Confessions of a Former Botanical Murderer

Shh, I have a secret.  I am totally not a gardener.  I have killed enough plants that a grainy black and white photo should be hanging on the wall at my local nursery.  Even though I don’t kill them like I used to, I still worry that I am going to be told the one year guarantee on shrubs and perennials does not actually apply to me.  This means if I can keep plants alive, then anyone can!

dead hawthorn
I didn’t kill this one, but I certainly have killed many in my day.

The previous owner of our first house had a green thumb.  I did not.  I knew that I was not a plant person and I hoped the plants that she had planted were hardy.  Lucky for them, they were.  After I had a handle on the inside of the house, my mother convinced me to try to do a little gardening.  I was not thrilled about the idea but I bought a bunch of azaleas and pine straw and started digging holes.  This started a cycle of buying, planting, digging up the corpses of the poor little dears, and repeat . . . for 5 years.  Have I mentioned that I am stubborn?  Occasionally, I would murder a hawthorn bush, but mostly the azaleas were my victim of choice (this is when the people who actually garden are laughing because Hawthorne are not shade plants).  This is particularly amusing to me since I don’t actually care for azaleas.  I had just heard that azaleas do well in shade and all I knew was that I had a ton of shade.

One year, when my mother was visiting, she suggested I try a container garden or two on the front porch.  I figured as long as they weren’t covered up, then they at least had a chance of getting rain and living.  We went to Pikes and picked out a mix of plants.  Mom helped me pick out a mix of plants including my all time favorite annual, the Livingstone daisy (the particular container garden I was making was for the sun).  I am pretty sure if it wasn’t for the Livingstone daisy, I would still be killing azaleas.  About half of the plants in that container died, but that Livingstone daisy just kept thriving.  It bloomed, trailed, and just looked stunning all summer long!  I was hooked.

livingstone daisy
This is the Livingstone Daisy.  These little pink flowers open in the day and close at night.

The next year, I went looking for the Livingstone daisy and couldn’t find it.  I asked around and it was nowhere to be found.  However, a funny thing happened when I couldn’t find my beloved plant – I started reading plant tags.  I also found out about on-line nurseries.  This is when I figured out that there was a huge world of shade plants that were not azaleas.  I also learned there was a world of passionate gardeners on-line that were dying to share their knowledge with the plant killers of the world.  It ended up that the very established trees were leaching everything out of the soil.  I learned the magic of testing soil as well as making your own mix of soil.  This all lead to me planting perennials that were not azaleas, that I absolutely loved, and ones that actually lived!

I started with hosta, purple oxalis, and primrose.  That first year, my oldest was just talking and my dear, sweet, darling husband taught her to walk up to me, point at me, and then say “murderer.”  Years later, if I kill a plant, she still calls me “murderer,” because the stubborn apple didn’t fall far from the stubborn tree.  By the time we moved, people in the neighborhood were asking me gardening questions and asking for some of my hosta divisions.  I am proud to say that our neighbors even replaced the plastic flowers that they had in their yard with some of my hosta.

So, here is my advice if you like plants, want to boost your confidence, and prove to yourself that you are responsible enough to keep a plant alive:  try a container garden with some colorful annuals.  Container gardens are a little easier to control.  There are a few reasons I think container gardens are a good starting place:

  1.  You have control.  When I started, I used Miracle Grow Moisture Control Potting Mix.  It is not organic, but it does make things easy.  It protects from over watering and under watering as well as feeding the plants for 6 months (I will post my current mix that I use below as well).
  2. They are cost-effective.  You can get a mix of plants and a pot for very little money.  Pinterest will tell you that everything is a planter, so that you don’t even need a pot.  I have better luck though with some drainage holes at the bottom of the container.  If you decide to make your own, I would make sure to drill some holes in the bottom if the container has a solid bottom.
  3. You can easily weed them.  Since you did the planting, you know what belongs and what doesn’t.  If you didn’t put it in there, pull it out.  With my new house I have to let weeds grow for a little bit until I can recognize them just to make sure I don’t accidentally pull up a good plant).
  4. You can get variety.  This means you can mix colors, heights, and textures for optimal visual interest.  It also increases your odds that something will live.  Sometimes you get a bad plant or it doesn’t like where you put it.  With variety, something is going to be happy.
  5. Annuals are supposed to die!  You don’t have to feel guilty at all when they die.  They are supposed to be pretty and then go away.  If you keep them alive for a season or part of a season, then you were successful.  I like to think of them as the best type of ex-boyfriend.  They are pretty, short-lived, and give you some fond memories.
front porch container garden
While eventually I will need some planters that are more in scale with the porch, just these little container gardens give some welcome color.

 

This year I was working on a Memorial Shade Garden (more information to come), so I went really simple with the container gardens.  I have 4 small ones by the front of the house with some colorful annuals.  If the annuals from the previous season are in good enough shape, I usually leave a few in there to take up space while the new ones are filling in.  For potting soil, I used a mix of equal parts Organic potting soil, Black Cow composted manure, sand, and leaf rot from our back yard (I use the same mix in the garden but sub out garden soil for potting soil).

container garden 1
I have two pots like this.

 

My only other container garden, of sorts, is my humming bird hanging basket.  If you have read the story of my house, then you know that we live in, my friend, Michelle’s childhood home.  Michelle’s mother, Cindy/Mimi,  loved plants and birds.  She had feeders everywhere.  Last summer when Michelle’s daughter, Sam, was having a hard time with the idea of the house changing, I decided the best way to help her feel comfortable was to ask for her for advice and have her help me with the changes.  Mimi had been feeding humming birds for so long that they would come up to the feeder even when people were sitting on the deck right by the feeder.  However, since I had moved in, the humming birds did not seem to be using the feeder, I asked Sam what I was doing wrong.  She suggested that I attach the feeder to the bottom of a hanging basket.  We went right to home depot and picked out a premade basket (because I was not gardening last year).  We had humming birds by the end of the day!

humming bird container garden
The humming birds feed from the flowers and the feeder.

This year, I kept one of the plants from last year’s basket that was still alive and added two different colors of Fushia.  I put the feeder out yesterday morning.  Apparently, Sam’s trick still works.  As I am typing this one little humming bird keeps flying to the feeder and then up to my office window to watch me write (I am so very glad I chose to move my desk over to the window).  He has done this 5 times in the last hour (Sadly, I am not a good enough photographer to catch this – but I will keep trying)!

fushia two types
I mixed different colors of Fushia

Here are some things I try to do when I put together a container garden:

  • I always add at least 1 plant that will spill over the side.
  • I try to find a tall grass to put in the back (there were not any in stock when I was at the nursery buying these plants).
  • I shoot for a few different colors in the container.  Sometimes I keep the mix of flowers in the various different containers consistent and others I just grab the plants that speak to me that day (this year was a grab what speaks to me year).
  • I try to find plants with a mix of textures.
  • I look for plants of different heights.  1 or two tall plants, a spiller, and a few medium ones work well.
  • Remember that the plants will grow.  It is OK to have a little space in your container.  When I post updates you will see how full they get.
container 2
Here I filled in the blank space in the container with a left over pansy from my winter containers. It won’t do well over the summer, but it gives the other plants a chance to fill in.  It also gives me a space to put in a tall grass if I find one!

It is early in the season, so these pots will fill in and grow nicely over the summer.  Check back and I will post some updated photos as the summer progresses.  If you are a current plant murder, there is hope!  I hope the tale of my reformation will encourage you to keep trying.  All it takes is one little success to start a love of gardening.  And if you don’t like gardening, do it for the humming birds.  Seriously, they bring joy with them when they come to visit!  Let me know if container gardens work for you.