Tips for Tabletop Gardening
These shallow-container gardens dress up a patio and take full advantage of summer's heat.
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Summer is not the best time to plant new additions to the garden because plants have a really tough time adapting to extreme heat. And endless heat doesn't exactly create comfortable conditions for gardeners either. These compact little container gardens offer a cool alternative (figure A) to routine gardening.
"When things heat up at my place, I focus my efforts on a really fun form of container gardening," says master gardener Paul James. "I call it tabletop gardening, even though it doesn't necessarily involve a table." In tabletop gardening, you can plant different kinds of plants in shallow planters, which you can then use to dress up outdoor spaces such as picnic tables or the patio. Paul suggests that you stick to using plants grown in small containers (4 inches or less), but other than that, you can plant practically anything you want from plants that require shade to those that do best in full sun and just about everything in between (figure B).
Your choice of containers may vary tremendously as well. To get things started, Paul plants a few select goodies in a container, which is nothing more than a steel container framed in bamboo. "This originally served as a gift fruit basket, but the instant I saw it, I thought it'd make a great tabletop container."
To prepare the container for planting, Paul drills a few drainage holes in the bottom (figure C). Then he adds a bit of potting mix.
"The plants I've chosen are small tropicals, which I think will strengthen the Asian look and character of the container." The plants include a palm, a maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), and a Japanese bird's nest fern, (Asplenium nidus). Paul recommends planting odd-numbered groups of plants together in a triangular pattern. If the container is really shallow, don't hesitate to butterfly the root ball by pulling it gently apart and pushing it into the potting mix. "It looks really drastic, but the plants don't really mind it at all."
A word of warning: Plants growing in shallow containers need to be watered routinely, perhaps as often as twice a day during the warm summer months. Of course, mulch in the form of moss or some stones will go a long way in terms of retaining moisture. The amount of sun the container receives will greatly affect how much water it needs as well. For more information on the basic care, see container essentials.
In this case, the trio of tropicals will do fine with just a few hours of morning sun. Paul puts his tropical tabletop garden on a table in a shady spot. In another container, he creates a different miniature shade garden using a larger bird's nest fern as the centerpiece, surrounded by variegated ivy and for an additional splash of color, red and green caladiums (figure D). It too will go to a shady spot. And for an even simpler look, James places a single artillery fern (Pilea microphylla) in a bamboo-trimmed container, which is ideal for a really small table.
To create a few planters for sunnier sites, Paul begins with a group of succulents in a cool concrete container with a basketweave motif. Stealing the show is a jade plant that he gently pulls apart and complements with two sedums Sedum spurium 'Blaze de Fulda,' which has great color and texture, and Sedum seiboldii 'October Daphne,' whose gray foliage makes for a strong color contrast. This container can take full sun and also get by with less frequent watering (figure H).
In this simple terra-cotta container, Paul puts two plants that hummingbirds adore, namely a cuphea with red flowers called 'Tiny Mice' and (Hamelia patens), or firebush. For contrast, he adds a gray-green, low-growing plant called Helichrysum petiolare, or licorice plant (figure K), so named because its crushed leaves smell like licorice.
For a bolder expression of color, Paul fills a small wooden container with a monochromatic mix of blues, which include a verbena, Calibrachoa 'Million Bells' (figure M), daisy and a hybrid verbena.
A decorative basket includes a mix of caladium and New Guinea impatiens, which are both shade-tolerant plants (figure P).
When planting in tabletop containers, include plants with similar needs in terms of exposure, moisture requirements, nutrient needs, etc. These plantings, especially those in really shallow containers, may not last only a month or two (or maybe three). As plants start to fade, either repot them to larger containers or plant them in the garden.
"I hope I've inspired you to try your hand at tabletop gardening," says Paul. "It's a fun, easy, and very inexpensive way to enjoy gardening when it's way too hot outside to do any regular gardening."
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