Sweeter air is blowing in after a long, cold winter. Even for those without a green thumb, planting an unbelievable urn sounds like a cheerful endeavor—and Shelly Nold, owner of The Plant Kingdom, a full-service retail garden center in Louisville, has a way for gardeners to succeed. She created our stunning cover by combining succulents variegated agave, golden barrel cactus, and Kalanchoe.
“In addition to their unique beauty, succulents are low-maintenance,” Nold explains. “Beginner gardeners can add a professional look to their pots by using new, popular varieties of succulents alongside old favorites.” To plant an arrangement like Shelly’s, gather these key ingredients.
This is the one essential you can’t control, especially given Kentucky’s unpredictable temperatures. Some outdoor plants can endure an infrequent overnight chill, but most shouldn’t be planted until after the threat of frost (usually around Derby Day). Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent if you have questions about planting timelines or how to protect an early planting.
Pot possibilities include classical urns, bright-colored enamel-glazed pottery, stone-look plastics, or traditional terracotta. Can’t decide between a plain terracotta pot or a glazed one? Glazed pots have more than an aesthetic benefit. The glaze retains soil moisture, perfect for plantings you are placing in sunny spots. Be sure pots are freeze-proof. If you are placing pots in an open area, make sure they are heavy enough that they don’t tip over in a storm and large enough to accommodate plant growth, advises Ken Westfall of Holly Nursery and Garden Center in Calvert City, served by West Kentucky RECC. Larger containers retain water better, too, so you may be able to water less often.
Make sure your planting container has at least one generous drainage hole to ensure that tender roots can get oxygen. Next, place a lining material in the bottom of the container before scooping in soil. Broken terracotta pieces are an excellent liner: place pottery pieces curved-side up over the drain hole and around the bottom of the container. Stones, gravel, or Styrofoam packing peanuts also work well to help plants drain. Use fiber liners for hanging baskets and window boxes, but keep in mind this tip for making a window box flourish from one of Kentucky’s most celebrated gardeners, Jon Carloftis: “Every time you water, the nutrients are washed out, so boxes need a regular fertilizing regimen.”
“Use the best potting mix you can afford,” Westfall says. Look for soils that provide a mix of peat moss, compost, or other water-retention particles, plus fertilizer and micronutrients. Westfall recommends these brands: Pro-Mix, Fafard, Miracle-Gro, and FoxFarm. Keep in mind that some plants, such as succulents, prefer soilless mixtures with ingredients such as peat moss or the more eco-friendly coir (made from coconut husk fibers), sand, and perlite, while most need soils that retain moisture. You can find recipes online to make your own potting soil, customized to the plants you are using. This is especially helpful if you want organic potting mix for your containers—and it can be less expensive than buying pre-made potting mixes.
How much soil does your planting need? Annuals need a minimum of 8 inches of soil for their roots; grasses and shrubs require 12 to 24 inches of soil depth. Larger plants, especially perennials and shrubs that will continue to grow over the years, need greater soil depth.
How much do you water? Tim Barringer, landscape architect and owner of All-American Landscaping in Nicholasville (formerly Louis’ Flower Power Shop), says a general guide is to stick a pencil in the soil. If the pencil comes out dry, with no soil adhering to it, the planting needs water, usually every other day in the heat of summer. The amount of water needed ultimately depends on the type of plants, how much sun they receive, how much natural watering (rain) occurs, and other conditions.
To fertilize your container, sprinkle chicken manure pellets, fertilizer granules, or water-soluble dry fertilizer (follow directions on container) around the plants once a month, in addition to regular watering and deadheading. Nold explains, “Even with the best plants, container plantings can end up looking less than great without adequate water and proper fertilization throughout their entire life (seasonal or not).” Barringer recommends Osmocote Plus in combination with Fertilome Blooming & Rooting fertilizer.
The most important ingredient in an eye-catching pot is a unique combination of plants. Mix annuals, perennials, and even small shrubs or evergreens. The key, Barringer says, is “to select plants that will thrive in the same environment—sun-loving and drought-resistant together, and shade-loving together.”
Nold agrees: “Assure that the plants you choose have the same watering needs, so one doesn’t rot while the others thrive.”
Carloftis recommends Proven Winners brand.
One technique for filling a pot is the “thriller, filler, and spiller” method. Barringer says this simply means to choose a stunning focal point, something to add height in the center or toward the back of the pot. Thriller plants include Cordyline ‘Torbay Red,’ yucca, cannas, grasses, and more traditional gardenias.
Then, fill the pot with colorful mid-height plants that offer volume to fill in the pot and, ideally, have a long blooming season, like all types of mums and begonias.
Finally, tuck in plants that will grow to waterfall over the edge of the pot—either flowerless vines with interesting leaves like black sweet potato vine, or flower-studded runners. “These soften the pot’s edge,” Barringer explains.
Whether you are a beginner or seasoned gardener, your containers this year can be more eye-catching than ever, with beautiful new varieties of plants and planter designs. Above all, have fun trying unique combinations.
Web exclusive: Oversized wonders
At the historic Botherum House in Lexington, garden designer and Kentucky native Jon Carloftis and his team have completely overhauled the landscaping, developing exemplary gardens and frequently opening them to the public. Carloftis planted huge rectangular planters in front of the cottage guesthouse.
“When choosing trees and shrubs that will live year-round in containers, make sure they are for a (United States Department of Agriculture plant hardiness) zone or two colder than summer recommendations. Usually, Zone 5 or less will make it through the winters in Kentucky. A small or medium tree works best, but even a ‘large’ tree will bonsai itself in the pot and won’t get oversized,” says Carloftis. “I like trees and shrubs with an upright shape, then include a draping plant hanging over the edge. Lots of silvers, such as Dusty Miller and Artemisia, reflect light in the evening. They are appealing if you entertain a lot. Dark color leaves, such as burgundies and purples, disappear in the evenings.”
Shelly Nold of The Plant Kingdom in Louisville says that succulents are the newest planting trend. They are low-maintenance, add interest, and can be overwintered inside before returning outdoors the next season. Similar in appearance to succulents, “air plants” are popular because they do not need to be potted in a traditional way. They can be placed in shallow, decorative containers filled with rocks or peat moss. All kinds of designer display vessels are being marketed.
Tim Barringer of All-American Landscaping in Nicholasville (formerly Louis’ Flower Power Shop) agrees that succulents are a worthy contender for a spot in your containers: “Succulents—sedum, cacti, etc.—are extremely forgiving when it comes to watering. That makes them a must-have for those of us who are always on the go. The new varieties of sedums complement other plants with their texture, form, and flowers.”
Some succulents don’t even have to be planted in containers. Their root ball can be wrapped in burlap or moss and hung by strings indoors or from low-hanging tree branches for a new take on gardening. Imagine the visual impact of a small flowering tree, draped in white twinkle lights and strung with three or five hanging plantings. Ken Westfall of Holly Nursery and Garden Center in Calvert City explains: “The newest thing to catch my eye is actually an old Japanese technique called kokedama, which is actually a form of Japanese bonsai. A small cutting of a plant, like a fern, is encased in a special soil mixture, covered with moss, and wrapped in hemp twine.”
Kristen White from March 2016 Issue Tim Webb and Jolea Brown