Blaine gardener reveals hanging flower basket secrets
Sue Sturgill is the city contractor who, among her other duties, tends the city’s 142 hanging flower baskets, known for their vigorous displays of color from May through October. They hang along Peace Portal Drive, go east on Martin Street for one block and into the street ends that face the bluff.
She works with George Kaas’s horticulture class at Blaine high school every spring in planting 60 baskets that hang along Third Street. The rest are filled with plants that come from two area wholesale nurseries, one of which, Van Wingerden Greenhouses at 8210 Portal Way, also sells to the public.
The baskets you see used in Blaine sell empty for about $15, and filled and ready to hang run about $70. “We call them Lynden Baskets,” said Van Wingerden’s retail manager Lynette Walters, “since that’s where they were first used.” She said that the 18-inch pots are made of heavy-duty plastic “because by the end of the season they can get quite heavy, especially when they’re wet.” Van Wingerden allows recycling the pots for next season’s use and discounts the price accordingly.
Both Sturgill and Walters said the basic idea is to put enough plants in the right part of the baskets with a good quality potting soil, using plenty of water and frequent feedings with the right fertilizer.
Not putting them out too early is another key, Sturgill said. “Mother’s Day is about right, because if they’re out too early the cold can stunt them, and they’ll never grow right.” Kaas agreed, saying that this spring with its April snowstorm should help remind gardeners to not get too eager on a nice but early spring day.
The baskets are planted beginning as early as January at Van Wingerden’s, which has 10 acres undercover, through mid-April in Blaine high school’s heated but outdoor greenhouse. They use a bulk potting soil but similar media is available in bags at any garden store. None of those interviewed add anything, such as peat moss.
Arrangement of the plants in the basket is also important. Upright plants like coleus, marigolds or geraniums go in the middle and trailing plants like varieties of verbena, snapdragons and petunias go on the outside. Some people leave spaces between their plants but both Sturgill and Walters say to fill up the pot. “You may think they need elbow room,” Walters said, “but plants don’t have elbows. They’re going to get root-bound anyway, so pack them in, root ball to root ball.” She added that planting a basket tightly and keeping it healthy is a good way to eliminate weeds
Sturgill and Walters both advocate mixing a slow release fertilizer into the soil such as 14-14-14 Osmocote. Bone meal in small amounts can also be beneficial.
Kaas said that he advocates gently loosening the root balls on the plants when first taken out of their small 3- or 4-inch pots, especially if they’ve been sitting on a shelf for a while and are bound up.
After planting, Sturgill said, she waters them thoroughly. “That means until the water is coming out the bottom of the pot in sheets,” she said, meaning that she takes several passes with a hose, filling the basket and then letting the water subside. “Try not to go over the sides, though, because that’s all wasted water, soil and fertilizer. But you do want to really soak them well the first time.”
Once up, Sturgill said that baskets should be watered at least daily. “You can feel it with your finger. That’s also why you see me around town with that long pole poking at the baskets to see how heavy they are. If they’re light then they need water. A hot sunny day can dry them out so much that when you finally do water them it just runs right off,” she said.
Another method is to run a drip irrigation system, which is how the city waters its baskets. Sturgill still has to climb her ladder to fertilize, though.
Walters said that slow release fertilizers are the best, and Sturgill added that if you use something like Miracle Grow it can be diluted by at least half or more from the directions on the box and fed more often to keep it constant. Walters agreed.
“It’s the fertilizer that gives you your color and vigor, but a constant low amount is better than a lot and then nothing.”
Sturgill said that one thing to watch for, and a good reason to not put baskets out too early, is mildew. “It will kill your plants if left untreated no matter what you do. It’s often caused by warm days and cool nights. The same condensation you see on your car is also on the plants,” she said. Walters said that mildew can be avoided by making sure your pots are in places with good air circulation.
When faced with disease or pests some gardeners use commercially available poisons, but Sturgill said that a better and more environmentally friendly way to combat mildew is to use a spray made up of two teaspoons of baking soda and a one-quarter teaspoon of dish soap per gallon of water. She controls aphids with a spray made of eight tablespoons of isopropyl alcohol per gallon of water.
The following is a list of plants suggested by Kaas, Walters and Sturgill:
• Upright container plants for the middle of the basket include geranium, salvia, fuschia, nicotera, cosmos, Lemon Jim marigolds, dusty miller, coleus, snapdragon and torenia.
• Trailing plants for the outer perimeter of the basket include lotus vine, trailing labeia, trailing snapdragon, unea major, varieties of biden, verbena, lobelia, licorice splash and petunia.
• Other recommended trailing plants include helichrysum, super bena hybrid in various colors, bacopa, nemesia and million bells.