snowflake’ is among the best, with silver-flecked angel-wing leaves and heads of deep pink blooms). And some wax begonias excel not only for summer bedding but also as year-round, ever-blooming pot plants. For bright, easy, four-season color, few house plants can match the endless succession of salmon-red blooms brought forth by the Semperflorens hybrid ‘Cotton Candy’.


    Vibrant leaf colors are the mark of many Rex begonias. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Most indoor begonias thrive in a warm eastern exposure or other brightly lit but not overly sunny location. They also often benefit from relatively high humidity (which can sometimes be provided by placing the pot on gravel in a saucer half-filled with water). An airy, humus-rich, soil-free potting mix high in peat (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE) works best. Water when the soil surface is dry, either from the top or by immersing the base of the pot in water. Then stop by the windowsill now and then to enjoy the winter show!

  6. Fanciful and Fun Container Gardening

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    Opuntia humifusa and bumblebee

    Used shoes of galoshes make very cute containers for flowers and succulents. (image by Maureen Gilmer)

    Gardening, no matter what or where you plant, should be fun. Container gardening has an overwhelming fun quota because experimentation, creativity, and even mobility are part of the experience. Planting in pots is also a great equalizer. The smallest children can start seeds in paper cups, as can seniors, the disabled and just about anyone else. The idea that some people are born with a green thumb is a myth. The contagious fun of growing flowers or edible crops in interesting containers has been known to turn even lifelong black thumbs bright green.

    Find It

    Interesting containers, like interesting people and ideas, are everywhere. Look around the house, apartment or garage. Are you harboring an out-of-commission tea kettle? Fill it with boiling-hot-colored portulacas. Up to your eyeballs in plastic detergent containers? Cut them off to form bright-colored oval planters and pot up some of the currently fashionable succulent plants like hens and chicks (Sempervivum). Put a miniature African violet in an orphaned teacup from the local antique shop. In some parts of the country, people have been making “crown tire” planters out of bald tires since rubber began hitting the road. The tires can be decorated to suit your fancy. If your neighbors will be offended by a front-yard tire display, put it in the rear.

    citronella shell

    A pink Kalanchoe blossfeldiana looks seaside-ready in a turquoise shell container.

    Avid container gardeners are always on the prowl for unique planters. Yard sales are a good source, as are dollar stores. Check out local curbsides on bulk pick-up days. People discard an amazing number of plant-worthy containers.

    Repurpose existing receptacles. A picnic caddy, designed to hold plates and cutlery for outdoor dining, also makes an interesting, portable herb planter. Make an ultra-fashionable statement by making a container garden in an old purse or insulated lunch sack. Plant a gaudy croton in an old wastebasket. Once your mosquito-repelling citronella candle has burned down, take out the leftover wax and use the candleholder as a plant pot.

    Doing It Right

    picnic caddy

    This old picnic caddy is filled with fragrant, ornamental herbs.

    Once you have found your planter, get your supplies. Create simple temporary plantings by sinking nursery-potted specimens into imaginative containers lined with plastic. Disguise unsightly edges with sphagnum moss. For more permanent plantings, check the bottom of the chosen container. If it already has drainage holes, you are all set. If not, and the vessel can withstand being pierced, create holes in the bottom. If making drainage holes would ruin the container, create drainage room by covering the container’s bottom with a one-inch layer of fine gravel before adding the potting medium and plants.

    Good potting mix is essential. Most plants benefit from an excellent all-purpose medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with extended feed with Resilience™. Depending on the types of plants in your containers, you may need specialist planting media, like Fafard® African Violet Potting Mix or Fafard® Cactus & Succulent Potting Mix. Differences among the various potting mixes are determined by the amount of drainage material incorporated into the mix, as well as the addition of nutrients specific to different plant types.

    Picking Plants


    An old fountain is repurposed as a beautiful succulent container garden. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Pick plants for containers the same way you select garden plants—right plant, right place. Container specimens in small to medium-size vessels are easy to transport, so it is sometimes easier to match light requirements to plant types. Sun-loving plants, including most flowering varieties and many edibles, require full sun, which means at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Shade lovers, like begonias, can get by with as little as a couple of hours of dappled sunlight.

    No matter whether you plant a miniature blueberry bush in an old spackle bucket or an entire small vegetable garden in a leaky wheelbarrow, be sure to water regularly. Container plants tend to be more thirsty than those grown in-ground. Fertilize regularly as well, especially if your plantings are nutrient-hungry annuals.

  7. Small-Space Gardening

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    Compact Profusion Zinnias and Swiss chard are great choices for smaller gardens with less space.

    Small-space gardening is the triumph of inspiration over limitation. Space is the limitation. Inspiration, which is free and universally available, trumps space limitation every time.

    fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed RESILIENCE front

    Fafard Ultra Container with Extended Feed is a great choice for small space container gardening.

    You can plant a garden in an old washtub, grow it up a trellis or cultivate intensively in a two by two-foot raised bed. Small-scale landscapes can be housed in boxes perched on porch railings, bags or planters hanging from walls, or grow bags on asphalt driveways. They are perfect for the minuscule ribbons of earth surrounding a townhouse. Combine any small site with appropriately scaled plants, a little effort and quality soil like Fafard ® Ultra Container Mix With Resilience™ and a garden is born.

    Choices, Choices

    Getting down to the business of small space gardening requires a few choices. What do you most want to grow? If you have sunny space—six hours of direct sunlight per day—you can raise an array of edible crops, not to mention ornamentals and herbs. You can even mix those categories as long as you group plants with similar cultural needs. Light shade limits choices a bit but does not preclude any kind of small-scale gardening. Bear in mind the small-space gardening mantra—“no ground—no problem.” Find a container that will hold enough soil to grow your choice of plants and your garden is on its way.

    Space limitation also means choosing plants that give “bang for the buck”—high-yielding fruits and vegetables, and/or flowering varieties that rebloom regularly during the growing season. Colorful or variegated foliage helps maintain visual interest between flushes of flowers.

    Pick the Right Edibles

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    Cherry tomatoes—either standard size or dwarf–are a flavorful option for tomato lovers on a space budget.

    Many popular vegetable and fruit varieties are available in compact or even dwarf sizes. Cherry tomatoes—either standard size or dwarf–are a flavorful option for tomato lovers on a space budget. Stake or trellis them for space-saving vertical culture. Many zucchini and other squashes come in tidy, compact bush forms. Bush beans, sometimes known as “string beans”, also work well in small gardens.

    Fruit lovers with large containers or small plots can grow dwarf blueberry varieties like ‘Top Hat’, which rises to only 24 inches tall and produces several pounds of blueberries per season at maturity. Strawberries will thrive in raised beds or pocketed strawberry jars. Dwarf apple, pear, and plum trees are well suited to large pots or can be trained (espaliered) to grow against walls or other supports.


    Coreopsis Li’l Bang™ ‘Daybreak’ is a wonderful summer perennial for small spaces. (image care of Skagit Gardens)

    Vest Pocket Blooms

    Getting lots of flowers from a small space used to mean buying annuals every year. You can still go the annual route with free-flowering compact forms such as the many-colored zinnias in the Profusion series. An array of modern, smaller perennials will do the same job, and save labor by returning from year to year. Try a reblooming daylily (Hemerocallis), like little ‘Black-Eyed Stella’, which is yellow with a contrasting central “eye” and a maximum height of 12 inches. Another good perennial choice is one of the small-scale tickseeds (Coreopsis), like those in the bright-colored Li’l Bang series. Vertical growers like annual morning glory and perennial clematis use little ground or container space as they clamber up trellises or tuteurs.

    Miniature Roses

    Miniature roses, at 12 to 24 inches tall, feature all the traits of their larger relatives, minus the gangly stature. Fragrant, apricot-pink ‘Barbara Mandrell’ for example, boasts the high-centered flowers typical of hybrid teas. Miniatures are also available in the climbing form, which is handy for those with more vertical than horizontal space.

    Made for Partial Shade

    Container gardening is a great option for gardeners with little space or time.

    Container gardening is a great option for gardeners with little space or time.

    Partial shade does not have to mean dashed hopes for space-conscious gardeners. Lovers of baby greens can grow mesclun in spaces with dappled shade and only about two hours of sun per day. Pots of parsley or oregano will be fine with only a few hours of sunshine. Try annual wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri) for purple or cream flowers in small borders, window boxes or containers. It thrives in shade and grows only six to 12 inches tall and wide. For foliage color, look for variegated-leaf perennials, like blue and cream Hosta ‘Frosted Mouse Ears’, which catches the eye and grows only six inches tall and 12 inches wide.

    Succeed With Succession Planting

    Natural and Organic

    Top dress small plots with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.

    Get maximum growth out of small, sunny spaces by using succession planting. When spring bulb-grown plants, like tulips and daffodils, fade seed in annuals, such as nasturtiums, cosmos, or compact zinnias, in the same spaces. When cool weather returns, incorporate cool-season annuals for fall, like nemesia, pansies, or diascia.


    Intensive cultivation of small spaces can lead to nutrient depletion. Top dress small plots with amendments like Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost, which can also be mixed into container medium. Small spaces—especially containers and window boxes—tend to dry out quickly, so check for dryness and make sure to water every day in hot weather.

  8. House Plant Care 101

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    Begonia 'Irene Nuss' (Superba Group)

    Tropical begonias, like Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’, are wonderful, blooming plants to consider for the home.

    Happy, healthy house plants do more to improve a home’s air quality, while also offering the obvious reward of green, living beauty. Plants in the home perform better with good care, from leaves to roots.  Cleaning accumulated dirt and dust from leaves, feeding, trimming, proper watering, and repotting are a few small efforts that can result in big rewards. Maintenance to reduce pests and pathogens is also essential to master if healthy indoor greenspace is a goal.

    House Plant Cleaning and Pest Control

    House plants get dusty and dirty and often perform better if their leaves are gently cleaned. (photo by Pam Beck)

    Leaves quickly accumulate dirt and dust, which dulls appearance while also reducing a plant’s ability to photosynthesize and breathe. A quick foliage wipe down or wash in the sink or bathtub can make a big difference if looks and performance.
    For leaf cleaning, make a very weak soap solution by adding a drop of gentle dishwashing detergent to 1 liter of warm water.  Wet a soft cloth in the solution and wring until damp. Wipe the leaves down, top and bottom, while being sure not to tear or damage the tissue. Once the leaves are clean, rinse them by either repeating the process using a damp cloth dipped in just warm water or by rinsing the leaves under a sink or handheld shower head.
    Broad-leaved tropical plants may also benefit from the use of commercially available leaf-shining products, which give leaves a pretty, glossy look while not clogging stomata (leaf breathing holes).
    Once your leaves have been properly washed, be sure to dust them from time-to-time with a clean dust cloth. If pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, or whiteflies, appear, the best rule of thumb is to treat them with a safe insecticidal soap while removing and disposing of the most damaged leaves and stems. Common soil-borne pests, such as shore flies and fungus gnats, can be managed by keeping the topmost soil layer dry and watering plants from the bottom rather than the top.

    Feeding and Watering House Plants

    Succulents like Agave victoriae-reginae 'Variegata' should be watered minimally, especially in winter.

    Succulents should be watered minimally, especially in winter. (Agave victoriae-reginae ‘Variegata’ shown)

    Knowing an indoor plant’s seasonal water and feeding needs can really make or break growing success. Many house plants are tropical or semi-tropical, which often means they require less food and water in the winter months (when they are growing slowly) and more in summer (when they are actively growing). Succulent indoor plants, like cacti and agave, are even more extreme in their seasonal needs because too much food and water can kill them so quickly, especially in winter.
    A safe method for watering non-succulent plants is to keep soil lightly moist, never wet. Always plant in containers with efficient drainage holes, choose a well-draining potting medium, and water only as needed. If a plant’s potting soil is moist to a knuckle’s depth below the surface, don’t water. House plants also grow better if you water them from the roots rather than the tops—this is of particular concern for African violets and their relatives which dislike water on their leaves.
    Many opt to take indoor plants outdoors during the warm growing months. This can really improve the growth and appearance of “house plants” for the winter months. Just be sure to give them extra care outdoors. Outdoor potted plants always require more water—often daily watering until water runs from the bottom of the pot—as well as regular feeding.

    Pruning and Trimming House Plants

    Strawberry pots or large containers of berries perform well in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil.

    Good potting mix will ensure that your newly transplanted house plants will shine.

    There are three reasons your house plants would require trimming and/or foliage removal: 1) There are dead or dying  stems or leaves, 2) the plant needs to be reshaped for improved appearance, or 3) the plant is overgrown and needs to be pruned for rejuvenation.
    Dead or dying stems and leaves can be a result of poor light, poor fertilization or a sign of pest and/or disease problems. If growing points show poor color and growth, improved light and fertilization with a quality fertilizer may be in order, rather than removal. Dead or dying leaves should always be removed for better health and appearance.
    Plants that have become overgrown or have developed undesirable growth habits can always be pruned back to adjust for size and appearance. Just be sure to take pruned stems back to a clear node or central stem. This will ensure that new growth will return

    Dividing and Repotting House Plants

    It’s easy to tell when a plant has outgrown its container. It will require more water, the plant may appear too large for the pot, and the root system will become dense along the bottom holes, pot edges, and topmost soil layer. Sometimes the easiest way to check is by feeling along the pots edge for roots or checking the bottom of the pot creeping roots.

    Crowded plants must be divided and repotted for good health.

    Dividing and repotting plants is easy. Start by clearing an area in preparation for a messy job, have your new, appropriately sized pots on hand for transfer, and buy plenty of quality potting mix for your plant. For general growing, Fafard Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix are both great options. Succulent house plants would do better to be planted in Fafard Cactus and Succulent Potting Mix. And, African violets and their relatives always require specialty soil for best results, such as Fafard African Violet Potting Mix.
    Division is appropriate for any plant that spreads laterally in the pot. During the division process, it pays to wear good, protective gloves. Start by removing the plant from the pot, doing as little damage to the root system and top as possible. Then, using a planting knife or durable serrated knife, begin cutting the rootball in half or in quarters, depending on the plant’s size, being sure that each piece has a healthy supply of roots and shoots.
    Once your plant is divided, gently tease apart any roots that are densely tangled. Then begin preparing your pot. Choose an attractive container that will easily accommodate your plant. Be sure to allow a layer of 2 to 3 inches of soil on the sides and bottom to support your new plant. Gently work the soil in around the roots, and pat it down at the top, allowing two inches of space for easy watering.
    These care instructions apply to most common house plants, such as easy, air-filtering tropicals like Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum), croton (Croton spp.), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia spp.), mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’), and rubber plant (Ficus elastica). Follow them and you and your plants will reap the rewards.

    Colorful croton are one of the many easy-care tropical house plants to consider.

  9. Zinnias for Colorful Containers & Cut Flowers

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    Pink and apricot profusion zinnias add soft color to this midsummer flower garden.

    Zinnias are summer workhorses in the flower garden. They keep producing radiant flowers—even in the worst heat—and come in a wide range of sizes and colors making them adaptable to practically any garden space. Their value as premium cut flowers and favorite bee and butterfly plants makes them that much more appealing to gardeners. No summer garden should be without a few zinnias.

    Tall cactus flowered zinnias are some of the nicest zinnias for bouquets.

    Tall Zinnias

    The long stems, large flowers and bushy stature of tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans) have led to their wide popularity. These easy-to-grow Mexican natives will bloom from summer to frost, if they are deadheaded and moderately maintained. Their flowers have single, semi-double, or double petal arrangements and come in many forms including cactus, dahlia, button, button-like pompons and ruffled forms. What’s more, there are tons of colors available. The pallet includes red, pink, white, green, orange, salmon, yellow and lavender. There are also many bicolored and tricolored varieties. One of the best color combos – for garden or case – is a vibrant mix of pink, rose, green and apricot colored flowers.

    Dwarf Zinnias

    Zinnia plants vary in height from 1-4 feet, depending on the cultivar. Shorter “tall zinnia” varieties, such as the many large-flowered, short-statured varieties in the Magellan Series, are perfect for containers and low flower borders while wild, free, long-stemmed forms look great in tall borders, vegetable gardens and cutting gardens. The ever-popular chartreuse green ‘Envy‘, rose and green ‘Queen Red Lime‘ and ruffled salmon apricot Senora™ are three complimentary long-stemmed, double-flowered varieties ideal for making quick, vibrant flower arrangements.

    Double Zahara Fire

    The vibrant Double Zahara Fire is one of the best zinnias for containers and borders.

    Bedding Zinnias

    Hybrid bedding zinnias are the best for container gardening. These include the wonderfully versatile and lovely single-flowered Profusion zinnias, which come in all colors, and award-winning double-flowered Zahara™ zinnias. The bushy, spreading, slightly taller (18″-24″) ‘Uptown Grape‘ is also a new variety lauded for its prolific blooms and exemplary disease resistance. Another wonderful compact species is the Mexican native Zinnia angustifolia—with ‘Star Orange‘ and the hybrid Raspberry Lemonade Mix being top sellers.

    Growing Zinnias

    Getting started with zinnia growing is simple. Each spring, in late April to early May, choose the best sunny spot for your zinnias. Clean out the weeds and debris from the area, then work up and smooth the soil. Amend the beds with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend until the soil is light and friable. Finally, surface-sow the zinnia seed, lightly pat them in and gently water. Then keep the planted area evenly moist. Within a week or so your seeds will start sprouting up. From there, it’s just a matter of keeping the plants reasonably hydrated and thinned to a foot apart. Purchased, container-grown zinnias thrive in large pots filled with moisture rich potting soils, such as Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix. Growing zinnias is that easy!

    Amend zinnia beds with a fertile amendment like Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.

    Cutting Zinnias

    Zinnia flowers are most spectacular in mid to late summer, so this is the best time to make beautiful table bouquets with long-stemmed varieties. To make a simple zinnia arrangement, choose newly opened, fresh stems and cut them to around 8-12 inches in length. Remove the leaves from the lower part of the stems and then gather the flowers into a tidy, mounded bunch; trim the bottoms uniformly and place them in a vase filled with about 2 cups of water spiked with 1 tablespoon of sugared lemon soda (a great cut flower food). That’s all there is to it!

    Zinnia Pests, Diseases, and Problems

    Zinnias can have a few troubles. Really tall cultivars can flop in the wind and may need to be staked. The leaves may also develop powdery mildew and leaf spot while also attracting hungry Japanese beetles. To keep my zinnias mildew-free, I gently hand-wash their leaves and space plants well to encourage good air flow. This also discourages outbreaks of fungal spotting. The all-natural GreenCure is also a wonderful remedy for powdery mildew. Another option is to plant disease-resistant selections like the Dreamland Series. To control Japanese beetles, simply pick them off and drown or squash them.
    Follow these simple guidelines and you’ll have spectacular zinnias until frost. Whether enjoyed from a patio or balcony or cut and brought indoors to dress up a table, zinnias will bring rich, easy color to your summer life.

    Star Orange

    Zinnia angustifolia ‘Star Orange’ Flowers growing in a large container.


    Pretty button zinnias (left) add bright color to this cutting border.


  10. Easy Spring Container Gardening

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    Simple pots of colorful annuals can be placed in the spring garden to add color and interest.

    Bountiful spring containers are a joyous way to reign in the new season. Nothing welcomes spring better than exquisitely orchestrated collections of potted flowers. The key is choosing suites of plants and pots that are seasonal and complimentary—whether the compositions are simple or flamboyant.

    Some gardeners take their spring container gardening very seriously—planting up bulb and perennial pots in fall for spring show. But, this practice can be problematic, if gardeners don’t take care.  Tulip bulbs in pots are highly vulnerable to rodent attack, and some bulbs or perennials may not survive hard winters or can heave in pots. Both potential problems call for protective pot covers and storage of containers in protected spots in a cold garage or in a protected spot beside the house. Or pre-planting can be bypassed entirely. As more and more potted bulbs are offered at spring planting time, fall container prep is no longer a prerequisite.


    Early season perennials, like Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’ (center), can add a lot of interest to spring pots.

    Choosing Containers

    When designing spring container plantings, start by choosing the pots. Pretty glazed pots in subdued earthy or mossy tones create a pleasing base for brightly colored flowers. Pots of different complimentary shapes and sizes look the nicest when arranged in groups. For symmetrical groupings choose an even number of pots, and for asymmetrical groupings choose an odd number. Once pots are chosen, artfully place them together, considering height and shape.

    Choosing Container Mix

    Next, choose your container mix. Fafard Ultra Container Mix or Fafard Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed are great choices for potted outdoor plantings. Not only does it feed plants for up to six months, but it contains moisture-holding crystals that reduce the need to water as often.

    Choosing Container Plants

    Finally, establish your color pallet and choose your plants—considering height and texture as well as bloom time. More often than not, bright, gregarious colors are what people like to plant in spring (enough with dreary subdued landscapes), but pastels are also popular. Cheerful combinations of yellow, orange, red, pink and blue flowers make spring container gardens pop.
    Past plant combinations that have worked well for me include mixes of hardworking annuals, such as pansies, violas, stocks, trailing lobelia and twinspur (Diascia spp.), in addition to choice perennials like colorful golden bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’), Heuchera, and any bulbs that I can get my hands on. Less common perennials, like Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ or trailing bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), also add polish and oomph to containers. Even miniature roses can be added for color and flair.


    Variegated tulip leaves mingle beautifully with pretty Sorbet violas.

    Planting Containers

    Before planting up my containers, I fill the pots ¾ full with potting mix to allow space to arrange my planting before bedding them in. This step is essential to visually balance the plantings and can make the difference between your plantings looking like a hodgepodge or a well-planned container garden. Cascading plants always look best along the edge of the pot while upright plants should be centered. During this process I also consider how different potted plantings will complement one another. Once my design is set, it’s time to start planting.
    When transplanting bulbs, be sure to move them without allowing the rootball to lose its shape; then firmly press the soil down around the roots to keep the foliage and flowers tidy and upright. Perennials and annuals are often “pot bound”, meaning their roots have become densely intertwined. Before planting, gently tease apart tightly bound roots a bit to loosen them. Then, sprinkle the pots with a little slow-release fertilizer. Finally, irrigate the pots until the water flows out of the drainage holes.
    It’s a joy to watch spring container creations fill in and burst forth. Once bulb flowers are spent, be sure to cut the old stems back to keep pots looking clean and pretty. Then as summer approaches, move out the flagging cool-season plants and replace them with vibrant warm-season ornamentals that will shine until fall.

While we have made every effort to ensure the information on this website is reliable, Sun Gro Horticulture is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information. All information in this site is provided “as is”, with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information.

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