Beyond Color Bowls: Container Gardens - Big Time

October 10, 2002 - 09:40

Hints and ideas to help you bring your business forward in the container garden arena.

Many growers are really excited about putting plants
together in container gardens. The "gardeners-in-us" get excited to
see how beautiful the plants look mixed together. The
"business-people-in-us" know this is an area to capitalize on because
of the added-value factor. Container garden production is being taken to the
next level by those who have experience with it, with color bowls quickly
becoming a commodity item. Large container gardens that are tastefully and
skillfully put together are where the big bucks are now.

Getting organized

Design the container gardens you want to make before
ordering your plant materials. Think about how plants look in gardens and in
nature to get ideas for the forms, textures and colors of the plants to use.
Knowledge about color does not mean that your container gardens will always be
full of color. Sometimes "very colorful" can also be "very
garish!" Knowing color theory empowers you to use color without it
dominating your container gardens, so other elements of design like texture and
form can prevail.

Choose plant forms for four positions in the container. Two
positions fill in the core, or hub, of the design, and two positions fill the
outside edges. Core plants include tall, sturdy plants to fill in the crown of
the container and filler plants with compact, upright growth to round out the
top of the container. Corner plants grow out and over the container's edge and
benefit from a corner position where they have maximum "elbowroom."
Edge plants grow flat and drape over the rim, softening the edge of the
container and filling out the space between its corners. Three to five species
are usually the minimum needed to achieve an assortment of forms and textures
to fill each position.

Our experiment

In spring of 2002, we made about 30 container gardens at
Texas A&M for our Web page. Our objective was to design container gardens
of pleasing and popular color harmonies using the latest cultivars of
vegetative annuals, herbaceous perennials, grasses and seed annuals.

Rooted plugs arrived at the Texas A&M greenhouses
beginning week three (January 17, 2002). The early arrivals were herbaceous
perennials because they usually take longer to "bulk up." Most of the
other rooted plugs came in during week nine. The rooted plugs were transplanted
1-3 days after arrival into 4- or 6-inch pots using a soilless substrate.
Plants were watered in and fertilized with every watering using 15-5-15 or
20-10-20 at 200 ppm. Marathon was used to control insect pests, and Banrot was
used as a fungicide drench to prevent root rot. We used an iron sulfate drench
when it was needed to lower the pH, which had crept up by the end of February
because of alkaline irrigation water. We also used a drench of trace elements
because our irrigation water is very low in minor nutrients.

We pinched any plants that tended to grow as a single stem
and pruned Á and rounded their growth when they started getting too
large. Our goal was to try to get all the plants to be compact and full and
keep them proportionate to their container. We also aimed to keep all the
cultivars in proportion to each other on the bench so we would have a consistent,
uniform group of plants when putting the container gardens together. This was
our aspiration, although it was difficult and time-consuming and not fully

When it was time to put the container gardens together, we
had about five plants of each cultivar from which to choose. We sorted the
plants by moving them to their "color bench." We had a bench of
red-flowered plants, one of violet-flowered plants, one of blue-flowered
plants, etc. We put all red, purple and black foliage plants on a bench, and all
gray, green and yellow foliage plants together on a bench. This took one person
several hours, but we think it paid off in the end by making it less laborious
to put the final container gardens together. Grouping plants by color is also a
good way to market them at retail.

On May 7, 2002 (week 19), we planted the containers. Each
person had in mind a color harmony or scheme they wanted to accomplish in each
container. Then we went around to the different color benches and collected
plants we thought would work together according to sun or shade exposure. We
chose three plants to serve as center/filler plants. We also made sure we had
edge plants so that all plant positions would be occupied in the final
container garden. We used all of the basic ingredients that are listed in the
sidebar on page 26. The containers we used were 14-, 17- or 23-inch-diameter
nursery liners that could be slipped down into decorative containers.

We designed our container gardens by placing the chosen plants
together on a bench before any actual planting was done. We critiqued each
others' designs as to whether the plants would be compatible, made changes and
began to plant.

Most of our designs were meant for all-around viewing, but a
few were designed to be one-sided with the tall plants to the back of the
container. All of the containers looked salable as soon as they were planted
because the plants we used were of marketable size and flowering. Most of the
containers just got better after that, and at six weeks after planting, they
were peaking. However, a few of the containers peaked and then did not look
quite as good as before.

We do not expect that the way we did our research is
commercially feasible for every size business, and it is probably much more
suited to retail greenhouses. We hope that you will, however, get many useful
tips from our experimentation.

Container Web site

To view the containers we made and the entire container
garden Web site, go to Scroll
down to the bottom of the page and click on the link that says "Container
Garden Page".

The first page is mainly for navigation. It also gives a
statement of purpose for the site, which is to help commercial growers,
retailers, garden centers and home gardeners create container gardens that are
beautiful works of art. All of the site's major sections are accessible using
the link bar on the left or the text links at the bottom of the page. On each
of the pages that follow, the "Container Garden" title is a link that
will return you to this first page. The reader may also follow the arrows at
the bottom of the page to use the site as a step-by-step lesson in designing a
container garden as well as developing a line of container gardens to offer customers.

Photo gallery of container gardens. style='font-weight:normal'>This is a collection of containers that my students,
research assistant and I have made. The first two pages consist of thumbnail
photographs that you can click to see an enlarged photograph and find out more
information about the plants used.

On this page will be an enlarged photo(s) of the selected
container garden that is image-mapped. This means that the reader can roll the
cursor over a particular plant and the name of the plant will pop up in a
little box. If the reader clicks the mouse on that plant, the corresponding
page in the Vegetative Annuals Database will open. At the bottom of Á
each container garden's page is an arrow that will take the reader back to the
main Photo Gallery page.

Vegetative Annuals Database. normal'> The Vegetative Annuals Database is a collection of all the vegetative
annuals we have grown in our research. It is accessible through the Photo
Gallery of Container Gardens or by clicking on the Floriculture Program icon,
the state of Texas, in the upper left-hand corner of any of the Container
Garden pages, then clicking on the Vegetative Annuals Database link at the
bottom of the front page.

From this page, the reader is able to search the database
using plant name, plant family, form or habit, light requirement or flower
color. After selecting the criteria, clicking the search button will bring up a
list of plants that fit that description.
By clicking on Record Details, the user can find out more information
about that plant.

The Vegetative Annuals Database contains the common name of
the plant along with a photograph, the scientific name, plant family and a
brief description. Clicking on the photo will open an enlarged photo of the
plant. There are also text links under the small photograph that will open
other large pictures of the plant. For all plants in the database, we have
tried to include a close-up and a full view showing the plant form. There is
also information about foliage and flower characteristics and the plant's
optimum positioning in a container garden. A small color wheel shows the
position of a flower's color on the wheel.

Plant care information is next. The growing season, light
requirements and general watering guidelines are provided. Finally, we list the
sources of plant material and additional comments, a section that will give any
specific care requirements as well as physiological information where
applicable. The database currently has 248 vegetative annual cultivars entered.

As new vegetative annuals come on the market and are trialed
in our research program, we will add them to the Database.

About The Author

Terri W. Starman is associate professor and Kristen L. Eixmann is floriculture research assistant at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. They may be reached by phone at (979) 862-2910 or E-mail at

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