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Container Gardening: Pots Galore!: Hanging Baskets

Fuschia 'Swingtime'; courtesy of Flickr cc/waferboard
Fuschia 'Swingtime'; courtesy of Flickr cc/waferboard

For people with limited gardening space, hanging baskets can be a delight and give gardening divas a real chance to shine. Anyone can make an attractive basket by stuffing it full of trailing plants, but the aficionado can approach the small space as a serious design challenge.

Glorious baskets might be overflowing with dwarf tomatoes, edible signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) and marjoram. You can create a cornucopia for your kitchen by filling your basket with culinary herbs and edible flowers such as nasturtiums.

Baskets can look stunning when combining tropical plants such as the cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) with foliage plants such as copper leaf (Acalypha) and the trailing, purple Joseph's coat (Alternanthera dentata 'Purple Knight'). Flowering maples (such as Abutilon 'Bartley Schwarz' or 'Chinese Lantern') will do an admirable job of filling the space.

For the shade, try mixing fuchsia with non-stop begonias and coleus. Some of the rex begonias are so sensational they can stand on their own yet look lively when complemented with impatiens.  Some classics for the sun are trailing verbena (such as the Tapien®, Aztec TM, 'Twilight' and Babylon® strains), lantana (Bandana® and LuckyTM series are always good), fan flower (Scaevola), geraniums (Pelargonium), summer snapdragons (Angelonia), the licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) and creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia).

Abutilon (flowering maple) makes a good basket filler; photo by Marlon Co
Abutilon (flowering maple) makes a great filler in a basket; photo by Marlon Co

Hanging baskets look wonderful with a wide variety of plants as long as there is some repetition to the arrangement through its color scheme, texture and foliage, or repeating plants. Here are some tips to get you through the summer:

  • Place the hanging basket frame on a large pot or a small bucket so that it rests evenly.
  • Fill the bottom ⅓ of the basket with sphagnum moss.
  • Place a small saucer or plate at the bottom of the basket to help retain moisture and prevent it from drying out too rapidly.
  • If you have horticultural charcoal at home, add a little bit to the handful of potting mix that you place on top of the plate. If the mix gets a little soggy in this area, the charcoal will help.
  • Fill the next ⅓  of the basket with potting mix.
  • Add your trailing plants by squeezing the root ball into the basket so that the root ball is firmly in the basket and the foliage is spilling out of the wire frame. Some people cover the root ball with a plastic bag to help them squeeze it in (don't forget to remove the bag once it is in the container).
  • Finish by adding sphagnum moss and the rest of the potting soil, planting the top as you fill.
  • In hanging baskets you can space your plants closer than you would in the garden, but make sure you give them some space to grow.  If the potting mix gets too congested with roots on the top it will be difficult to water properly.
  • When planting a hanging basket you leave one inch between the rim and the top of the potting mixture. This generally means that you plant up to ½ inch from the top; once you water it in, it generally settles to an inch. This facilitates good watering practices. If the potting mix is too high, the water will just run off the top and will not saturate the basket. This is true of all containers and extremely important with hanging baskets where you often cannot see what you are watering.
  • Keep the basket perched on the bucket for few days and water well to give everything a chance to settle in and get established. It makes a big difference to the health of your hanging basket to get thoroughly soaked for the first few days.
  • If you don't have sphagnum moss, you have some other options for a liner. You can use a thin, green, plastic sheet (some people use this in addition to moss to keep in moisture) or a liner made of coir (coconut fiber) or compressed fiber.  Remember when using these liners to cut 2-inch, cross-shaped slits for the plants and so the water can drain out (you need good drainage).
  • If you find you are fighting a loosing battle keeping adequate moisture in your hanging baskets, then try adding water retaining polymers (moisture beads) to your potting mix. Warning: always follow the directions on the label; the polymers expand exponentially and you will end up with a potting soil volcano (the soil will explode out of the basket) if you add too many. Some people like to hydrate the polymers  before they add them to the mix.
  • If your hanging basket gets very dry in the middle of the summer, take it down from its position and dip it in a bucket of water. Let it soak until the water percolates through it.
  • If the potting soil gets very dry, it will shrink and leave gaps at the edge of the basket. When you water it, the water will then just pour through the gaps so it is important to properly re-hydrate it. Soaking or repeat watering will help solve this problem.

A word to the wise: some of your summer annuals will need deadheading to prolong the blooms. Cut back the spent flower to either a new bud or to the foliage depending on the plant.

A rex begonia can be a stunning hanging plant; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Howard Lifshitz
A Rex begonia can be a stunning hanging plant; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Howard Lifshitz

Also, remember to feed your containers. Most potting soils contain fertilizer these days, so you may not have to feed them immediately.  Remember with a hanging basket that the plants are living in a small space that constantly has water running through it. This will quickly leach out nutrients. Start feeding your basket with a balanced fertilizer after 1 to 1½ months. You can either follow the directions on the label or dilute the mix. Feed every 10 days to 2 weeks. While it is important to fertilize, it is better to under-fertilize than over-fertilize.  Fertilizers contain salts and, if they build up in high concentrations, they can do more harm than good.

If you do seasonal baskets, spring annuals are in for a short time and generally do not need an extra boost of fertilizer aside from the initial dose. Pay attention to the plants you are growing: if they thrive in dry, lean conditions, they will not require the same amount of fertilizer that a showy annual with non-stop, flower power does. Herbs like it lean; you will have healthier and more aromatic plants if you cut back on fertilizer.

The most important thing is to experiment and have fun!

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