For such sweet-looking things, hanging baskets can be demanding divas.
Restricted to small pots and hung in the drying air, their plants often require far more attention to maintain their looks than flowers planted in the ground.
But Pete Kern and Pamela Crawford believe gorgeous baskets are within anyone’s reach, if you start with smart planting.
Both have track records to stand on. Kern’s family business, Kern’s Florist and Greenhouse in Springfield Township, creates the eye-catching baskets that line Canton Road in Akron’s Ellet area as well as baskets that dot downtown Akron. Crawford is a noted container gardening expert from Canton, Ga., who has written a series of books on the subject and designed planters for the garden supplier Kinsman Co.
We asked Kern and Crawford for their best tips on creating hanging baskets. Here’s what we learned.
Bigger is better
Crawford insists she developed her planting methods by learning from her many mistakes, and one of the earliest of those was using baskets that were too small.
For one thing, small baskets don’t hold enough water, she said. For another, they lack room for the roots to grow large, so the plants can’t live as long. Flowers in small baskets will peter out before the growing season ends, she said.
The smallest basket in the line she designed for Kinsman is 14 inches in diameter.
Keep in mind, however, that a larger basket can be heavy when it’s filled with plants and well-watered soil. Consider whether you’re going to have to lift the basket to care for it, and whether the spot where it will hang can handle the load.
Whatever basket you choose, make sure it has a drainage hole. Some also have attached saucers to catch overflow.
Choose the right plants
Your basket will be only as beautiful as the plants you choose. There’s much to consider — bloom color, foliage color, texture, growth habit and the plants’ mature size, among other factors.
Kern and Crawford suggested starting with the most basic question: How much sun will the basket get?
Plant tags tell you whether a plant prefers full sun (more than six hours of sunlight a day), part sun or part shade (three to six hours) or full shade (less than three hours). Narrow the field by considering only plants that meet the sun requirement of the basket’s site.
Luckily for gardeners, growers have developed many plants that tolerate both sun and shade, Crawford noted. That’s especially helpful in a situation such as a west-facing porch, where the basket is shaded most of the day but blasted by hot sun in the late afternoon.
Next comes the task of choosing plants that create a pleasing arrangement, and that takes a bit of artistic sense.
Crawford said she starts by choosing a taller plant to go in the center of the basket — “something that completely dazzles me,” she said — and then looks for two or three more types of plants to surround that centerpiece. She holds the plants against one another to see how they look together, just as she would hold a throw pillow against her couch fabric to make sure the colors and textures work.
Plant size matters, too. Read the plant tags to determine how big each one will get. Kern likes creating baskets from plants that all get about the same height, while Crawford is careful to choose plants that don’t dwarf the centerpiece plant.
Consider side planting
You can give your hanging baskets a full, rounded look through side planting, which is inserting plants horizontally into holes in the basket’s sides. It’s easiest to do that with a wire basket lined with a material such as coir or sphagnum moss.
Not all flowers tolerate side-planting well, however. Their roots are subjected to more water than top-planted flowers, Crawford said. In her tests, she’s had the best success with wax and dragon wing begonias, coleus, creeping Jenny, impatiens, ivy, lamium, variegated ivy, trailing torenia and scaevola.
Take the easy route
Does all that plant-choice information sound like too much effort? Then just copy the pros’ designs.
Container gardening books often suggest plant combinations for hanging baskets. So do gardening websites, which you can find by Googling “hanging basket plant combinations.”
Crawford’s book Easy Container Gardens simplifies the selection process even more by identifying what she calls blue- and red-ribbon plants. Blue-ribbon plants require no upkeep other than watering, when planted according to her instructions, she said. Red-ribbon plants take a little more care, but they’re still excellent performers.
The book is available from the Akron-Summit County Public Library, along with her Instant Container Gardens and Easy Container Combos: Vegetables & Flowers. Her books can also be found in some bookstores or ordered online.
Kern said a 10-inch-diameter basket — usually the smallest size you’ll find in a garden center — needs at least three or four plants. Bigger baskets can hold more plants, he said.
Crawford advocates using plenty. The 14-inch basket she designed for Kinsman, for example, holds 17 plants — one centerpiece plant surrounded by eight smaller plants, with another eight planted horizontally in the sides. Her biggest basket, at 20 inches, holds a whopping 38 plants.
Crawford also prefers to start with larger plants than the ones that come in flats, so her baskets fill out faster. She likes plants with 3-inch root balls, which often come in packs of six to nine plants. They’re big enough to create a show right from the start but cheaper than plants sold individually in 4½-inch pots, she said.
A good-quality soilless planting mix is best for hanging baskets, Kern and Crawford said. Soilless mixes drain better than soil, a critical feature for containers.
You can buy mixes that contain slow-release fertilizer, or you can add some when you plant — a step both Crawford and Kern recommend. Water-absorbing crystals can also be added to help keep plants from drying out.
Plant so the planting mix comes to about 1 inch below the top of the container, which leaves enough room to add water. Kern recommended moistening the planting mix before you fill the basket, so is won’t settle too much when the basket is watered.
Then hang and enjoy. Your plants will take a little time to fill out, but with proper care, they should continue to brighten your landscape till fall.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.