6 Key Tips to Making Your Container Garden Actually Look Good This Year
Go green this spring with a little help from the experts.
Too often, container gardens follow a woeful plotline: An inspired, sunny Saturday of fresh plants and dirty hands that slowly fades into a ho-hum disappointment. Thorn and Thistle’s Alexandra Powell and Elena Roberts, the horticulturalist behind the Oak Bay shop’s potted plants, offer their best advice for designing a container garden with enduring appeal.
1. Start with a striking container.
A beautifully made vessel will elevate any plant species and, conversely, you’ll want to choose a plant that’s worthy of it. Powell favours the heft and porous texture of hand-cast concrete pots or ones with metallic finishes like hammered copper, but she also suggests rethinking ordinary household objects, too. “We’ve experimented with spring-form pans and wooden crates. When it comes to containers, you can really think outside the box and make it more of a personal statement.”
If you take time to find natural materials from beaches or forests, you’ll be more committed to the long-term success of your container garden says Roberts, who trained in horticulture and nursery production at Olds College outside of Calgary. She scours local beaches for all manner of rocks and marine flora and fauna: the rocks go in the bottom of her pots to help drain water away from plant roots; sea glass, shells, and the occasional dried sea star, provide visually compelling, finishing details. “Right now, I’m drying out crab claws on cookie sheets to use as a top layer.” For containers placed in sunny areas, she recommends a finely ground mulch to help retain moisture.
3. Pay as much attention to your soil as you would your plants.
There’s no way around it: if your plant isn’t adequately nourished by the soil in which it’s planted, it won’t thrive. Roberts uses Vancouver Island-made Sea Soil and works in sand by hand to improve drainage. “Make it about one-third sand to two-thirds dirt. Add a bit more sand if you’re prone to over watering—and most people are, especially with their house plants.”
4. Choose unfussy plants. Repeat.
Put too many different plants in one container and you’ll wind up with visual clutter. Plant in odd numbers (abide the 1-3-5 rule) and play around with scale and composition, advises Powell. “It’s always about having that balance.” She suggests a plant with height, another with texture, and another with trail. Succulents are an excellent starting point. They’re low-maintenance, water-wise, and come in a range of textures, colours, and sizes. And, adds Roberts, they’re the easiest plants to propagate. “Just take a leaf and replant it in the soil.” Ferns are another low-maintenance, newly trendy option, and thrive in shaded areas; Hart’s tongue and staghorn are hearty, sculptural varietals. Or, go simpler yet: choose one bold plant or tree that you love, locate it in its preferred light, and let it speak for itself. Powell likes jasmine for its scent and easygoing nature. For indoor containers, she loves the brilliant green foliage of zamioculcas and sansevieria.
5. Make a habit of fertilizing.
Don’t turn to fertilizers to save a plant, consider them a vitamin. Roberts recommends a light application of fish fertilizer once a month. “There is an initial odour, but the plants really respond to it.” Homemade compost tea is another good option, she says, albeit a more labour-intensive one. (The Good Planet in Victoria sells filtering systems to lighten the workload.) For indoor containers, Powell suggests Strathcona 1890 Natural Organic Plant Tonic, a Vancouver-made product made from 100% ocean kelp (and available at her shop).
6. Commit to a long-term relationship.
“People often have unrealistic expectations of their plants,” says Roberts. “There’s patience and time involved. Know that there’s work ahead and you won’t be disappointed.”