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One-pot wonders: Container gardens

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Whether you have limited room for a garden or simply don’t want to do that much, there’s an option these days that works for everyone: container gardens.

Container gardens are the one-pot wonders of nature – gardens with a mix of plants contained to one pot – and they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be a stunning centerpiece or succulent garden on your patio table or porch, or they could be used to grow standalone vegetable plants or herbs.

Kim Milewski, general manger of English Gardens’ new Plymouth store, which opened earlier this year, said there’s no question container gardens are more popular these days. They’re a great option for those who want to garden but may not want to get too dirty.

At her own home in Farmington Hills, Milewski uses containers to add a splash of color to her perennial garden.

“I have annual container gardens popped in for color because the perennials aren’t blooming all the time,” said Milewski.

The good news about container gardens is they don’t just have to be for the summer. With the right combination of plants, Rachel Nisch, the owner of Graye’s Greenhouse in Plymouth, said container gardens could easily be moved indoors at the end of the summer to over-winter inside.

Rachel Nisch, owner of Graye's Greenhouse in Plymouth, holds a container garden that includes kalanchoe, haworthia, sedum, and echeveria.

Nisch, who bought Graye’s, which has been around since the 1920s, less than a year ago, said small container gardens also are being use more these days as centerpieces at weddings or large birthday parties. She’s designed living centerpieces, or container gardens, for several celebrations.

“That way, a guest can take them home at the end of the night,” said Nisch. And for the host, it’s very possible, “you’ll spend less than cut flowers.”

Thrill, fill and spill

When it comes to creating your own container gardens, plant gurus and landscape design experts say the general guideline for any container is you’ll need three types of plants: those that “thrill,” meaning they make a statement or add height to a container; those that “fill,” meaning they fill in the gaps in the pot as the grow; and those that “spill,” meaning they’ll cascade over the side.

When it comes to plants that “thrill,” Milewski of English Gardens says there are several great options. Tropical plants such as the Cordyline or Croton “are really colorful,” she says. Other options includes canna lillies, Bird of Paradise or even ornamental grasses.

And don’t think you just have to use annuals, says Milewski. She says perennial ornamental grasses, such as purple fountain grass, also work well in containers.

“And it transitions well into the fall,” she said.

SunPatiens, meanwhile, are a favored “filler” plant for Rich Korte, associate branch manager for Highland Park-based BrightView Landscape Services, which manages and designs all of the landscaping for Bedrock’s roughly 40 properties in downtown Detroit, the bulk of which is container gardening. The containers at each site vary from as few as two at one site to up to 40 at another. 

SunPatiens are hybrid  impatiens, developed after downy mildew devastated regular impatiens. Korte and colleague Jon Worges, a senior account manager for BrightView, say they can handle urban conditions and do well in both extreme shade and sun. 

“SunPatiens have really been my go-to,” said Korte, who says durability is key when it comes to plants for containers. 

To add a little aroma to the containers she creates, Laurie Bolach of Olive’s Bloombox in Ferndale, who has clients all over Metro Detroit, likes to add herbs such as rosemary. And as a rule of thumb, Bolach says pick plants for a container that will grow no more than one and a half times the size of the container.

Shade or sun

But like any garden, light matters. And you have to pick the right plants to work with the light you have.

Nisch says that’s the first thing she asks customers when they ask her to suggest plants for a container or even window boxes. Her next question is if they want to go wide or vertical with their containers.

“It’s like choose your own adventure of container planting,” laughs Nisch.

And make sure you get your plant off to the right start with good soil and fertilizer. Brightview’s Korte says if you really want to have a fantastic-looking display, make sure you have full, good soil that isn’t compacted, have a layer of drainage stone and even a filter fabric, which prevents soil from seeping out every time a container is watered.

And for any container garden, don’t forget the container itself. Options abound these days for cool vessels. Nisch says vintage colanders are a great option. They drain well and they’re just fun.

Above all, don’t be afraid to try something different with your containers. It may take some trial and error to see what combo works, experts say.

Container Tips

Pick the right container: Don’t go too small. English Gardens’ Kim Milewski says she wouldn’t pick a container smaller than 12 inches. “You want your plants to have room to grow,” she says. “You don’t want them to be overgrown and dyring out constantly. The flowers are going to be declined and stressed.”

Light or shade?: As with any plants, light dictates what plants you should get. Don’t get succulents if all you have is shade. Pick the right plans for your own home’s conditions.

Maintenance is key: If you don’t like to deadhead plants, steer clear of those that require a lot of maintenance such as geraniums or petunias. If you don’t mind and have the light, go for it.

Prep for success: Make sure your soil is loose and not compacted and use a fertilizer before you add plants, says Rich Korte of BrightView Landscape Services, which handles all of Bedrock’s landscaping in downtown Detroit.

Twitter: @mfeighan