Sustainable Container Design: Fall Planting Tips

Sustainable Container Design: Fall Planting Tips

Willi Galloway
Sep 19, 2011

If you looked at the front porches in my neighborhood, you might think that ornamental kale and orange mums are the only plants suitable for fall container gardens. But that is simply not the case. Japanese maples, heuchera, and ornamental grass all look phenomenal in autumn and are a lot less boring. Seattle-based garden designer Wendy Welch offers up her tips for creating lively---and sustainable---containers that will keep looking good long after the leaves fall.

Wendy Welch creates container gardens for her clients that look amazing for years, rather than a few short months, by planting a mix of evergreens and perennials rather than exclusively annuals. Using this approach saves money and resources over the long run because you don't have to replace the plants in your pots every season. Here are her tips for creating beautiful, sustainable containers this fall.

1. Bigger is Better. Go with the largest containers you can. One large container has a great deal more impact that half a dozen small ones. It requires watering less often and will have a much longer life span.

2. Use the best potting soil you can get your hands on. Look for peat moss-free mixes. Peat is not a renewable resource, it dries out quickly and can be difficult to rewet. It also breaks down quickly which is why after a year or so your soil level drops. Here in Seattle I use either "Intrepid" or "Cedar Grove." Both of these use coco coir instead of peat moss. Coco coir is made from coconut fibers and is an excellent alternative to peat. I water pots with these mixes half as often than those made with peat and the structure lasts for many, many years. If you can't get peat free soil in your area, you could try making your own (many nurseries carry coco-coir) or just use the best organic potting soil available to you. Look for things like "microorganisms" and "mycorrhizae" on the label.

3. Don't Over Fertilize. I think we over fertilize most of our ornamental plants. Even organic fertilizer can be harmful to the environment. Too much nitrogen in the water table is too much, be it organic or not. In our containers it also means that we shorten the life span, particularly if we use high numbers like 20-20-20. Almost overnight pots become root bound. If the fertilizer is not organic it is probably also killing the microorganisms in the soil. The soil in your containers should be a living system just like in your planting beds. I use an organic 5-5-5 granular fertilizer in my containers just once or twice a year.

4. Create a "Winter Picture". When choosing your plant combinations, start with evergreens and arrange them so they look great alone, even if they will ultimately be just one of the plants in your combo. Ask yourself: Does this evergreen look good alone? Will it look good with just pansies in the winter? Then add any deciduous shrubs, herbaceous perennials or annuals to round out the container's design.

5. Pay Close Attention to Texture. I think texture is the design element that takes a plant combination from good to great. Even if you have selected plants with great from and color, if there is not any textural contrast, containers can look busy or messy. Try to interrupt fine textures with coarse ones. If your choosing plants for their flowers, pay attention to the texture of the foliage too. Never fear big leaves. Even something as simple as a Bergenia can help your annuals pop.

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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow Cook Eat: A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening, Including 50 Recipes, Plus Harvesting and Storage Tips will be published in January 2012.

(Images: All images via Wendy Welch)

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