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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2010

Veggies and flowers are good container partners

BY KELLY HEIDBREDER
BLADE GARDEN COLUMNIST

Have you ever wanted to plant a little vegetable garden, but didn't want to suffer the backache that could come with using a pick-ax to till up a small patch of hard clay? Or maybe you just don't have the space to spare. I've come across a fantastic resource with great ways to start urban farming right on your patio or driveway.

Pamela Crawford's book, Easy Container Combos: Vegetables & Flowers, has become one of my favorite reads this summer. Ms. Crawford has ideas for combinations you might not think of.

Some of hers worked, and others were duds. For example, bell peppers with Angelonia and Creeping Jenny make a great-looking container garden and all plants complement each other. On the other hand, a pot filled with Swiss chard and kale turned out to be a dud.

Every summer you will see my large containers planted with ornamental trees or shrubs and surrounded with other trailing annuals and perennials, including ivy, Goldilocks, or potato vine. That way I can replant them in my landscape right about now when I am getting ready to plant mums. But I never add vegetables. Why not?

Ms. Crawford experimented with many plant configurations, but she said the best rule of thumb is to keep the design simple. You can't just pick any flower and vegetable combinations. They should require similar light conditions and have similar growing habits.

Start with a simple container with mustard greens in the center, because its dark purple leaves grow more upright. Then Ms. Crawford adds shorter varieties of lettuce such as Simpson Elite and Mascra around the outside. You'll have a simple salad all in one spot on your deck,

Lavender is a nice herb to use as a center plant, according to Ms. Crawford. Plant with ornamental kale on the sides and delicate, edible violas in front for a very full and balanced little garden.

Melons make a great base plant, and so do cucumbers and squash. Some even look beautiful all by themselves in a colorful container.

In a layered hanging container, try planting a smaller variety of tomato around the bottom, then potato vine, begonias, and salvia on top of it. Ms. Crawford used six Bonnie Grape tomato plants with six purple sweet potato vines, six lime sweet potato vines, six wax begonias, and one large Mystic Spires salvia in the center. She says the combination looked great, and she cut out the tomato vines after their harvest and the rest of the plants showed off until late fall.

I also really like her fall combination of decorative cabbage as the focal point with mums planted at the base. This late-season container will even last past frost.

In my own containers, I like to use grasses as a focal point. They are double-duty plants, bringing height and interesting texture to the arrangement, then easily are popped into the landscape in the early fall. Ms. Crawford also puts juncus grass with mustard greens, pansies, and cabbage.

Start with a large container with drainage holes in the bottom. You can use a window box, old metal washtub, or even cheaper metal containers from the dollar store. The container doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to be able to let the extra water drain out so the plants' roots won't rot. If you love a container but it doesn't have drainage holes, get the drill out and make some.

Fill the pot with a potting soil mix and sprinkle in some slow-release fertilizer and water-retaining polymer such as Soil Moist. Water your little oasis at least every other day.

You can find some containers that are built to hold layers of plants. Usually they have a basket frame with straw cloth liner. There are holes on the liner to make it easier to figure out where to put the plants.

Now with all these ideas, you will never have a boring container just filled with annuals on your porch again!

Contact Kelly Heidbreder at: kheidbreder@theblade.com.



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