Wilted Hangups

Well-dressed porches everywhere wear colorful hanging baskets and fantastic mixed containers for summer

Even if the occupant’s budget only allows one 10” pot hanging pot there will be brilliant color somewhere on that porch. The well-dressed porch is a must do thing whether your porch is a tiny point of entry or a Victorian wrap-around the code is that flowers are supposed to spill color from the facia toward the ground. If there is a railing then an assortment of pots and more plants of varying types begin to cluster up on the flat surface. Planter boxes and clay pots appear like runway markers down the sides of wide front porch steps. Stately terra cotta pots and urns mark the front approach to many a home. Many different styles of well-dressed porches can be chosen from and created but the fact remains that you must dress that porch. I am all for this dressing of porches. There is no bare rail space left on my own deck any summer. There have been years that the front porch was virtually hidden behind the curtain of flowers and ferns.

Greenhouses across America do a fabulous job of turning out a lot of beautiful annual containers. Delight will seize your senses the moment you step into the retail greenhouse in April and May. The warm humid atmosphere is a jungle of rainbow colors all grown to perfection. Your hair may go flat in there but it is worth the leisurely trip down the aisles. It could be hours later before you can manage to drag yourself back outside again. The showing of jungle flora at its finest can hold rapt attention for very long spans of time.

The selection of the perfect color statement for the porch is not made quickly or easily; finally you complete the mission inside the glass bubble. The pots are loaded into your vehicle and you are off to deck out your porch and patio. Some merely hang the pots just as they are from the hooks at the roofline. Others remove the hanger and slid into the yawning cavity of ornamental pots and urns strategically place for visual effect. Moss baskets, clean plastic pots and new terra cotta all filled with a garden of earthly delights festoon porches, decks and patios from sea to shining sea by Memorial Day.

The greenhouse did its job keeping that container feed and watered in optimum performance levels at perfect temperatures for its rapid growth. The fact that you get to cast your eyes upon that beauty every day fills your soul with a feeling nothing else would impart. The convenience of being able to walk in a store and carry out very mature and lovely mixtures of plants only hardy in the tropics is one that America enjoys with gusto.

The adoption of a moss basket while visually stunning compared to the same in a plastic hanging pot shows you nothing of the road that lies ahead for the two of you. Consumers like the fact that that huge 15” moss basket is light as a feather and easy to tote around. The one fact that everyone seems to not grasp is that the beautiful things you have just adopted are planted in a mixture designed to not hold moisture and drain out very rapidly. Those plants are addicted to drip-line water and food… intravenous nutrition turned on and off by a computer if you will. While they will adjust to you only feeding them once a month, they cannot go without the correct amount of moisture throughout a day in the hot dry air and relentless sun. Not if you want them to remain lush and alive, which is most likely the full intention behind you purchasing them.

Plastic containers planted by a greenhouse will hold moisture twice as long as a moss basket. The breeze can go right through the moss causing it to air-dry the potting medium at a rapid pace, add heat to that air and the dryness happens even faster. Inside a greenhouse there is no breeze, the still air is filled with humidity. That non-moving humid atmosphere breeds pests and disease. To ward off rot and other unwanted occurrences, the growers must use rapidly drying content in their pots or face loosing vast quantities of plants to problems that occur in the greenhouse bubble. Once out in the real world, you must supply enough moisture to the same pots to help them thrive in an alien atmosphere.

Fuchsias in moss baskets even when watered before you left for work will most likely be beginning to droop by about 2 pm and you will not be home for at least 4 more hours. If you only for one evening forget to water those Ivy Geraniums they will show signs of damage by the next morning. An occasional slip up is usually repairable, but let it happen one too many times and you will undoubtedly have a basket full of toast colored has-beens. The best outcome with all of these beautiful plants is achieved if you repot them in a larger container than the one you got it in with real soil mixed with a bit of sphagnum and pearlite for drainage and cover the top of that sphagnum core with some soil as well. That simple inch of soil around and under the existing quick-dry core will help it hold moisture better until you return home at the end of the day.  Real soil in a moss basket is not going to work however as the soil will wash out with draining water and deposit mud on the floor beneath it. Moss baskets are very thirsty things. You might consider creating your own drip-line irrigation system for them and other hanging baskets. All the parts are available at Home Depot, including inexpensive timers you can put on your hose and set to go on and off at intervals throughout the day. This would be the optimum solution as even when you go on vacation, it will water your hanging pots and you will not have to rely on a neighbor or family member to do this for you.

I have found that I have far better luck with my annual baskets if I buy the plants small and pot the baskets myself with real soil and pearlite so they do not get water logged. No the pots will not be overflowing until the end of June, but if I forget to water them one night they will be fine and not get too dry before the next morning. I can with my busy schedule keep nice looking plants on the front porch until the frost takes them out at the end of well-dressed porch season. One of these days when I find the time to install a drip-line water system I will go back to buying my hanging plant baskets from a local greenhouse. Until them, I am just as happy with not cooking them all to a crisp while I am madly dashing through my hectic schedule that does not take me past the front porch so that I am reminded to water the plants everyone sees from the road. Some day I will have lovely moss baskets of fabulous red & purple Fuchsias there instead of dependable old Geraniums.


Morning coffee with the internet has become a tradition of mine in recent years. The internet holds a much greater variety of information than the newspaper, as well as less depressing things to read at the beginning of the day. No one should have to wake up with murder and mayhem in their face. A more pleasant mindset is found in waking to check the weather, respond to a note from a friend, or reading about an exciting new plant. This morning I went to look for further information on a particularly nifty new plant on one of my vendor’s sites. Not finding that I clicked on another link that caught my attention in their Garden Writers section.

“Meatballs, Soapboxes and Tuna Cans”, to be precise.

To a person who has never been employed within the landscape industry, that phrase would bring to mind food. To insiders it would have a far different meaning. Of course where I worked it was baseballs and cubes. So this morning’s coffee was sipped between chuckles.

The author (head of sales) I would venture to say is younger than 50. Those over 50 feel that these balls, cubes, footballs or tuna cans are a staple that is required in the landscape. For the life of me I have never understood why we must have them. What is so necessary about using a shrub far to large for its placement and whacking off it’s limbs to shape it into an unnatural form? Off with its head! It should wear a size 42 long jacket, but we will force it to fit comfortably into a 10 short. It is interesting to note that also helpless poodles have also fallen victim to this manner of unnatural shaping and they are not plants. A month ago I witnessed a house cat shorn in this manner.

Mr. Woods, who wrote the afore mentioned article, has developed the opinion that it is an inherent human instinct. That we humans have so little that we actually have complete control over that our psyche has tuned in to the helpless shrubs in our yard. While I giggled often while reading his words, it struck me that he has a good point. Why else would we so cruelly inhibit the wild beauty of a shrub? In my early years I had no reason to argue with my father, the professional landscaper as to why we must do this. Quite the contrary, originally I assisted him in his whacking while trying to mimic his methods. It wasn’t until I started to design plantings and began to see plants for their own individual beauty that I began to question this barbaric practice. It has come to be a long standing argument between us over the years. He refuses to budge from his Pro Juniper stance, insisting we simply MUST have the prickly old things. Yews and Burning Bushes have their place and are quite lovely if not placed where they can be gently shaped not beaten in submission twice a season.

During my contracting days, I would arrive at a clients home for a meeting about a landscape facelift to find the sad remains of Burning Bushes, Yews and Junipers that had resided along the walk or foundation for decades. All of them left much to be desired in the looks department after the last harsh whacking. Common sense told me that following decades of cruel treatment, the poor things have given up growing hair. Why should they continue to grow it if for the past 25 years every attempt was quickly lopped off? How much squelching of creativity can a being endure before throwing in the towel? In voicing this thought to successful lawyers and surgeons , I must admit I was rewarded with raised eyebrows. Why do we insist on planting a shrub that will grow eight foot tall and 12 foot wide in a 30 inch wide space and insist it does not exceed those confines? I am in agreement with Mr. Woods, it is one area to have complete control over in our lives.

So there I stand with this super successful professional, a man of high learning, who wants to know how we can coax this spent row of 5 foot tall trunks and stems along his walk into growing more hair in the bottoms. He thinks that fertilizer cures all of man’s cruelty. (Remember that you must see things through the eye of the plant?) How am I to explain this to this person! My professional self developed a cunning approach. “A landscape has a life expectancy of about 20 years. Yours seems to be about 5 years overdue for replanting.” If this was not enough to convince the customer, I would go on to ask how long the wallpaper in their kitchen had hung there. Explaining that redecorating outdoors was just as necessary to variety in life than it was to keep up to date with their interior décor. But they wanted back what they had before it turned into bare branches! The issue of certain control may very well be the answer.

Now I am not against hedges. I am not anti-evergreen. Pruning, thinning and shaping is of definite necessity to full and lovely shrubs and even some trees. Even every other aspect of life we look for the right thing to accomplish the task, but when it comes to the plants we place in our yards we seem to fall short in the search for the proper element. Proper planning should be the first consideration and whacking could become almost obsolete. It is good to know that plant breeders are busily developing new Arborvitaes and Yews that will stay in a nice little meatball shape without whacking. News that will lessen the maintenance you must forfeit your weekend to perform, alleviate the need to butcher the bushes and make all the hedge trimmer companies hold their breath over next year’s third quarter earnings.

As for the aspect of proper planning vs. constant replacement, if the space is 30 inches wide, then it would be best to consider installing only those shrubs that will never exceed 4 foot in width. Remember, a little shaping is good and a harsh whacking is lowering the life expectancy of the elements in your landscape. Proper planning is one of the best tools in creating a low maintenance planting.