Hanging flower baskets

Lucian Perkins/Washington Post Herbal basket this one of seven varieties of thyme for sun or partial shade, including lemon thyme, coconut thyme, mother of thyme and oregano thyme. In the fall, we will move these hardy plants to a container or to the herb garden. Basket, $8.95; moss, $7.44; thyme, $20.93. Total, $37.32.

Lucian Perkins/Washington Post Herbal basket this one of seven varieties of thyme for sun or partial shade, including lemon thyme, coconut thyme, mother of thyme and oregano thyme. In the fall, we will move these hardy plants to a container or to the herb garden. Basket, $8.95; moss, $7.44; thyme, $20.93. Total, $37.32.

The hanging basket, luxuriant with bloom, seems such an appealing addition to any outdoor space. Simple, contained, easy.

Think again.

Far from being foolproof, the hanging basket is about the hardest garden element to sustain in a hot climate. "I tell people to enjoy ours and forget about doing it themselves," said Janet Draper, a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Institution, whose baskets are found in the gardens around the Castle and the Arts and Industries Building in Washington.

The main problem is that baskets dry out so quickly they need watering once a day, maybe twice a day on the hottest days. This makes them ill suited to the casual gardener or, heaven forbid, the person anticipating a vacation this summer.

No matter how small, manageable and pretty a basket appears at the garden center, you're taking home a kitten. Cute but frail. The problem: lots of roots, not enough soil and evaporation on all sides. Plants that are neglected soon wilt, and once the roots dry out the plants quickly decline.

But don't take our word for it. Listen to Peter Dickens, the guy behind the eye-catching baskets of petunias along Georgetown's main streets. Dickens runs Washington Landscapes, whose employees pay a visit every morning, seven days a week, with a water truck to soak the baskets.

"It's a tremendous amount of work," Dickens said. "It's a tremendous responsibility."

We mention this, dear reader, not to discourage you from buying and enjoying a hanging basket, but to let you know what you are getting yourself into. Be careful, too, about the varieties of plants you choose. Two popular hanging basket plants - fuchsias and tuberous begonias - fair poorly in hot, humid regions. They need moisture, but the excessive soil temperatures promote rotting.

If you want a fuchsia, a variety named Gartenmeister does better in hot areas, but its flower is long and tubular, not the classic ornate, bicolor fuchsia bloom. And for begonia fans, bedding begonias are tough enough for baskets. More elegantly, a large-leafed begonia called Dragon Wing works well in partial shade.

Consider the light conditions for your basket. Plants that require full sun to flower best will take partial shade with a minimal reduction in flowering. These include improved petunia hybrids as well as geraniums, lantanas, salvias, calibrachoas and sun coleus. But plants that prefer shadier conditions will do miserably in a site of exposed afternoon sunlight. These include impatiens, shade coleus, caladiums and bacopa.

In a hot, sunny site, consider one of the several ornamental pepper varieties now available, said Wookun Kim, a horticulturist at the U.S. Botanic Garden. The fruits go through various stages of coloration, from pale yellow to deep red, giving the effect of multiple blooms.

Whatever you pick, keep your watering wand handy. Dickens applies some moisture-retaining gels to the soil in his baskets, but you can use only so much - the roots need a growing medium.

And if you plan to go away, find a friend or neighbor to water the basket. "That's what I do," Kim said.

Making a hanging basket

Step 1 - Wear rubber gloves before handling sphagnum moss, which has been linked to a fungal disease of the skin called sporotrichosis. Take a bale of moss and soak it in hot water. Once it is saturated, squeeze out a clump and begin to fill the inside of the wire basket. Build up the moss. As you work upward, press from both sides to create the shell. Some people use fishing line to form strands on the outside of the basket to keep the moss in place.

Step 2 - Fill the basket with a potting soil. Don't use garden soil or topsoil. A commercially prepared product is ideal. We used one called Pro-Mix.

Step 3 - Place three to five plants, evenly spaced, in the top. Poke holes through the moss in the sides to insert the lower plants. Small plants in 3 1/2-inch pots or smaller are ideal for the lower plantings to minimize root disruption. Water and keep in the shade for a few days to help the plants overcome transplant shock. Baskets can be held temporarily by sitting them on pots as stands.

A primer on hanging baskets

Choosing a type

Hanging baskets come in three common forms: in plastic pots, in a wire basket with coconut fiber liner, or in a wire basket with a shell of sphagnum peat moss. The last type of container can be bought already made, or you can make one yourself.

Sphagnum is harvested from peat bogs and, like a sponge, absorbs many times its weight in water. Gardeners also like it because it allows plant roots to breathe. Sphagnum is fussy to work with but allows young plants to be placed through the wall of the container itself - something impossible with the plastic versions and difficult with the fiber type. The bottom plants will fill out, hiding the sphagnum. Your only hope of masking an elevated plastic pot is to use cascading plants such as petunias, calibrachoas, scaevola, trailing vinca or Swedish ivy.

Pots more than 14 inches in diameter are heavy and cumbersome to manipulate.

Watering and feeding

Hanging baskets should be watered daily. A 48-inch wand will allow access to baskets suspended above head height.

Plants in baskets are heavy feeders. Feed weekly with a soluble, all-purpose fertilizer at the recommended rate.


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