Perk Up Your Pier: Container Gardening at the Lake

A Dock on the Lake with SandalsOne of the best and easiest ways to liven up your landscaping, particularly in a lakeside setting, is with a container garden. Container gardens bring color to a porch, entryway, patio or pier, and give you the opportunity to try a variety of plantings. For vacation homes, containers can be more manageable than a full-scale, in-ground garden, as many residents would prefer relaxing over weeding.

However, since we are talking about a lakeside setting, it is especially important to plan before you go wild with desire at the nursery. Lakeside gardens are especially susceptible to stress and drought from the blazing sun that is amplified by waterfront locations, not to mention the fact that many plantings will sometimes need to go for days or even a week without care, since not every resident is lucky enough to spend every summer day enjoying the lake. Should these constraints keep you from enjoying the versatility of fresh flowers, twining vines, even fresh herbs or vegetables that your own container gardens can supply? Of course not! It simply means that you will need to choose both your plants AND containers carefully, and to make a plan for caring for your container gardens that is realistic to the way you work, live, and play at the lake.

gardeningbThe Perfect Pot
So, you’d like a matching set of urns flanking your front steps? A salad garden growing within reach of your kitchen on the back porch? A splash of green at the end of the pier by the Adirondack chairs? There are many choices for containers ranging from clay, plastic, concrete, fiberglass and wood. There are advantages to each, but for a lakeside setting, where the sun can be intense and unforgiving, you need to give the material you choose a little more thought. Clay and untreated wood pots are often recommended for their natural look, and also because they offer more protection to the plants they contain. Though porous (water can evaporate through the walls of the pot), they also tend to keep the soil at a more regulated temperature than their plastic or fiberglass counterparts, decreasing the stress on the plants. On the flip side, clay pots can be broken with rough handling (or freezing temperatures if you leave your container out year-round) and wood is susceptible to rot and decomposition. Weigh the pros and cons to decide what’s best for you.

Another consideration for the containers themselves: Go big. At the garden center, ask about the root systems of the plants you hope to grow, and purchase containers that will accommodate the roots of mature plants. Tomato plants, for example, require two feet of depth, but zinnia need only a few inches. Where draught conditions are likely to be an issue (think waterfront sizzle), bigger may be better, as they will store more water and nutrients that your plants will need.
Add an inch or so of gravel (or Styrofoam packing “popcorn” which works beautifully and is much lighter) to the bottom of your container for drainage, and then fill with a mixture of ¾ parts potting mix (not potting soil, which is too dense, or garden soil, which in our area contains too much clay) and ¼ part compost.

gardeningaGarden Variety
Now comes the fun part—choosing your plants. This age-old formula never goes out of style: a thriller, a spiller and a filler. Loosely translated, your “thriller” is your focal point (think bright color and height). A plant that drapes or cascades over the side of the container is your spiller, and a plant that fills in the empty spaces is your filler. Keep in mind that container plantings should be planted more densely than in-ground gardens, so you may want to include several plants in each category.

You may choose to group your plants by type or color. Some ideas are an all-white garden, or all pastel, or all vibrant. If you want to enjoy colorful, showy blooms all summer, with minimal fuss, opt for annuals; favorites are geraniums, sweet potato vine, impatiens and salvia. If you plan to leave your containers out for the winter and want plants that will come back the following year, look into perennials (lavender, delphinium, hosta, fern) or even shrubs (boxwood or blueberry). Some gardeners prefer to mix in some practical herbs, such as basil, sage or cilantro, to have a ready supply of fresh herbs, while others use container gardens to supply fresh salad greens or tomatoes and other edibles. A favorite of many young gardeners: the “pizza garden,” stocked with basil, oregano, tomatoes and bell pepper. The possibilities are endless!

Regardless of the “thriller, spiller, filler” you choose, set yourself up for success by choosing plants that:
■  Are zone appropriate (Southwestern Virginia is USDA Zone 7)
■  Have sun requirements that match your site (full sun, partial sun, or shade)
■  Have similar water requirements
■  Are draught hardy (they will tolerate some drying out in excessive summer heat)
■  Are compact, dwarf, or “patio” varieties when available.

gardening2cContainer Garden Care
Once your container garden is set up, do all you can to preserve its beauty, which can be more challenging in waterfront locations. Because the sun’s rays are magnified by the surrounding water, your number-one priority is making sure your plants get enough water. When possible, water in the morning to help your plants get through the heat of the day. Avoid, as much as possible, watering the foliage; use a hose or watering can that enables you to deliver the water directly to the soil. Water on foliage usually evaporates before the plant can even use it. Also, foliage that stays wet because of too much watering, too much rain, or being packed too densely without enough air circulation, is asking for fungus or rot to set in. For most plants, simply keep the water coming until you start to see runoff from the drainage hole, indicating that your container is saturated. Most plants in a lakeside setting, especially those in full sun, will need water every day, or every other day. If you plan to be away, make arrangements for someone to care for your plants, or consider “self-watering” containers (dual-chambered containers with an added reservoir for water), drip irrigation systems, or other watering “systems” such as “The Plant Nanny” or other self-watering probes that connect to a water source. A thick layer of mulch around the base of your plants will also help them retain moisture.

gardening2dThough sufficient water is by far the most important factor in the success of your container garden, there are other things you can do to help your plants stay vigorous and vibrant:
■  Feed them. Use a good liquid fertilizer twice a month.
■  Give them support. Larger plants, or ones with upward growth (your “thriller”), will often need the support of a trellis or stake as they grow.
■  Deadhead often. Remove spent blooms, or pinch back leggy branches. This encourages growth and more abundant flowering.
■  Be vigilant watching for insect infestation or fungus, and treat early.
Skip the tilling and weeding, and enjoy a beautifully contained garden right at your doorstep. Container gardening is a fun and relatively carefree way to enjoy a little extra color in your lakeside paradise.