Kerry’s Tips for Designing and Planting Containers

Containers beautify a downtown restaurant.

Kerry Kelley,  Homestead’s manager of annuals, shared her tips for designing and caring for awesome container plantings as part of our Crapemyrtle Festival, and her enthusiasm for plants and combining them beautifully was apparent to all. (She also showed us dozens of her favorite plants for hot-weather container plantings, so come back later this week to see those.)

How to design gorgeous containers
Kerry’s a big believer in individual freedom – do your own thing!  “This is ART, so there’s no right or wrong.”  She wasn’t shy about revealing HER preferences, though.  For example, she prefers monochromatic mixes, and collections of three or more pots that are coordinated – like the collection below.

A front-door patio is made awesome by containers.

And when combining plants, remember that texture is just as important as color.   For example, the spiky vertical accent and soft drooping grasses add both interest and beauty to the collection above.

Another plant-combining tip from Kerry is to avoid combining plants with similar leaf shapes.  Either use more of the SAME plant, or choose one that’s different enough to create contrast.  Also, she thinks yellow and white are beautiful together.  (Hmm, sounds lovely – will have to try that!)

Succulents in container at the National Arboretum

In Chicago, even the loading dock at the Navy Pier merits a glorious container garden.

And remember that the pot itself is a big part of any design, and its color is as important as the color of the plants themselves.

At Chanticleer Garden, an empty pot is a focal point.

How to plant the containers

Always use potting soil or media, never garden soil.  Kerry’s favorite is the Fafard brand.

Moisture-retaining crystals are definitely useful, but not so useful (in her humble opinion) is the fertilizer that’s already added to potting soil.  She’s discovered that the fertilizer doesn’t last very long.

Unless you’re planting a water garden, every container MUST have drainage hole.  If you don’t want to kill the plants, that is.

Terra cotta pots lose water fast and need the most frequent watering, glazed terra cotta less so, and plastic pots the need the least frequent watering of all.

What to put at bottom of the pot?  If the pot is large but the plants in them have shallow roots and don’t need lots of soil (and this applies to all annuals), then it’s a good idea to use something lightweight to fill up some of that space.   Packing peanuts do a good job, but get creative. (I’ve used plastic soda bottles with their caps on to take up space in really large pots.)

To keep the soil from running out the drainage hole, Kerry recommends covering the hole with a bit of window screen.  (And I’ve used a small piece of landscape fabric to do the job.)

An easy way to fit plants into seemingly too-small spaces in the container is to wet and then mold the rootball (by rolling it around between the palms of your hands ) to make it just the right size.  And Kerry declared herself to be an ardent “crammer” because she likes the pot to look full right away.

Even tires can be used as containers.

 How to care for containers

Almost all plants need frequent watering in containers (with the exception of succulents), and need to be fertilized all season long.

What about annuals that are planted in perennial borders?  They don’t need watering as often as they would in pots, but still more often than well-established perennials.  So group the annuals separately from the perennials, rather than interspersed among them, which would make watering them on a different schedule difficult.

Photos by Susan Harris.

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