Beyond Color Bowls: Container Gardens – Big Time By Terri W. Starman and Kristen L. Eixmann

Many growers are really excited about putting plantstogether in container gardens. The “gardeners-in-us” get excited tosee how beautiful the plants look mixed together. The”business-people-in-us” know this is an area to capitalize on becauseof the added-value factor. Container garden production is being taken to thenext level by those who have experience with it, with color bowls quicklybecoming a commodity item. Large container gardens that are tastefully andskillfully put together are where the big bucks are now.

Getting organized

Design the container gardens you want to make beforeordering your plant materials. Think about how plants look in gardens and innature to get ideas for the forms, textures and colors of the plants to use.Knowledge about color does not mean that your container gardens will always befull of color. Sometimes “very colorful” can also be “verygarish!” Knowing color theory empowers you to use color without itdominating your container gardens, so other elements of design like texture andform can prevail.

Choose plant forms for four positions in the container. Twopositions fill in the core, or hub, of the design, and two positions fill theoutside edges. Core plants include tall, sturdy plants to fill in the crown ofthe container and filler plants with compact, upright growth to round out thetop of the container. Corner plants grow out and over the container’s edge andbenefit from a corner position where they have maximum “elbowroom.”Edge plants grow flat and drape over the rim, softening the edge of thecontainer and filling out the space between its corners. Three to five speciesare usually the minimum needed to achieve an assortment of forms and texturesto fill each position.

Our experiment

In spring of 2002, we made about 30 container gardens atTexas A&M for our Web page. Our objective was to design container gardensof pleasing and popular color harmonies using the latest cultivars ofvegetative annuals, herbaceous perennials, grasses and seed annuals.

Rooted plugs arrived at the Texas A&M greenhousesbeginning week three (January 17, 2002). The early arrivals were herbaceousperennials because they usually take longer to “bulk up.” Most of theother rooted plugs came in during week nine. The rooted plugs were transplanted1-3 days after arrival into 4- or 6-inch pots using a soilless substrate.Plants were watered in and fertilized with every watering using 15-5-15 or20-10-20 at 200 ppm. Marathon was used to control insect pests, and Banrot wasused as a fungicide drench to prevent root rot. We used an iron sulfate drenchwhen it was needed to lower the pH, which had crept up by the end of Februarybecause of alkaline irrigation water. We also used a drench of trace elementsbecause our irrigation water is very low in minor nutrients.

We pinched any plants that tended to grow as a single stemand pruned ç and rounded their growth when they started getting toolarge. Our goal was to try to get all the plants to be compact and full andkeep them proportionate to their container. We also aimed to keep all thecultivars in proportion to each other on the bench so we would have a consistent,uniform group of plants when putting the container gardens together. This wasour aspiration, although it was difficult and time-consuming and not fullyachieved.

When it was time to put the container gardens together, wehad about five plants of each cultivar from which to choose. We sorted theplants by moving them to their “color bench.” We had a bench ofred-flowered plants, one of violet-flowered plants, one of blue-floweredplants, etc. We put all red, purple and black foliage plants on a bench, and allgray, green and yellow foliage plants together on a bench. This took one personseveral hours, but we think it paid off in the end by making it less laboriousto put the final container gardens together. Grouping plants by color is also agood way to market them at retail.

On May 7, 2002 (week 19), we planted the containers. Eachperson had in mind a color harmony or scheme they wanted to accomplish in eachcontainer. Then we went around to the different color benches and collectedplants we thought would work together according to sun or shade exposure. Wechose three plants to serve as center/filler plants. We also made sure we hadedge plants so that all plant positions would be occupied in the finalcontainer garden. We used all of the basic ingredients that are listed in thesidebar on page 26. The containers we used were 14-, 17- or 23-inch-diameternursery liners that could be slipped down into decorative containers.

We designed our container gardens by placing the chosen plantstogether on a bench before any actual planting was done. We critiqued eachothers’ designs as to whether the plants would be compatible, made changes andbegan to plant.

Most of our designs were meant for all-around viewing, but afew were designed to be one-sided with the tall plants to the back of thecontainer. All of the containers looked salable as soon as they were plantedbecause the plants we used were of marketable size and flowering. Most of thecontainers just got better after that, and at six weeks after planting, theywere peaking. However, a few of the containers peaked and then did not lookquite as good as before.

We do not expect that the way we did our research iscommercially feasible for every size business, and it is probably much moresuited to retail greenhouses. We hope that you will, however, get many usefultips from our experimentation.

Container Web site

To view the containers we made and the entire containergarden Web site, go to Scrolldown to the bottom of the page and click on the link that says “ContainerGarden Page”.

The first page is mainly for navigation. It also gives astatement of purpose for the site, which is to help commercial growers,retailers, garden centers and home gardeners create container gardens that arebeautiful works of art. All of the site’s major sections are accessible usingthe link bar on the left or the text links at the bottom of the page. On eachof the pages that follow, the “Container Garden” title is a link thatwill return you to this first page. The reader may also follow the arrows atthe bottom of the page to use the site as a step-by-step lesson in designing acontainer garden as well as developing a line of container gardens to offer customers.

Photo gallery of container gardens. This is a collection of containers that my students,research assistant and I have made. The first two pages consist of thumbnailphotographs that you can click to see an enlarged photograph and find out moreinformation about the plants used.

On this page will be an enlarged photo(s) of the selectedcontainer garden that is image-mapped. This means that the reader can roll thecursor over a particular plant and the name of the plant will pop up in alittle box. If the reader clicks the mouse on that plant, the correspondingpage in the Vegetative Annuals Database will open. At the bottom of çeach container garden’s page is an arrow that will take the reader back to themain Photo Gallery page.

Vegetative Annuals Database. The Vegetative Annuals Database is a collection of all the vegetativeannuals we have grown in our research. It is accessible through the PhotoGallery of Container Gardens or by clicking on the Floriculture Program icon,the state of Texas, in the upper left-hand corner of any of the ContainerGarden pages, then clicking on the Vegetative Annuals Database link at thebottom of the front page.

From this page, the reader is able to search the databaseusing plant name, plant family, form or habit, light requirement or flowercolor. After selecting the criteria, clicking the search button will bring up alist of plants that fit that description. By clicking on Record Details, the user can find out more informationabout that plant.

The Vegetative Annuals Database contains the common name ofthe plant along with a photograph, the scientific name, plant family and abrief description. Clicking on the photo will open an enlarged photo of theplant. There are also text links under the small photograph that will openother large pictures of the plant. For all plants in the database, we havetried to include a close-up and a full view showing the plant form. There isalso information about foliage and flower characteristics and the plant’soptimum positioning in a container garden. A small color wheel shows theposition of a flower’s color on the wheel.

Plant care information is next. The growing season, lightrequirements and general watering guidelines are provided. Finally, we list thesources of plant material and additional comments, a section that will give anyspecific care requirements as well as physiological information whereapplicable. The database currently has 248 vegetative annual cultivars entered.

As new vegetative annuals come on the market and are trialedin our research program, we will add them to the Database.

Terri W. Starman and Kristen L. Eixmann

Terri W. Starman is associate professor and Kristen L. Eixmann is floriculture research assistant at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. They may be reached by phone at (979) 862-2910 or E-mail at [email protected]

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