October 14, 2013

Twilight Time

In May, more than a hundred
varieties of annuals awaited containers.

Double-click on any image to see
the slideshow at full-screen size.
From the middle of May through the end of August they are the ambulatory roving ambassadors of the garden.  Our containers filled with mixed annuals line the driveway, get massed and un-massed depending upon what is in bloom, fill in holes in beds where perennials have passed, and bring bright splashes of color to our deck where only containers can thrive.
At the height of the season, a
grouping of more than a dozen
containers are massed
The containers are inexpensive, single-season experiments for plants trying out for a permanent place in the garden scheme.  This year we welcomed back coleus ‘Big Red Judy’ for a triumphant return while deciding that a lobelia Laguna Sky Blue bloomed and passed far too quickly to be put on the ‘repeat’ list.  We discovered Kangaroo Paw (anigozanthos) and it immediately earned a gold star for its bloom-till-it-hurts attitude while fragrant nemesia (nemesia aromatic) became a staple in half a dozen containers.
More than a hundred different cultivars of annuals went into the creation of roughly thirty large container gardens.  Another twenty containers have fixed specimens – a loropetalum, a cape plumbago, a crape myrtle and an acuba, for example – that we overwinter in the garage because the shrubs (some now seven or eight years old) are not hardy to zones 5 or 6.  Our water garden plants, too, are overwintered; trimmed severely and placed in a bank of basement windows where they will hang on for seven long months.
By the end of September, the
annuals are fairly well shot
But come the beginning of September, the annuals are spent.  They have spent the summer on steroids; continuing doses of plant food to force blooms and heavy trimming to encourage branching.  By the middle of September, the sun no longer climbs directly overhead and, after the autumnal equinox, daylight shrinks at an alarming rate.
In each of the past five or six years, a September frost has provided a final answer to the question of ‘when should we take apart the containers’.  This year, while temperatures dipped into the upper thirties several times and frost nipped at our vegetable garden, our containers emerged in the morning unscathed.
Ballast that made pots lighter
is removed and cleaned for
use next year
Today was the day we chose to bring the container season to a close.  In a several-hours-long marathon, I placed containers in a cart and brought them, assembly fine fashion, to our ‘potting’ area.  There, Betty ruthlessly yanked out entire plants or broke off tops.  Depending on the size of the pot, either she or I dumped the pot into one of our transplant beds where she methodically tore apart roots, salvaged ‘ballast’ material for reuse next year, and spread the spent potting mix over the bed’s base of topsoil, where I then dug the two planting mediums together.  By next spring, the bed will feature well-aerated soil enriched with peat and vermiculite.
Containers await cleaning
Tomorrow, we begin the second part of the process: cleaning the containers with a mild solution of bleach to ensure that no insects overwinter with the pots that will hibernate in the basement until next May. Those that are destined for the garage will be inspected for both tiny hitchhikers and insufficient room for root growth.  By the end of the week, only a handful of the 50+ containers that were in the garden at the peak of the season will remain on view.

This container will
stay in place for the winter
Two of those will be a pair of cast iron urns that, at present, contain a vigorous coleus ‘Alabama Sunrise’, perennial strawberry (with fruit), and a calibrochoa ‘Lemon Slice’ that has been in continuous bloom since the second week of May.  When that hard frost hits, the coleus and calibrochoa will be taken out and evergreens will take their place.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is.  But the time elapsed in taking down this part of the garden is a fraction of the weeks that are spent finding and assembling the right plants each year that make this a special part of our garden. 

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