How to pot plants like a pro this spring

If done right, the container gardens you design in the spring will put on a show throughout the season until late fall frosts. They’ll dress up a front porch, bring cheer to an urban balcony or accent a larger landscape. The trick to longevity is planting and properly caring for them.

Susie Hansel, owner of the Queen of Spades landscaping business, knows the challenges of container gardens and understands the hassles of deadheading blooms, pruning fast growers, replacing lackluster plants and managing regular watering, especially around busy work schedules and weekend getaways.>

“The number one challenge is care,” says Hansel. “If you do a mixed planting, you have different needs all in one container.”

Inspired by her mother Marilyn Hutchinson and sister Katy Donahoe’s container gardening business, Hansel started her own business in 2010. She now plants 175 container gardens and cares for 90 of them placed in German Village, Upper Arlington, Bexley, Clintonville and Powell.

“When I put a container together, I want it to perform all summer,” says Hansel. “So, you have to do your research before planting then follow a regular care schedule of fertilization, deadheading, trimming and pruning.”

Following are more tips from Hansel for container success.

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Plant Selection

While it’s tempting to head to the garden center and buy what’s pretty, Hansel advises to first research plant options and prepare a shopping list. Some may thrive in full sun, while others prefer afternoon shade. Still, others may be drought tolerant while some plants can be water hogs.

“You have this challenge of understanding what each plant needs then getting the most from each plant,” says Hansel. “They’re going to grow very quickly, and one plant may take over another.” For example, she says coleus “grows crazy” no matter what size pot you buy in spring. By the end of the summer, she says it can grow as tall as a shrub.

While container gardening can also be fun for experimentation, Hansel cautions: “You can explore, but half the pot may end up not looking good.” Instead, she chooses reliable plants that flourish all season long. If you are trying new plants, she advises using dependable plants as the focal point of a container and experimenting with more secondary plants in the pot. To start, she advises buying plants already in larger pots—such as quart- or gallon-sized—that contain plants that provide instant impact once you repot them.

Beyond flowers, Hansel likes to add edible plants such as sorrel and spring lettuce. Then, when summer rolls around, she swaps out the lettuce for herbs. “Rosemary and thyme are our go-tos,” she says. “They add really fun texture in container gardens.”

Hansel also mixes perennials, such as hydrangea, and shrubs with fast-growing annuals. At one German Village property, she used two large containers of hydrangeas to hide a prominent air conditioner unit. At the end of the season, she advises clients to plant the shrubs as well as the perennials directly in their gardens, if space permits.

Containers and Soil

Regarding containers, Hansel is a fan of all-weather pots made of resin, since they’re lighter weight, don’t crack in the winter and are made in a variety of styles and colors. She recommends going big in size.

“It may cost more upfront to buy and fill a large container,” she says, “but, in the long-run the results are better since there’s more space for plants to root and survive especially in the heat and sun.” Hansel cautions that it’s important to buy a container with a hole for drainage. If a pot doesn’t have one, she advises drilling one in the bottom of the container.

For soil, Hansel starts with a filler on the bottom third of larger containers then adds a high quality potting soil for the remainder of the pot. For the bottom filler, she uses pine bark nuggets or plastic foam peanuts that are light-weight and allow for drainage. For the potting soil, she prefers Pro-Mix potting soil or the “pricier but highly nutritive” Happy Frog, she explains. While potting mixes vary in content, the best of them offer stability for roots, nutrients to feed plants, and a good balance of aeration and moisture retention.

Design

Hansel says she and her team make a mathematical game of potting containers by planting in groups of three or four plants depending on the container size. For one round pot, she may start by arranging one set of plants in an “X” then filling the four openings around the “X” with sets of four other plants. Another option is to start with a triangular pattern, then fill the three voids with sets of three. For a star pattern, plant one in the center for height, then add rays of five and sets of five in the openings between the rays.

Sometimes, she adds accents of pussy willow or dogwood twigs. She often ties the sticks together at the top, forming a conical shape. Other times, she inserts them en masse, as she did last November when she arranged 75 six-foot red twig dogwoods in one holiday container.

Water and Maintenance

Once containers are planted, the challenge is to help them thrive through the season. “Over half of business is water and maintenance,” says Hansel.

Plants grown in containers need to be watered more frequently than plants grown in the ground. Particularly in the heat of the summer, containers may require water once or twice daily. Hansel prefers hand watering versus irrigation systems to ensure soil moisture. Ideally, she recommends hand-watering containers until water drains from the bottom.

Hansel cautions that rain can fool gardeners. “You may think, ‘It rained yesterday, so I don’t need to water,’” says Hansel, “but rain can have an umbrella effect.” In other words, plants can create a solid surface similar to an umbrella and prevent rain from making it to plants’ roots. Test the dampness of the soil by inserting your finger to see if the rain has simply wet the surface or if it has fully soaked the soil. If you are using a watering system, Hansel says it’s still important to regularly check the soil and supplement the watering system, if needed. Water systems can fall short because there are so many variables, such as the number of emitters, the timing of emitters and the amount of rain.

Vacation watering can be another big challenge.

“I cannot tell you how many times people call with disappointments about leaving plants with neighbors,” says Hansel. She says the problem is usually a matter of miscommunication. Before leaving on a trip, container gardeners should record their plant care for two or three weeks. By better communicating care instructions, the caretakers will have better results.

To further enhance growth, Hansel applies a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro Bloom Booster every two weeks, according to package instructions. Granular, longer lasting fertilizers are an option for those who don’t have the time for regular liquid applications.

Finally, Hansel recommends deadheading old blooms as a vital part of container gardening care. “It helps plants perform with more blooms and color,” she adds.