For such sweet-looking things, hanging baskets can be demanding divas.
Restricted to small pots and hung in the drying air, their plants often require far more attention to maintain their looks than flowers planted in the ground.
But Pete Kern and Pamela Crawford believe gorgeous baskets are within anyone’s reach, if you start with smart planting.
Kern’s Florist and Greenhouse in Springfield Township, Ohio, creates eye-catching baskets. Crawford is a noted container gardening expert from Canton, Ga., who has written a series of books on the subject and designed planters for the garden supplier Kinsman Co.
We asked Kern and Crawford for their best tips on creating hanging baskets. Here’s what we learned.
BIGGER IS BETTER
Crawford insists she developed her planting methods by learning from her many mistakes, and one of the earliest of those was using baskets that were too small.
For one thing, small baskets don’t hold enough water, she said. For another, they lack room for the roots to grow large, so the plants can’t live as long. Flowers in small baskets will peter out before the growing season ends, she said.
The smallest basket in the line she designed for Kinsman is 14 inches in diameter.
Keep in mind, however, that a larger basket can be heavy when it’s filled with plants and well-watered soil. Consider whether you’re going to have to lift the basket to care for it, and whether the spot where it will hang can handle the load.
Whatever basket you choose, make sure it has a drainage hole. Some also have attached saucers to catch overflow.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLANTS
Your basket will be only as beautiful as the plants you choose. There’s much to consider — bloom color, foliage color, texture, growth habit and the plants’ mature size, among other factors.
Kern and Crawford suggested starting with the most basic question: How much sun will the basket get?
Plant tags tell you whether a plant prefers full sun (more than six hours of sunlight a day), part sun or part shade (three to six hours) or full shade (less than three hours). Narrow the field by considering only plants that meet the sun requirement of the basket’s site.
Luckily for gardeners, growers have developed many plants that tolerate both sun and shade, Crawford noted. That’s especially helpful in a situation such as a west-facing porch, where the basket is shaded most of the day but blasted by hot sun in the late afternoon.
Next comes the task of choosing plants that create a pleasing arrangement, and that takes a bit of artistic sense.
Crawford said she starts by choosing a taller plant to go in the center of the basket — “something that completely dazzles me,” she said — and then looks for two or three more types of plants to surround that centerpiece. She holds the plants against one another to see how they look together, just as she would hold a throw pillow against her couch fabric to make sure the colors and textures work.
Plant size matters, too. Read the plant tags to determine how big each one will get. Kern likes creating baskets from plants that all get about the same height, while Crawford is careful to choose plants that don’t dwarf the centerpiece plant.
CONSIDER SIDE PLANTING
You can give your hanging baskets a full, rounded look through side planting, which is inserting plants horizontally into holes in the basket’s sides. It’s easiest to do that with a wire basket lined with a material such as coir or sphagnum moss.
Not all flowers tolerate side-planting well, however. Their roots are subjected to more water than top-planted flowers, Crawford said. In her tests, she’s had the best success with wax and dragon wing begonias, coleus, creeping Jenny, impatiens, ivy, lamium, variegated ivy, trailing torenia and scaevola.
TAKE THE EASY ROUTE
Does all that plant-choice information sound like too much effort? Then just copy the pros’ designs.
Container gardening books often suggest plant combinations for hanging baskets. So do gardening websites, which you can find by Googling “hanging basket plant combinations.”
Crawford’s book, “Easy Container Gardens” simplifies the selection process even more by identifying what she calls blue- and red-ribbon plants. Blue-ribbon plants require no upkeep other than watering, when planted according to her instructions, she said. Red-ribbon plants take a little more care, but they’re still excellent performers.
Her books can also be found in some libraries, bookstores or ordered online.
Kern said a 10-inch-diameter basket — usually the smallest size you’ll find in a garden center — needs at least three or four plants. Bigger baskets can hold more plants, he said.
Crawford advocates using plenty. The 14-inch basket she designed for Kinsman, for example, holds 17 plants — one centerpiece plant surrounded by eight smaller plants, with another eight planted horizontally in the sides. Her biggest basket, at 20 inches, holds a whopping 38 plants.
Crawford also prefers to start with larger plants than the ones that come in flats, so her baskets fill out faster. She likes plants with 3-inch root balls, which often come in packs of six to nine plants. They’re big enough to create a show right from the start but cheaper than plants sold individually in 4½-inch pots, she said.
A good-quality soilless planting mix is best for hanging baskets, Kern and Crawford said. Soilless mixes drain better than soil, a critical feature for containers.
You can buy mixes that contain slow-release fertilizer, or you can add some when you plant — a step both Crawford and Kern recommend. Water-absorbing crystals can also be added to help keep plants from drying out.
Plant so the planting mix comes to about 1 inch below the top of the container, which leaves enough room to add water. Kern recommended moistening the planting mix before you fill the basket, so is won’t settle too much when the basket is watered.
Then hang and enjoy. Your plants will take a little time to fill out, but with proper care, they should continue to brighten your landscape till fall.
HOW TO KEEP HANGING BASKETS LOOKING GOOD
Want to keep your hanging baskets looking great all season? Pete Kern and Pamela Crawford offer these tips:
• Water correctly. Overwatering is just killing a plant with kindness. Plants need water, but their roots also need oxygen. They can’t get it when they’re waterlogged.
Both Kern and Crawford say you should make sure the soil is somewhat dry before you add water. Crawford does it by sticking her finger into the soil. Kern judges by feeling the weight of the pot.
Water thoroughly, until the water runs out the bottom of the container. Kern recommended using a container such as a milk jug or a hose without a spray attachment, so you water just the soil, not the leaves. Wet leaves invite sun damage and disease.
It’s best to water in the morning, when it’s still cool, he said.
When heavy rains are forecast for four days or more, he recommended moving the plants to a sheltered spot.
• Water enough. Overwatering is a bad thing, but so is underwatering. Kern said you should never let your plants dry out to the point they wilt. If you do, they’ll take weeks to rebound.
That might mean watering more than once a day during hot spells, particularly if the basket is small or in a windy or sunny spot.
If water runs right out the bottom of the pot just seconds after you start to water, it’s a sign the soil is too dry, Kern said. Dried-out soil shrinks, creating a gap between the soil and the container. Water just flows down through that gap and out of the pot instead of reaching the plant roots.
Should that happen, Kern recommended watering the basket repeatedly until the soil has expanded and the basket becomes heavy.
• Fertilize. Kern is a big believer in frequent fertilization for hanging baskets. Besides adding slow-release fertilizer to the soil when he plants, he also recommends supplementing with a liquid fertilizer.
Early in the season when the plants are young, fertilize weekly, he said. Once the roots fill the pot, around July or August, he recommends stepping up to two or three fertilizations a week.
Generally, he likes an all-purpose fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro, although he suggested switching to a fertilizer with more phosphorus if the plants aren’t blooming well. Don’t overdo, though, or you can burn the plants, he said.
Crawford, on the other hand, thinks once is enough. She’s choosy about the slow-release fertilizer she uses at planting time, Dynamite Premium Fertilizer for flowers and vegetables. That particular product lasts nine months, she maintained, so there’s no need for additional feeding during that time.
• Rotate. Often hanging baskets are hung on a porch or other site where they’re exposed to sunlight on only one side. In that case, Crawford said it’s important to rotate the baskets for even growth.
She suggested hanging the baskets from swivel hooks, which you can buy at a hardware store.
• Deadhead if necessary. Most plants commonly used in hanging baskets don’t need deadheading, which means removing their spent flowers. But some plants, such as daisies and verbena, do. Deadhead those plants regularly to ensure they’ll keep blooming, Kern said.
• Pinch back. It can be hard to bring yourself to pinch back plants when they look good, but doing so will prevent those that need it from getting leggy.
Plants are just like hair, Crawford said. Just as you wouldn’t wait till your hair is shaggy and unmanageable before getting it trimmed, neither should you wait till your plants look straggly before pinching them back.
Kern said July 4 is a good target date for cutting plants back a couple of inches. Crawford is guided more by appearance. When plants get leggy or uneven, she trims off the unwanted portions with her fingers or pruning shears.