Lily’s Pots

Next week I will be giving a talk to 50 members of a local garden club.  I am happy to speak to any group free of charge, provided they come to me.  It is an easy matter for me to show pictures from my computer, or from a book in my library.  My closet is a collection of the garden gear I like the best.  I can put a container planting together, and discuss those issues which influence my choices.  I can talk about the history and care of great garden ornament. I am equally at home with ideas about how to repurpose apple crates, iron headboards, galvanized livestock watering troughs  and old fishing tackle boxes. I can speak to what anyone should expect from a landscape designer, or an irrigation contractor.  When I am in my element, I have lots of physical examples to choose from.  I am too old to take my shop talk on the road.

This garden club is leaving the topic up to me.  No doubt I will choose a topic that is timely.  Early spring perennials no garden should be without.  Spring container plantings.  Designing a landscape project for the spring.  But no matter the group, no matter the time of year, some questions I see over and over again.  I am not especially creative-how can my garden pots be more beautiful?  What is the secret of growing good container plantings?   Given this topic, I refer to Lily. I am quite sure I have written about her before. She likes me to plant every color and form under the sun-the more the better.  It matters not what I throw at her, her mature pots would make a grown gardener weep.  She has an unerring instinct about how to make plants grow.     

Everything thrives for her.  She could pick up a yucca plant that had been in the trash at the side of the road for weeks, and grow it on to prize winning proportions.  She has a soft spot for dramatic plantings-this I oblige.  But once I have planted, she is in charge.  She does take charge. 

She understands perfectly that annual plants form roots that are very shallow.  Unlike the deep rooted grasses, or baptisia you have tried to dig out and divide.  Everything that goes on in a container or ground planted annual garden happens in the first 8 to 10 inches below ground.  Annual plants only want to set seed before the end of the season, they will bloom and set seed at the expense of a substantial root system.  Only long term plants grow deep.    

This means that top 8 inches of soil needs to be loaded with organic material, and watered regularly.  There are those times when people ask me why my containers grow up lush;  I simply say I water regularly.  I water when the plants need water.  I don’t skip, or put off the watering to another time.  Regular watering is critical to success with plants.

I make sure that the soil that goes into containers is loaded with organic material.  This helps the soil to retain moisture evenly. Organic material leavens soil, so air is a substantial part of the underground party.  Notice I say soil.  I do not plant in peat based soil mixes. 

Peat based soil mixes are easy to carry out to the car, but they are sterile.  Prefessional growers plant in sterile soil mix.  They cannot afford disease to infect a crop upon which their livlihood depends.  But once a soilless mix dries out, it takes lots of work to rewet.  A cursory watering of a container planting in soiless mix means the surface gets a little moisture, and the roots are dry as dust.

If you are a hit, hit and miss waterer, plant in soil.  Potting soil.  A 40 pound bag of potting soil is not that much-get that high school kid at your local nursery to load your trunk with all of the bags that you need, and get help unloading those bags at home.  This effort will be worth it.  Real soil will buy you some time in August, when you are at a high school softball game rather than home watering your pots.  There is no harm mixing some peat, or composted manure into your soil-every effort you make to enrich your soil will pay off many times over. 

Lily’s pots always look well grown.  You see the hose on the ground in the foreground-she knows how to use it.  The time it takes for her to water, dead head, and clean up her pots is time she is willing to give.  Don’t have the time?  Hedge your bets.  Plant succulents.  Plant fewer pots.  Group the pots that need water close together.  Invest in a hose that is lightweight.  Have a good irrigation contractor install automatic irrigation in your pots.  (automatic irrigation really means you have a little more time before you do a personal check-automatic irrigation cannot replace you!)  


 There is not a gardener anywhere that does not enjoy the results of a beautiful garden.  A great pot.  A great moment.  My secrets are anything but monumental.  Let no container lack for water. 

It matters not whether the style and color of these containers appeal to you. If one boxwood in a pot satisfies your idea of beautiful, the rules are the same as what applies to Lily’s pots. Or the landscape at Longwood Gardens.  Or my garden.  Or your shade garden.  Or the roses at Janet’s.  Or the pots on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  What matters is that hand that gets put to seeing that the plants thrive.

My topic for the garden club next Monday?  You are able.  And since you are able, you should.  Plant it, Detroit.


  1. Yes, it’s the water that keeps the plants growing but it’s fertilizer that will give you an abundance of flowers. Plant it, water it, feed it, USA.

  2. I have always admired your lush containers! I like to know more about your fertilization schedule if you don’t mind sharing with your readers. I have no problem watering my pots but it is the fertilizer that I just can’t seem to get right. Do you fertilize every day, every x # of days, or once a week and with what?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sheila, I broadcast osmocote on the container soil surface like chicken feed-and then turn it into the soil before I plant. The three month formula does last 3 months-provided that temperatures are moderate. Osmocote is heat sensitive-so if it is really hot, the fertilizer osmoses out of that hard shell quickly. I rely on the color of the foliage to tell me if I need to add feed. In a super hot year, I may reapply the osmocote. Pale green leaves suggest a little feed might be in order. I liquid feed come late July, or late August-whenever it seems called for. I liquid feed my pots as follows. I make sure the soil is wet through and through, and then soak with feed. I avoid watering as long as I can afterwards-so they plants have the time to absorb the nutrients. Liquid feed on dry soil is not a good practice, although I know a certain gas station owner who just sprinkles liquid feed on the ground around his plants without dissolving it in water. His plants are amazingly robust and happy. Some plants don’t like too much feed-some like lots. Geraniums are heavy feeders-have at them. Coleus leaves will burn with too strong a liquid feed. Coleus I feed at 1/2 the recommended strength. Some people feed with every watering-but the dose has to be reduced. And the soil must be flused on occasion with plain water. A buildup of the soluble salts that are a byproduct of liquid feed can harm plants. Personally, I usually feed every 10 days. If you are growing cosmos, or verbena bonariensis-no feed. They like soil on the dry and barren side. Too much feed on cosmos will result in lots of foliage, and fewer flowers. Does any of this help?? Deborah

  3. I live very close to Longwood Gardens and have only been once. I must go very soon.
    I aspire to have pots like Lily but since I hardly ever water I only have myself to blame for the horrible condition they end up in after a few weeks. Maybe this will be the year I treat them better.
    I was wondering if you could do a post about shade trees that could be planted in full sun? My yard needs some shade trees but it is full sun back there.

    • Deborah Silver says

      MaryBeth, they call them shade trees as they provide shade from the sun. Any shade tree can be planted in full sun. The best thing to do is go to a good nursery in your area, and look at trees. Most shade trees grow quite large, so give them plenty of room to grow. Most plants like sun, some are just better than others at tolerating shade. Deborah

  4. It does help Debra. My problem is by the end of August, my plants just seem to go downhill. I need to be more diligent on watering, deadheading, and fertilizing. I can’t wait to start planting again!!

    • Deborah Silver says

      If I have a pot that seems like it is giving out in late August, I either replace a few things, cut it back and feed, or replant altogether. I hate not having pots the entire season! I can’t wait to plant either.

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