DIY Container Gardening Virtual Demonstration

Recently, I was asked to put on a container gardening demonstration as part of a home tour.  I was given 3 beautiful,

Recently, I was asked to put on a container gardening demonstration as part of a home tour.  I was given 3 beautiful, glazed pots and asked to plant two of the pots with succulents and the third with annuals and perennials.  Now I’d like to share helpful tips for creating and maintaining your own beautiful plant combinations in this ‘virtual’ potting demonstration.

Tip #1 Make sure that the pots have holes for drainage.

Tip #2 You might notice that I have two different type of potting mix.  One is formulated for succulents and cacti and drains fairly quickly, so that roots don’w become water-logged.  The other type of potting mix is best to use for planting annuals and perennials in containers.  You might have noticed that I talk about ‘planting mix‘ and not potting soil.  I try to avoid using potting soil, since it can become soggy, which isn’t good for plants.  Planting mixes hold onto just the right amount of water.  Some planting mixes also come with fertilizer already mixed in, which will last a couple of months.

Before the audience arrived, I planted the first container to use a visual example before I started the others.

Tip #3  When creating a combination of different plants for container gardening, I always include a tall plant for vertical height like lady’s slipper (Pedilanthus macrocarpus).  Then I add a plant with eye-catching color, such as crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii)  with its pretty flowers.  Next, I usually add a plant whose foliage is a different color in order to contrast with the foliage of other plants.  In this case, the gray tones of the cacti fill that role quite nicely and help the darker greens really ‘pop’ visually.  Lastly, I like to add a plant to spill over the edge of the container as it grows.  Variegated elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) always does very well and I use it often.

My next container is made up of a combination of perennials and annuals.

Tip #4  If you have unused space in the bottom of your pot, fill with plastic bottles of foam peanuts instead of using expensive potting soil.  Because the roots of the plants I was adding to this pot would never grow as deep as the pot was, I added some empty plastic water bottles to the bottom of the pot before adding potting mix.

I followed the same design guidelines as I did for the previous pot.  The Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) provided height, the calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) provided bright color, the lavender added color contrast with its gray foliage and the verbena will eventually spill over the edge of the pot.  In the spaces left between the plants, I used a flowering annual – celosia, to fill in the spaces.

Tip #5 Most plants do best when watered from the base of the plant and not from above.   Overhead watering can ruin the appearance of flowers and promote fungal diseases.  Invest in a watering can that will water plants at their base (see my yellow watering can in the first photo).

Tip #6 How do you know when to water plants in outdoor containers?  The answer is quite simple and requires one tool – your finger.  Simply stick your finger down into the soil 1-inch deep.  If the soil is dry, water.  Succulents do not need as much water as perennials and annuals.  It is best to let the soil dry out between watering.  Then water deeply until water runs out the drainage hole.  I water my succulents once a week in summer and every 3 – 4 weeks in winter.

My last pot posed a ‘prickly’ dilemma – how to plant a cactus with out getting hurt by the spines.

Tip #7 First of all, it is important to note that gloves won’t work when planting cactus – the spines will go right through them. You may be surprised to find that the tools used to plant cactus are quite ordinary and many can be found in your average home.  Layers of newspaper, an old carpet remnant, rubber straps or towels can all be used to wrap around the cactus and used to help with planting. For my container gardening demonstration, I used an old towel, folded over so that there were four layers of towel between me and the cactus.

Before removing the cactus from its nursery container, I covered it with the folded-up towel and then flipped it over.  I then took off the pot.  I then carefully flipped it back over and placed it in my planting hole.

After I had planted my cactus, I lifted off the towel, which came off easily.  For cacti with long spines, it is best to use a piece of carpet or rubber straps to plant with.

Can you tell which plants fulfilled my container design guidelines?  ‘Blue Elf’ aloe (Aloe x ‘Blue Elf’) provides the height, the golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) provides color contrast with its yellow spines,  red ice plant (Delosperma ‘Strong Red’) provides color with its bright red flowers and elephant’s food  (Portulacaria afra) will trail over the pot.

Tip #8 Do you ever wonder how much fertilizer to apply to plants growing in pots, if any?  Plants growing in containers need to be fertilized.  For perennials and annuals, I like to use a slow-release fertilizer, which will release fertilizer over a period of 3 – 6 months.  For cacti and succulents in containers, apply a liquid fertilizer at one-quarter the recommended rate, once a month through the summer.

Tip #9 Place containers where they will get sun in the morning and early afternoon.  Avoid placing containers in areas with hot, afternoon sun which can stress them and even ‘cook’ their roots due to the heat inside of the container.

The potting demonstration was a huge success and the pots were raffled off.  I was so happy with how they turned out that I went home and planted my own pots using the same types of plants!

I hope you found this ‘virtual’ potting demonstration helpful.  Container gardening outdoors is a great way to decorate the outside of your home. How about you?  What are your favorite kinds of plants to use in containers?  Do you combine different plants together or plant a one type of plant?

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist, writer and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. She is the CEO and owner of 'AZ Plant Lady,' an education company that aims to help people garden successfully in the desert climate. She is the author of the book, Dry Climate Gardening, and her byline has appeared in publications such as Birds & Blooms and Phoenix Home & Garden magazine. She is an instructor at the Desert Botanical garden and Tucson Botanical Gardens.