A flower planter or hanging basket bought ready-made at a nursery: lush with showy, vibrant blooms, providing an instant splash for your porch, stoop or deck.
Your DIY flower container: sparse-looking for weeks, with one plant that dies, and scraggly stems, small blooms or yellowing leaves as the season goes on.
Still, many gardeners keep trying.
“The benefits of doing it yourself would be choosing your own color scheme, choosing plants that are going to work best for your area, and getting to see it grow in,” says Jamie Gulley of Gulley Greenhouse in Fort Collins, Colorado.
So how DO you get the look of those perfect, professionally designed planters that you’ve envied at the garden center or on someone else’s front steps?
Some tips from the experts:
Stick your fingertip in the soil – yes, really
Gulley relies on this tried-and-true method of testing the dampness of potting mixture about an inch below the surface.
At the height of summer, expect to water containers daily, or even twice a day if it’s dry and sunny. Water less frequently when the weather’s cooler. Consider buying a self-watering product or a basic drip-irrigation system, used commonly in hot climates where plants might not survive a missed watering.
Or try succulents – jade, hens and chicks, agave – that require less water.
Fertilizer encourages blooms and prevents leggy shoots. But too much of it can burn up plants. And applying liquid versions or organic options like chicken manure or compost every week or two can be difficult to maintain.
Too many people skip fertilizer or don’t use enough, says Gulley Greenhouse owner and head grower Jan Gulley, Jamie’s mother.
“It would be just like being in a prison and somebody just giving you water and no food,” she says.
Slow-dissolving pellets that feed plants for several months are a favorite, but poke holes in the soil to reach the roots, she says.
Fertilizer that comes in potting-mix bags runs out after a few months – or more quickly in high heat, when frequent watering leaches soil nutrients. Start applying additional fertilizer midsummer for spring-potted plants that use these mixtures.
Do a little research
Impulse buys of gorgeous plants are inevitable, but your arrangements will be stronger if you first find some images that inspire you, says horticulturist Noelle Johnson, who runs AZ Plant Lady landscape consulting in Chandler, Arizona.
“When it comes to pots, most people like to do that themselves,” she says. “That’s very personal.”
A nursery worker can look at the image (probably on your phone) and find those plants or ones with the same look or colors.
Some nurseries, including Gulley, offer guides on winning plant combinations by hue or growing condition. Simply pick up the suggested plants and pot them according to the diagrams.
Jan Gulley suggests limiting colors and plant varieties to two or three. If the planter’s too busy, the eye doesn’t know where to focus: “We call them circus pots,” she says.
Pick a planting strategy
One strategy is to pack the pot for a full look right away, removing plants later to avoid overcrowding, or pruning hard around July Fourth. For example, an inexpensive six-pack of pansies could supplement featured plants early in the season and be removed later.
“We want a planter to be beautiful immediately,” says Richard Hentschel, a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension in St. Charles. If you space plants with room to fill in, the arrangement “just looks weak. It doesn’t look like the store-bought version.”
Or you could be patient, planting with expansion space. Decorative rocks or attractive mulch can cover temporarily exposed dirt patches.
You might mimic the gardening industry’s planting strategy of using “thrillers, fillers and spillers,” Hentschel says. Use a tall plant, often a grass or other spikey shape, in the middle as a thriller. Softer, mid-height fillers surround it, and a trailing plant or vine spills out for drama.
For any strategy, pinch off or trim unsightly, dead flowers (“deadheading”). That encourages further blooming.