One Container, Two Seasons
Let's look at how you can make one outdoor container last from Thanksgiving to Mother's Day.
Creating a garden that transitions smoothly through the seasons is like achieving a flat stomach. Technically possible - but really hard to pull off.
I've worked hard to design this garden so that it flows from one season to the next without a lot of downtime. This philosophy applies to my garden containers as well as you might be able to guess from the pictures above.
I have long admired the container work of Deborah Silver of Detroit Garden Works. She creates her outdoor winter arrangements by sticking them into foam forms that she nests inside of containers. One fall, I stood outside, spring bulbs in hand, ready to be planted and evergreen boughs for a winter arrangement gathered nearby. An idea began to take shape. Might there be way for me to combine seasons and transition my containers seamlessly from winter to spring? A thought struck. What if I simply planted my spring bulbs underneath the foam base I used for my holiday arrangements and kept the whole combo planter outside all winter?
I knew that my zone 3 bulbs could take the cold in my zone 6 climate, but not the winter wet. That meant I needed to find a foam that was watertight. So I researched and found a brand of floral foam that was non-porous, meaning it didn't let any water in.
With these materials - and my idea - in hand, I tried combining my holiday and bulb containers into one container that year and voilà, success. I planted my combo planter just once that November. As winter came to an end, I simply lifted the whole holiday arrangement off and let the spring bulbs take over without missing a beat. Smooth transition achieved. I got six months and two seasons of interest out of one container.
Since many of us could use time-saving hacks to get more performance out of our containers, let me share how I did it.
One note: My opening pictures above are from a prior year. The pictures we are about to see below are new this year but will end up creating a similar result.
Step One: Select your Bulbs
Selecting bulbs for a spring container
For this container, I selected pink and apricot tulips as shown above. For contrast, I also selected a white daffodil with a yellow center corona.
Besides mixing colors, I also selected bulbs with a mix of bloom times. My overriding mantra when it comes to garden design is "smooth transitions." I always try to create a mix that will give me a longer show. Bulb websites will tell you which bulbs blooms early, mid or late. To picture how it will all come together, it helps to train your mind to envision the container as it transitions through each stage. For mid-season color, I selected 'Ice Follies' as my daffodil and two tulip varieties - 'Infinity' and 'Apricot Foxx'. For late-season color, I selected three tulips - 'Charming Beauty', 'Aveyron' and 'Finola.' Although they are not pictured, I had five extra, mid-blooming 'Minnow' daffodils on hand so threw those in also.
I also made sure to select bulbs that were rated at least two USDA hardiness zones below my zone. The reason? Soil in containers gets MUCH colder than the soil in the ground. That means that my bulbs will lose a few levels in their hardiness rating while they spend their winter above ground. My rule of thumb is to allow a two-zone buffer for container plants. For this project, all my bulbs were all rated to zone 3 (which includes parts of Alaska) and I'm zone 6, so I had a three-zone buffer with room to spare.
I once learned this lesson the hard way. One year, I put a few 'Avalanche' daffodils into a container and then wondered what happened to them. I got my answer when I checked the bulb's hardiness tolerance. It turns out that 'Avalanche' is a warm-weather lover, hardy only to zone 6 and a good choice for southern gardens. I had violated my two zone buffer. No wonder they never emerged.
Step Two: Select Your Potting Mix
Potting mix options
I used Espoma's Organic Potting Mix for this project. I also had a large bale of
Sun Gro® standing by, which had been in my garage for quite while. Both soils have worked fine for me in the past. However, once I use up the Sun Gro®, I will likely not buy it again because it contains peat. There are many environmental reasons to avoid using peat.
Step Three: Wet Your Potting Mix
Moistening the soil
Using my Gorilla cart as a bucket, I added water and stirred it up. I wanted the soil to resemble the feel of clothes when I take them out of the washing machine - wet but not dripping. Another way I could tell if I had achieved the right level of wetness was to test if I could make a ball shape with the soil in my hand. If it formed a ball without dripping water, I would be all set.
One note: I find it better to wet the potting mix before I put it in a container. Some potting mixes - especially Pro-Mix and Sun-Gro - can absorb a shocking amount of moisture before they actually get wet. I didn't want to have dry spots in my container. Using a separate container for mixing gave me the room I needed to mix the water in thoroughly.
Step Four: Add Bulb Fertilizer
Adding Bulb Tone Fertilizer
Next, I added in some Espoma Bulb Tone and then roughed it into the soil using my gloved hands. You might notice that I applied some Press n' Seal wrap to the top of the container in the picture above. I apply this temporarily while planting so as to not stain the top rim of my container with dirt. (My containers are dirt magnets). I remove the Press n' Seal plastic when I'm done.
Step Five: Place the Bulbs
My next step was to put my bulbs in place.
You might be wondering how deep I planted the bulbs. For this container, I stopped my soil about eight to nine inches below the top of the container. I needed to allow space for two things. First, more soil. The planting instructions for my bulbs recommended that they be planted at a depth of six to eight inches - when planted in the ground. I try to come close-ish to matching those depth recommendations when planting containers. That means I had to leave enough room to add at least six inches of additional soil on top. Second, I needed room to add my holiday decoration layer. I planned on about two to three additional inches for this.
In case you are wondering, underneath them, most bulbs need at least three inches of potting mix for their roots to grow. I had plenty of room to spare there. I then placed the bulbs into the container, close but not touching, like eggs in a carton. I placed all my mid bloomers into the center and my later bloomers in the outer rings. That way, I could ensure that the container would bloom from the center outwards. I wanted the newer blooms to mask the fading blooms over time. Before I put my bulbs in place, I also checked all the expected heights of the flowers to ensure that any shorter bloomers would not be hidden. For example, my 'Minnow' daffodils only grow 6 to 12 inches tall. Given their short stature, I chose to place them on the very outer ring so they would actually show up amidst the other bulbs which all will reach 18 to 20 inches in height.
Step Six: Cover the Bulbs with Potting Mix
Once I put my bulbs in place, I simply covered them with the potting mix. For good measure, I also used my watering can to add just a bit more water in so that everything would settle into place.
Step Seven: Insert Holiday Greens and Lights into a Non-Porous Foam Cube on Top
Adding holiday decorations
On top of the container, I placed a FloraCraft® FloraFōM Green Foam Cube which I bought at Michaels and had previously cut to shape. Into this foam, I stuck my winter arrangements. My winter decorations usually include items such as an LED light spray, branches, faux holly berries (they last longer), pine cones on sticks, magnolia leaves, evergreen boughs and so on.
FloraFōM Green Foam is a good choice for this project because it is non-porous. That means it does not let water get through. That's key for what I want to accomplish with this container.
As I mentioned, bulbs can take the cold in my zone; it's the winter wet that will get them. People who live in a very dry climate might not need to cover theirs, but if I don't cover the containers in my zone, the bulbs could rot and dissolve. I know that my bulbs will get some additional water which will seep in through the sides as the winter progresses. A little water is OK. Too much is not good.
I bought my FloraFōM forms years ago and reuse them each year.
Step Eight: Sit Back and Enjoy for Six Months
Ready for the holidays