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Container planting is an easy way to start Fairbanks garden

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Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011 12:58 am | Updated: 1:01 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Every gardener I know is having the same ridiculous thoughts right now. You know what I mean, the little voices that say, “It reached 60 degrees today, it is fine to transplant my cabbage seedlings.” Or, “If I drape plastic over the row, it will be warm enough for my basil.” Nonsense. The ground is still too cold, so stop trying to convince yourself it is time to play in the garden. Concentrate, instead, on your containers.

It is the perfect time to be messing around with hanging baskets and the like, because once transplanting and direct seeding start in earnest, you won’t have as much time. Containers can be brought out on warm days right now, giving them a nice head start. I put mine on those garden wagons draped with clear plastic and drag them in and out each day.

I plant two kinds of containers — food and floral. The food containers are all five-gallon buckets I have scavenged over the years. I have one of carrots, since they take a long time to mature and I want to start eating some at the beginning of June. There are three buckets of container tomatoes and one of bush beans and bush peas. I also have a flat of mesclun, those cut and grow greens that come up quickly and will last through four or five shearings before I have to dump the contents and start a new one. (The roots are so small and close to the surface, they will thrive in a shallow box knocked together from scrap lumber.)

Finally, I have salad buckets, each populated with miniature chard, baby pak choi called Green Fortune, Sweetie Baby Romaine and one of those miniature heads of lettuce called Garden Babies. Since the roots can go deep instead of sideways, you can cram them closer to each other than you might in the garden.

I stagger starting those buckets, so that one comes to maturity every week starting about the first week of May. Each container provides about a week’s worth of salad greens, which are supplemented with bucket scallions, carrots and beans or peas.

As we finish a bucket, I mix in some fresh soil or compost and re-seed it with more of the same greens. That way six or seven revolving buckets of greens can take us from May into October; the buckets of scallions, tomatoes and beans/peas, are not replanted because they soon will be available in profusion from my garden plot.

This sounds much more complicated than it is, and I love that it lets me play in the dirt earlier than I can in the garden. It also saves us a huge amount on our summer food bill — even when I factor in what I have spent on seeds and mixing fresh potting soil into the over-wintered buckets.

My floral baskets are simple. I don’t care for pots with a lot of greenery, especially those long tendrils of leaves that hang out one side or another of so many nursery hanging baskets. I want a lot of color and I like cascading flowers, especially tuberous begonias and petunias (and now there are cascading pansies, so I am really in heaven).

The accepted formula is that the most eye-pleasing planters and baskets come from having “a thriller, a filler and a spiller.” The thriller is a centerpiece plant that really stands out; it is usually the tallest and most dramatic plant. A filler is something that billows up and almost embraces the thriller, hiding the lower branches and stems of the thriller. And the spiller is something that cascades and obscures the top edges of the pot.

No matter what sort of flower baskets you like, here are a few things to remember. Put plants of similar habits together; things will not go well if you put a sun lover and shade lover together, or a plant that loves water with one that does best in drier conditions. Also, remember to turn the containers so that the backs don’t get stringy from lack of light.

Container plants are very needy, depending on you for food and water and are much quicker than your garden to show the results of neglect. Forget the fact that your potting soil said it will feed your plants for three months. Those granulated fertilizers need a certain temperature to activate and even when they do, it is usually not sufficient. Find some fish fertilizer or a water-soluble fertilizer like 10-52-10 or 15-30-15; 20-20-20 will do in a pinch. I apply fish fertilizer, at half strength, every Saturday.

My baskets with Supertunias get a high nitrogen fertilizer twice a week, at a strength of one tablespoon per gallon of water. I did not discover this cure for dismally performing Supertunias, I read it in a newsletter from Plant Kingdom. Within a week of starting this new regimen with these flowers only, there was an immediate improvement in their appearance.

Watering needs change over the season. In the heat and during times of winds, the pots will need more water. And as the summer progresses and the root systems develop, more water will be needed. If you use terra cotta pots, you need to be especially careful because they are porous and water evaporates much more quickly.

Finally, if you are using pots that are much larger than what will be needed for the root systems of the flowers (this is often the case with those square pots that people have on either sides of their front doors), you can fill part of the pot with two liter pop bottles that have been scrunched up and the caps screwed back on to keep them in that formation. Do not, contrary to the advice given in a recent issue of Southern Living Container Gardening, use loose Styrofoam peanuts. They will migrate to the top of the container and, should you want to refresh and reuse the soil next year, it will be hellish to clean them out. Instead, seal them in gallon size baggies or doubled up plastic grocery bags.

See you in two weeks to talk about transplanting.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at

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