Create colorful container gardens in Eagle County |

Create colorful container gardens in Eagle County

Jennifer Miller
Rocky Mountain News
Vail CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Every gardener wants container plants so full and lush that neighbors will gape at the colorful display.

Unfortunately, container gardens planted at home rarely look that spectacular, and sometimes they’re so scrawny that gardeners wish they’d never displayed them so prominently on the front stoop.

By midsummer, even the most enthusiastic gardeners can find themselves scratching their heads, wondering where they went wrong. Perhaps only some plants took off, so the whole planting is lopsided. Maybe flowers stalled out or, in the case of hanging baskets, more basket showed than plant.

With Colorado’s relentless summer heat, it’s a challenge just to keep containers watered, let alone make them look full. So how do the nursery experts do it? And can the amateur create containers as spectacular as those festooned on city light posts?

The answer is “yes,” but there are tricks to making it happen. Below are hints for turning containers into living outdoor bouquets.

One of the most popular and stunning is the moss wire basket, so Tagawa Gardens’ Kris Higgins takes us step-by- step through the process in our sidebar.

Many of the same rules apply for planting pots, but we’ve added a few more tips for those, below.

Hanging baskets

– The bigger the container the better. Use wire hanging baskets at least 14 inches wide and 10 inches deep, and pots that are at least 18 to 20 inches wide.

– The larger containers are slower to dry out and allow for greater root growth. But they also require more soil and thus are heavier and less mobile. To lighten pots, fill the lower third to half of the pot with packing peanuts, or leftover plastic pots or milk jugs (not flattened, with the lids on). This not only reduces the need for as much soil, but aids drainage.

– When hanging large baskets, make sure hooks are sturdy. Swivel hooks, pulleys and water wands can make for easier care.

– Choose plants grown from cuttings only. A plant grown from seed tends to bloom once and go to seed, which can result in leggy stems that fizzle out of blooms. A plant grown from a vegetative cutting isn’t coded to go to seed, and therefore is tougher, stronger and blooms longer. Ask your nursery specialist to direct you to plants grown from cuttings.

The Vail Daily’s garden columnist Tom Glass says that spreading petunias, unlike other plants grown from seed, will not go out of bloom and will perform as nicely from petunias from cuttings. Glass says Verbena, some types of Bacopa, Euphorbia Diamond Frost, Argyranthemum (Marguerite daisies), Lobelia, Ipomoea (Sweet Potato Vine) and Bidens all do well up here.

“Tell the garden center people, ‘I’m looking for an vigorous plant that finishes quickly,'” Glass recommends.

– Try proven plant recipes. It’s hard to picture how little starts will look when they’ve matured and grown together. That’s where tested plant combinations come in handy. Ask nursery staffers to suggest winning combinations.

– Think leaves and roots when buying annuals. Buy plants that are short and stocky, with healthy foliage and white strong roots. It’s not only acceptable but recommended that customers pull the roots out of the pot and look at them before purchasing a plant.

– Deflower. Removing flowers sends a message to the plants to get their roots down into the soil. By forcing plants to develop better roots, the plant will grow 10 times better.

– Plant closely. Of course squishing plants together is never a good idea, but the rules of planting do relax with container gardening. In containers, plants can be spaced a thumb’s width apart. The exception is moss containers, which dry out faster. Plants in moss containers should be 4 to 6 inches apart side to side and about 2 inches up and down. (Moss baskets and moss window boxes make up for this in spades, as the majority of the plants are fed through the sides, thus filling out the container in a way no other can.)

– Keep soil moist. While adding water- holding crystals to soil is popular (most directions for container gardening on the Web list them as a must), Tagawa believes they suck moisture away from roots and absorb salt that plants need. Instead, water daily on the hottest days and then whenever the soil is dry to the touch.

– Fertilize regularly. The biggest mistake gardeners make is they don’t feed their plants. Along with mixing slow- release fertilizer into the soil, fertilize weekly when watering. However, never fertilize while the soil is dry, as this can burn the plant. (A great trick for rewetting a moss hanging basket is to dunk it in a big galvanized bucket of water or let it soak in a sink full of water.)

– Pinch and deadhead. Growing container gardens is a bit like maintaining hair. Occasionally you have to trim back the longest locks. Whenever a plant begins to look scraggly, use your fingers to trim it back by snipping off part of the stem. You also can encourage a plant to flower more by removing spent flowers.

– Buy six-packs and four-packs. If you’re willing to wait 4 to 6 weeks for moss baskets to take off, packs of smaller plants are a thrifty way to go. But you have to be willing and ready to move containers inside when temperatures drop. If instant gratification is more your style, start the baskets in this month using six-packs and four-packs only for the sides, and larger plants for the top. This will be a bit more costly, but baskets will take off in just a couple of weeks.

– One thing that Glass, an Eagle County gardening specialist, points out is there is no substitute for time, so be patient.

“We get started later, we have relatively warm days but very cool nights and the intensity of our light at altitute tends to produce more compact plant growth. Basically, it just takes things longer to grow here,” he said.


1. Heavy-gauge wire baskets, 14 inches wide and 10 inches deep

2. Sturdy hooks

3. Sphagnum moss

4. Aluminum pie tins

4. Soil-less potting mix. Look for one containing loam, peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.

5. Slow-release fertilizer

6. Up to 31 plants divided among trailing plants and “roundy moundies,” or bushy plants (if making 16-inch baskets, use about 38 plants; 18-inch, 46 plants).


1. Remove all blooms and harden off plants for four to five days before planting. (To harden, gradually move nursery plants from a sheltered spot to where they will eventually live so they are able to thrive in wind and, in the case of sun-loving plants, full sun.)

2. A couple of hours before planting, soak the sphagnum moss in a bucket of water then wring out.

3. Pour soil in a separate bucket and mix in water until damp but not soggy. Mix in time-release fertilizer as recommended on the package.

4. If your baskets are rounded, set them on buckets for stability while planting. Then press in the moss to the inside bottom and sides of the baskets to 5 inches up. The moss lining should be about 1 inch thick.

5. Set a pie tin inside the basket on the moss, then add damp soil. Insert about nine plants from the outside in at even intervals, staggering between two kinds if you like. Use one hand on either side to gently feed in the roots. Make sure the rootballs lay on the soil.

6. Then continue to build up the sides of the basket another 2 inches with wet moss. Add more soil, fully covering the roots of the first group of plants. Then insert about 12 plants, staggering so they’re not right above the last group.

8. Continue adding moss until it is slightly above the rim. Fold it over the rim like you’re making pie crust. This creates a lip that will help hold in soil as you water. Add soil to an inch below the rim.

9. Begin at the center, then work out, with taller plants in the middle, more trailing and mounding plants around the edge.

10. Keep sun baskets out of direct sun for a couple of days before hanging. This will enable growth to get a head start.

12. Water daily during the hottest days, making sure not to let the soil dry out completely. Fertilize weekly. Remove spent blooms and pinch back growth to encourage bushier plants.

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