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Thrill, fill and spill those container gardens

Many of us will be making a trip -- or trips -- to nurseries and garden stores in the next weeks. These visits are a lot of fun, but are often overwhelming because of all the ideas we get and the decisions that need to be made about what to purchase. So go with a plan, what are the areas you are going to plant? Is it a garden area or container? How much sun or shade does it get?

I am going to focus on container gardening this week. If you are doing a container garden and you know the location and how much sun it will get, this will give you knowledge on what will work well in that container. If the container will be on the south or west sides of your home, and in direct sun during the afternoon, you need to choose plants that like full sun. Likewise, if it is on the north or east sides of your home, you need to choose plants that like shade or part sun.

When planning to fill a container garden the most important thing you put in it is the potting mixture. A good potting mixture is two parts peat moss, to one part perlite or vermiculite, and one part potting soil. You can add a little 10-10-10 fertilizer and you will have a great mixture to grow plants. However, if you use a water fertilizer weekly you can skip the 10-10-10 fertilizer. Commercial potting soil and dirt from the garden change when you put them in a container and become very hard and compacted. When you water them the water flows over the top, down the sides and out the drain hole. Peat moss and perlite are good at absorbing water and holding it for the plants. Peat moss and perlite do not become compacted and allow the roots to grow and spread easily to anchor the plant. They are also light in weight so they make the container lighter especially for hanging baskets or large containers.

Those water-retaining polymers that are supposed to enable you to water less, according to research at the University of Minnesota, do not work. In fact they have been found to hold up the nutrients in the soil so the plants cannot absorb them. The plants in the research trials with the polymers were actually smaller than the plants in containers without the water-retaining polymers.

When you plant your container garden, use plants that THRILL, FILL and SPILL, to give balance and unity to your container garden.

• Thrillers are big, attention-getting star players, usually tall upright plants with season-long qualities such a colorful foliage, intriguing shape or dramatic flowers. They have sturdy stems and good height for center or back of the container. Examples include: Angelonia, castor bean, hibiscus, purple fountain grass, ornamental millet, cordyline, canna lilies, yucca, Persian shield, upright fuchsia and elephant ears.

• After you find your thriller, look for fillers. These are plants which may be billowy, and finely textured, they surround and weave through the thrillers. These in-between plants add mass to the overall composition and establish a dialogue with the thriller. They often hide the less-interesting stems or stalks of the large thriller. They have a mounding silhouette, and fill up the pot while embracing the thriller. Examples are : Calibrachoa, Gerber daisies, dahlias, small marigolds, petunias, diamond frost euphorbia, lantana, wax begonia, osteospermum, caladium, coleus, dusty miller and heliotrope.

• Spillers are graceful trailers and the final piece that pulls the composition together. Spillers give the finishing touch by sprawling over the sides of the container and softening edges while tumbling toward the ground. Examples are: Golden creeping Jenny, bacopa, licorice plant, sweet potato vine (come in several colors), sweet alyssum, purple heart, silver and emerald dichondra, trailing coleus, verbena, English ivy, vinca, lobelia, trailing fuchsia, alternanthera, nasturtium, and wandering Jew.

These are only suggestions, there are always new varieties coming out, so look around and find something that you like. If you have a question, the people who work at these nurseries and garden centers are excellent sources for ideas and help in designing whatever you may want.

Know which containers you are planning to fill. Take your time and walk around with a box to put together what you think will blend nicely in each container, taking into account color, foliage, texture and size of plants. This should be a fun adventure you take each spring. The choices you make are an investment in your home and one that you and anyone who sees your home will be enjoying all summer and into the autumn.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.