Marianne Binetti

Container creativity

With spring’s arrival just weeks away — ignore that dripping rain — dig into creative ideas and think about “containering” your plants, but don’t contain your enthusiasm for container gardening with a twist.

I’ll speak on that subject at an event that aims to help you prep your garden for the season ahead. The Tacoma Home and Garden Show starts Thursday and continues through Sunday at the Tacoma Dome. After that is the big mama of local garden shows — the Northwest Flower and Garden show, Feb. 5-9 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

Ready to dig in? Consider these container gardening tips.

1 Put your trees and shrubs in large containers, then use them to add shade and privacy to a porch or patio or to accent a lackluster landscape.

Our mild climate means that Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, pieris, nandina and other shallow rooted trees and shrubs can be happy in pots for years and years — as long as you remember to water in the summer.

Growing Tip: Use a wooden or frost-proof pot at least 24 inches deep for shrubs and 36 inches deep for trees. Make sure there are drainage holes in every pot and add a layer of crumpled nursery six packs or empty plastic water bottles to the bottom of any large pot to keep the potting soil from clogging the drainage holes.

The secret ingredient I add to all large containers is a shovel full of compost. I work this into the top few inches of potting soil to help hold moisture and to add some active, living organisms to the otherwise sterile but quick-draining potting soil. My maple trees and small shrubs thrive in outdoor pots for seven to 10 years without the need for repotting or winter protection.

2 Get creative with the frosting for your potting soil. A mulch is any material that sits on top of the soil to keep down weeds, seal in moisture and insulate from weather extremes. Bark chips and compost are common mulches in garden beds but when you pot up a plant you can get creative with the top layer of soil.

Wine corks make a lightweight, inexpensive and insulating mulch especially around potted plants that need extra winter protection. (Tip: use a felt tip pen to write the name or date on your wine corks if the bottle of wine was used to celebrate a special event or given by a special guest.)

Polished rocks make excellent mulch on top of heat-loving sedums and succulents because they not only absorb heat but also keep the succulent foliage from rotting on the damp surface of the naked soil. Seashells as a mulch adds character to any potted plant as well as marbles, pine cones and for large containers, display a dazzling collection of blown glass balls.

3 Go small in a big way. Miniature gardens have had a big impact on container gardening. Nurseries now sell tiny benches, bridges and bird baths to accent the Lilliputian landscapes either with or without fairies.

Local nurseries also stock tiny, tidy conifers and other compact shrubs that are natural dwarfs. Group a collection of these minievergreens with a contrast of color and texture into one attractive container and you’ll have a low-maintenance, but high-impact container garden that will look great all year long.

Growing Tip for miniature gardens: Don’t overfertilize or overwater your potted garden of dwarf conifers. These plants grow very slowly (about 1/2 inch a year) so they don’t require much care. Poke your finger into the soil and water when the top 2 inches is perfectly dry.

A Winter Twist: While we all wait for spring to fill our containers with color you can add some punch to pots by poking cut branches of forsythia into the soil just before the buds of this early bloomer burst into bloom.

Add cut stems from any plant with colorful bark such as birch, coral bark maple or red twig dogwood for instant winter drama. Then there are the hellebores — hardworking, winter bloomers waiting for you at nurseries right now and begging to bloom in your pots for many winters to come.