Design Tips for Containers

Container plantings can be purely practical or they can become your own personal design statement. The container itself is 50% of the design equation so use your creativity and resourcefulness to search out pots and planters that complement both the plants they will hold and the overall style of your balcony garden. To create a seamless effect from indoors to outdoors, match your containers to your interior decor - super-modern for a hi-tech loft, old-school terracotta if you have lots of antiques, or use recycled and "liberated" containers if your home decor is more like mine. Containers can be made of any non-toxic material but must have drainage holes and drip trays. When grouping containers together in one area on your balcony or deck, don't feel that they all have to match -- they should just have a similar look and feel to avoid distracting the eye. You can plant singly, or fill a container with several plants of the same species, or use graduated plant heights to mix several different types of plants in one pot. As a general guideline, plants should not be more than twice the height of the pot or more than1 ½ times its width.

Planting a Massed Container
For a dramatic effect, mass plants of a single species in one container. You can stick with just one flower colour or mix them up. Stagger the plants in two or more rows for best effect, as in the photo below. I like to mass pansies in spring containers, spaced about 3" apart to get a good quick show, since they tend to fade out once hot weather arrives. Then it's easy to replace them with more heat-tolerant annuals once all danger of frost has passed. Impatiens mass well and can take the shade. If you only have sun, use the New Guinea Impatiens. Mounding or trailing plants look best when massed. Taller, single-stemmed plants such as daisies often look too leggy. If using vertical plants such as Snapdragons, stick to dwarf varieties under 12" in height. Try to avoid planting *anything* in a single row. Garden designers call this the dreaded "tin soldier effect" although it can work well in a very modern garden if you use the right type of plant.

Planting a Mixed Container
When using more than one type of plant, make sure all plants in the container prefer the same amount of sun or shade, and the same type of growing conditions, such as moist or dry soil, rich or lean fertilizer, etc. Avoid using plants of the same height - try to incorporate at least one tall plant, one medium-height plant and one trailing plant in your design. Often a tall vertical plant such as an ornamental grass or a dracaena spike is used in containers as a focal point and is surrounded by successively lower layers of mounding "filler" plants. Trailing plants are then planted at the container edges to soften it. But nothing is written in stone and combining just two plants, for example, a foliage plant and a flowering plant, in one container can be very effective. Use the plant's natural growth habits to guide you in where to place them. Tall leggy plants do best at the center or back of a container so they don't shade out smaller plants. Trailing plants should be planted at least 2" from the edge of the container, to prevent them from drying out too quickly.

Planting Specimen Plants
You can plant showy, large or unusual plants singly in containers, to create a focal point on your balcony or deck. Make sure the container compliments or effectively contrasts with the plant's colours. Plant your specimen directly in the center of the container and stake it if you get high winds. If your specimen is tree-form or single-stemmed, rather than bush-shaped, you can plant a "living mulch" of low growing or trailing plants at its base to help conserve moisture and add visual interest. Place your specimen as far out on your balcony or deck as possible, in order to draw the eye outwards and create the impression of space. If you have a large enough area, you can create both secondary and primary focal points to guide the viewer's eye around the garden at a leisurely pace.

Climbing Vines
Climbing plants are one of the few ways to create space-effective screening on a balcony or deck. Stick with climbing annuals or use fast growing woody vines such as climbing roses, trumpet vine, clematis, etc, in the Ottawa area. Most vines will not survive our winters in containers unless they are heavily insulated and well-protected from temperature changes. Annual vines can be hard to find as garden center transplants so buy seeds and grow your own. Morning glories, climbing nasturtiums and sweet peas are all very easy to grow and will reach 6 feet in height about 8 weeks after germination. Interesting tropical vines can also be started from seed in early spring and will grow fast enough to provide quick screening for summer. Try starting Cobaea scandens, the Cup & Saucer Vine with its beautiful purple flowers, from seed, or the Canary Creeper, Tropaeolum peregrinum, with its bright yellow flowers that resemble birds. Woody climbers should be planted singly in a large deep container at least 24" x 24" x 24" in size. Annual climbers and tropical perennials need containers at least 12" deep and 8" wide and are usually massed for best effect. Thin out seedlings to 4" apart, to avoid overcrowding and fungal diseases. Use gardening twine strung on balcony railings, store-bought bamboo or wooden trellises, or even old wire fencing to support your climbers. Woody climbers such as roses and clematis may need to be tied to the trellis with gardening twine but most climbers will find their way up by themselves.

Sourcing Containers
Searching out interesting pots and planters can be fun. If you're going for a romantic look, second-hand stores, antique & yard sales often yield decorative old terracotta and cast iron pots. Old, cracked terracotta pots can be easily repaired. Ethnic-inspired pots and hand-turned pottery can be found at craft sales and art shows. These pots can be used as cachepots if you are reluctant to drill holes in the bottom. Check IKEA or Urban Pot for planters with a more modern, minimalist look. Or visit Global Home & Giftware in Chinatown for large oriental pots at a reasonable price. If recycled containers and veggies are more your style, use large deep containers to imitate raised garden beds. I like old white plastic Versailles planters for tomatoes, eggplants and peppers and I often find them left out on the curb on garbage day. Old window boxes are great for shallow-rooted veggies like lettuce, spinach and herbs.