10 Secrets to Colorful Container Gardens

These flowers will add color to your life.

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Container gardens are the perfect way to liven up your front entrance, create a small herb garden or soften the look of your deck, porch or patio. They can provide instant color in drab areas, and you can create your own mini-garden in an hour or less. Best of all, they’re easy to care for and maintain. Here are 10 tips for successful container gardens.

1. Pick the right pot.

The most important issue is size. Generally a pot should be one-third the height of the mature plants for things to look balanced. Classic round pots with tapered sides are more practical for planting and transplanting than containers with handles, odd shapes or narrow necks. If you plan to move the pots frequently, use lightweight foam or fiberglass pots. If you need a pot that won’t topple in the wind, use concrete or ceramic.

2. Buy or mix the right type of soil.

The soil should be a mixture of peat moss, compost and a little sand, with small amounts of puffy perlite or flaky vermiculite to lighten the mix and aid drainage. Packaged potting soil often includes fertilizer, which further simplifies the planting process. Tailor your soil to the specific needs of the plants you’ll be growing. You might be able to find some makeshift pots at the Container Store.

3. Plant what you love.

You can plant annuals, perennials, vines, vegetables, herbs, ground covers, bulbs, shrubs and even trees. So think about what you want to achieve. If you want a quick splash of spring color, plant a pot of tulip bulbs in the fall. If you want an arrangement that will grace your outdoor living space for years, plant a juniper or Japanese maple. If you’re looking for low maintenance, think in terms of ornamental grasses.

4. Start with healthy plants.

You want vigorous youngsters that will quickly mature into strong adults. Look for plants with fresh green leaves and sturdy stems. Select young plants with a large number of buds, which will adapt more quickly to a new location and container.

5. Pick the best combination of flowers.

You can place as many plants together as you like, but consider combining just two or three varieties for your first few attempts. The plants should have similar watering and sunlight requirements. For twosomes, select a tall, upright plant along with a mounding or cascading plant. For threesomes, begin with a tall upright plant to structure the design, add a second plant that will fill the area with foliage and color, then select a third plant that will gently cascade over the edges. But most of all, have fun experimenting.

6. Plant them right.

Spread a layer of pebbles or pot shards over the drain holes of the container to keep soil in while letting excess water drain out. Add soil until the pot is about three-quarters full, then gently shake or rock the pot to help the soil settle. Place the root ball of your plants on the soil, then add or subtract soil until the base of each stem is just below the rim of the pot. Continue filling soil around the plants until the soil is within 1 inch of the rim; within 2 inches if you’re adding ornamental mulch.

7. Keep them well-fed.

You can use either water-soluble plant food (once every two weeks) or granular fertilizer (scratched into the soil surface every 6 to 8 weeks) to give your plants the nutrients they need. No one fertilizer or schedule suits all plants, but container plants are easy to monitor. Yellow leaves, slow growth and poor flowering are the most common signs of nutritional deficiencies. Brown leaf edges are a symptom of over-feeding and fertilizer burn.

8. Keep them well-watered.

If the top inch or two of soil feels dry, the plant probably needs watering. When plants are small, a watering can with a sprinkler head is often adequate. As the root system expands, water may tend to run over the soil and flow over the top of the pot or seep into a gap between pot and soil. To counteract this, water with warm water, which soaks in faster than cold water. Or poke small holes into the soil with a pencil or screwdriver and water thoroughly.

9. Pinch and groom them.

With annual flowers, pinch or clip off old blossoms to prolong overall flowering. When an entire stem seems to have borne its last bud, clip that off too. When removing old blossoms or stems, always use scissors or pruning shears; tugging at plants with fingers can injure roots.

10. Monitor the roots.

When a plant stops growing or refuses to take up water, check for crowded roots. If the pot is full, transplant the arrangement into a larger container. Some arrangements can be split and transplanted into two or more pots.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest