Hampton Gardener: Hanging Baskets

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At one time or another every gardener tries his or her hand at hanging baskets. There seems to be a nearly endless variety of materials that these aerial planters can be made of, and these days an endless variety of plants that are put in them.Choices are good. Creativity is good. But there are challenges to plants hanging from tree limbs, eves of houses, building overhangs, street lamps, light posts and ceilings.

It wasn’t that long ago that our choices of the materials that hanging baskets were made of and the plants that were put in them were very limited. Until about 20 years ago these baskets were either weaves of sheet moss and wire forms or molded plastics. Creative specialty gardeners like those growing orchids also made baskets out of wooden slats to accommodate the orchid roots that needed no soil, just anchoring material like bark or moss.

As simple as these hanging baskets were, so were the plants that went in them. If you went to a garden center in 1985 you’d find hanging baskets filled with Swedish ivy, wandering Jew, spider plants, grape ivy, baby’s tears or some type of philodendron. Now you rarely see any of those. In the summer months there were hanging or cascading geraniums, fuchsias, petunias and maybe some lantana and coleus.

Go into a garden center today and you’ll find 15 to 30 kinds of plant materials in the hanging baskets, as well as mixed baskets. Most are newly developed hybrids of what we once called “garden annuals” that all have tropical origins so they are short-lived but very robust and incredibly colorful. And while you can still find ’70s baskets of Boston ferns, it’s getting harder and harder to find the old standbys like the grape ivies and the others noted above.

So along with these new plant materials that we’re finding in hanging baskets come new challenges as well as the old ones. You won’t have to worry about mealy bugs on your grape ivy but you’ll have to deal with spider mites and aphids and even the occasional caterpillar or beetle.

But the real challenge with hanging baskets in the summer is keeping them cool and hydrated. Up in the air without any soil to insulate the roots from the sun, the pots can dry incredibly fast and in one missed watering you can have a baked and crisped basket instead of a lush hanging garden.

Hanging baskets usually come in sizes ranging from 8 inches up to 24 inches with the larger ones usually being made of wire-caged mosses or another fiber product. The fiber liners are available premade or on rolls and sold by the foot. Plastic pots can be twice worrying, as on hot and dry days they can dry very quickly, and on warm and humid days as we’re likely to get later in the summer, a basket can get swamped and the contents can actually rot.

And while you may be tempted to buy full and lush baskets in late May or early June, you many want to consider getting smaller baskets of the same plant material, then bumping them up to larger baskets later in the summer. Think about what’s going to happen to that lush basket you bought in June as it fills the pot with roots by mid-July. You can easily be watering that basket several times a day just to keep up in four to six weeks.

But just as important as watering, you have to consider light. If a basket isn’t regularly turned, the plants in it will all grow towards the light. The basket becomes lopsided and unstable as well as unattractive. Consider turning your hanging plants at least once a week to avoid this. You can also keep your plants in check with some regular nipping and pruning to maintain the shape and form.

Also know the plants that your dealing with. Some will tolerate dry soil better than others and some will tolerate sun and shade differently. At this point fuchsias come to mind. These can be absolutely beautiful plants with magnificent flowers, but when it gets hot they need to be moved to a more shaded exposure, and they can be very finicky and require a talented green thumb to make it through the summer in great shape.

These basketed plants need to be fed also. The newer varieties are very hungry and should be given a diluted feeding on a weekly basis. Try not to get fertilizer on the foliage and if you can work an organic liquid fertilizer into your watering schedule this will work best. Straight chemical fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro can burn foliage as well as roots.

To control any insect problems simply give your baskets a weekly spray with a very fine but forceful hose mister or spray nozzle. This can dislodge mites and aphids when done regularly, but if any insects get out of control your second line of defense may be oils and soaps … but again, never apply these on sunny hot days.

Most of the newer plant varieties are bred so the plants will flower continuously all summer without the need for deadheading or pinching. But when in doubt read the label that came with the hanging basket, and if there isn’t one ask why. Care tags should come with most plants these days.

Those looking to get creative can find hanging baskets made of anything from plastic to metal and wood. Most garden centers also sell the same plants that you’ll see in the baskets as cell packs or in small pots, so don’t be afraid to design your own and experiment. Try to work with 10- or 12-inch plastic baskets to start. The ones with wire hangers are much stronger than those with plastic hangers.

When choosing the plants for your creative hanging baskets be careful to make sure that the plants you are using are compatible. Try to choose pendulous varieties, although some plants, like coleus, which normally grow upright, if allowed to slightly wilt once or twice will develop a hanging habit. Mixing is fine so long as one plant doesn’t dominate the other in growth habit, crowding the other out.

Here are a couple of ideas for two hanging baskets that will challenge your plant shopping prowess and design creativity. However, both of these will make outstanding displays. If you can’t find the exact variety noted, feel free to substitute so long as the colors remain similar.

If you want to try your luck at a yellow-themed basket try the combination of Tradescantia fluminensis “Variegata.” Oxalis lobata, Lysimachia nummularia and Cosmos “Sunny Gold” or equivalents, all in a 16-inch or larger, lined wire basket. This combination will grow in bright shade and needs moist conditions.

For a sunny spot try one I call Vibrant Verbena. You can use the same size basket and liner, but for plant material try Polygonum “Victory Carpet,” Verbena “Defiance,” Phlox drummondi in a red color and English Ivy (Hedera Helix) “Ivalace.”

In each of these baskets, use four to five of each plant noted, and when you can’t find the variety I’ve noted, search for a substitute. It may take some homework, but you’ll have the most outstanding hanging baskets on the block.

Come fall, if you want to take a drive and see some of the most spectacular hanging basket displays and designs, take a trip down to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. From late October into November, they have their chrysanthemum festival and it includes hanging baskets of mums that you never dreamed were possible. Keep growing.

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