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Maximizing Creativity: Beans, Bulbs & Beyond!

February 2011                                                      

Container gardening is not, and should not be, limited to the colorful annuals you find at your local garden center each year. Expand your horizons by planting pots full of tulips, hens-and-chicks, or tomatoes. Once you have mastered the basics of ‘Gardening with Containers’ you will find that most anything that can be grown, can be grown in a pot!

Spring bulbs

To add a cheerful splash of spring color to your front porch or patio, try planting a pot full of spring-flowering bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths work well and the beauty of this technique is that when the flowers are spent, you simply remove the pot (see below) and replace it with something else that is in bloom, such as a pot full of pansies.

How to: In fall, plant your bulbs in a plastic pot (to prevent it from freezing and cracking over the winter). Next, sink the pot into the ground, backfill with soil, and water-in well. Refer to the ‘Plant a Show-Stopping Spring Display’ article for bulb-planting specifics. Pull the pot out of the soil in spring after the foliage appears, and place in the desired location. If your plastic pot is less-than-pleasing, simply slip it into a more decorative container, making sure to hide the plastic pot edge with soil, mulch, or moss. When the show is over, simply remove the pot and replace with something else in bloom. If you wish to re-use the bulbs, dry them out, store them over the summer, and replant them in fall for another show-stopping display in spring.


Don’t have room for a veggie garden but still yearn for the taste of a home-grown tomato? Then try growing your favorite veggies in pots! As container gardening is becoming more popular, many vegetables are being bred for compact or dwarf varieties that will grow well in pots. Tomatoes (‘Tumbling Tom’), peppers (‘Sweet Bell’ bell pepper), lettuce (‘Buttercrunch’), radishes (‘Cherry Belle’), and beans (‘Blue Lake 47’ bush) can all easily be grown in pots. Even vining plants such as cucumbers and peas can be grown in containers, as long as you provide a trellis or support for the vines.

How to: When searching for vegetables look for ‘bush type’, ‘compact habit’, or ‘container variety’ on the plant label or seed packet to help ensure the plant will not outgrow its container. Use your favorite potting mix and pick a container with good drainage. You can start the seeds indoors and transplant into the container or you can start the seeds directly in the pot. If seed starting is not your thing, simply go to your local garden center and purchase a young plant. For easy harvest, keep the containers in an area of easy access such as next to your patio door. When the plants are done producing simply add them to your compost pile and replant the following year.


If you don’t have a lot of time to garden, or your thumb is more brown than green, container gardening with succulents may be just for you! There are many new types of succulents on the market today with varying ranges in color and texture. The great thing about succulents is that they need minimal water and grow slowly, so if you spend a lot of time at your cottage in the summer, you won’t have to worry about finding a babysitter for your succulents.

How to: A great retailer of succulents in our area is Mayflower Greenhouse (www.mayflowergreenhouse.com), where we get most of our succulents for the garden. A few interesting specimens to check out include Kalanchoe beharensis 'Fang', Echeveria 'Topsy Turvy', Kalanchoe thyrsiflora 'Flapjack', and Sempervivum arachnoideum ‘Rubrum’. Keep in mind when choosing your succulents that not all varieties are hardy in Wisconsin, so if you wish to keep your pretties from year to year you will have to over-winter them inside. Succulents do best in shallow containers with a high-drainage potting mix, such as a Cacti & Succulent mix.


Although perennials may not give the season-long show that annuals do, they can still be used effectively in containers. Some good plants to try include hostas, lilies, Rudbeckia, coneflowers, Heuchera, ferns, and grasses. The advantage of planting in containers is that once the plants are done blooming, they can be moved and replaced with something else that is in bloom.

How to: Choose your favorite perennial. You may wish to have that plant alone as a specimen, or you can combine it with annuals to have a container with season long interest. If combining with annuals, make sure all plants share similar light and water requirements. When the season is over and your perennial is finished blooming, you can add it to your compost pile or plant it in your garden for enjoyment for years to come. If planting the perennial, make sure to do so in the fall before the ground freezes.

Water Gardening

Containers are a great way to try out the idea of water gardening without committing to a larger, more permanent pond (and breaking the bank!) Water gardens may take a little more work initially, but once planted require minimal effort.

How to: Water gardens will need a mix of plants to attain a balanced system. Try to use a combination of submerged, emergent, and floating plants. Submerged plants, also known as oxygenators, will help clean the water and create an oxygen supply. Some examples include wild celery (Vallisneria sp.), fanwort (Cabomba canadensis), and anacharis (Egeria densa). Next are emergent plants which are typically placed 3-6 inches below the surface of the water. Some examples include arrowheads (Sagittaria sp.), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus), cork screw rush (Juncus effusus), and water lilies (Nymphaea sp.). Finally are the floaters, the plants that float on the surface of the water and do not need to be potted. These include green velvet leaf (Salvinia longifolia), water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), and water lettuce (Pistia stratoites).

Choose a watertight container such as a glazed ceramic pot, wooden half-barrel, or metal tub. The plants for your garden will be planted in separate pots, which will then be placed into the water-filled container. Make sure to use an aquatic potting mix and top-dress the soil with ½-3/4 inches of gravel. At this time you can add fertilizer pellets specially formulated for aquatic gardens, which are simply pushed into the soil of your pots. Fill your container with water then add your plants, keeping in mind that some plants will need to be planted at different levels. Old bricks and upturned pots tend to work well to hold plants at the correct depth. Check the water level in your container throughout the season and add water when needed, doing so slowly to prevent soil from being displaced.

So, the next time you are staring at your pile of empty containers trying to visualize what color impatiens or petunias to fill it with, try thinking outside the box. Why not fill a pot with your favorite color tulips or your favorite heirloom tomato? Or better yet, how about planting some succulents in that old pair of shoes you keep forgetting to throw away? If you can dream it, you can plant it, so let your imagination run wild!


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