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Originally published Monday, June 11, 2012 at 11:15 PM

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Container-garden glory starts with weeding out bad habits

The author of "Container Gardening for All Seasons" offers tips on growing healthy plants.

Chicago Tribune

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For the dozens of years Barbara Wise has been gardening for herself and others as well as teaching and writing about gardening, she has watched plant lovers make the same mistakes.

They pick sun-loving annuals, then stick them in the shade. Put containers far away from a water source. Buy tiny plants destined to become voluminous bushes but stuff them in tiny containers.

So early in her new book, "Container Gardening for All Seasons" (Cool Springs Press, $21.99), Wise reminds gardeners: "Plan before you plant" and offers up "The Ten Commandments of Container Gardening," including "Thou shalt let the sun guide you in everything you do" and "Thou shalt always loosen the root ball of plants before planting them in a container."

"One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they don't think of how big a plant is going to be," said Wise, who lives in Brentwood, Tenn. "And you really see this in annual plants because people see this cute little 4-inch pot and they don't realize in three months that plant could get 4 to 6 feet tall.

"Forgo instant gratification. I know it kind of goes counterculture to what our society is today, but wait and let it fill out. "The reward for that is a summerlong beautiful container that's not overgrown, doesn't need to be watered three times a day and is a much healthier plant."

To help newly minted gardeners and veteran green thumbs steer clear of container calamities, Wise has packed her book with basics, whether the container is a window box or a massive urn plunked on a patio. "Thou shalt know who your plant's friends are," she writes, on the importance of matching plants with similar watering and light needs in the same container.

What really sets Wise's book apart are the 101 colorful seasonal container designs she presents, from "fern-tastic combo" (spring) to "beat the heat" (summer) on to "winter party." She sets each out as a "recipe," including a sun preference, container size, difficulty level and a shopping list with alternatives for plants that may not be regionally available.

Wise is a fine coach for the container crowd. When her four boys were grown, she began working at a local garden center and became a master gardener. She has written for several publications and has a blog, "365 Days of Container Gardening" (bwisegardening.blogspot.com). And she's director of garden installations for Southern Land Co., a residential real estate developer.

Her advice? "Don't be afraid to experiment. Everybody always kills a couple plants. Don't give up because you had one container that didn't do well. Have fun with it."

WISE TIPS

A few more tips from Barbara Wise:

• Big bloomers: Summer annuals can get hungry, says Barbara Wise, and "need a little fertilizer or bloom booster about once a month."

• Sun: If a container is in full sun, western sun or a hot blazing sun, "you're going to want to have a container that's large enough to hold 1 ½ cubic feet of soil. That's not going to dry out so quickly."

• Container color: A black iron container in full western sun will have "big issues of it drying out or heating up." If you put it in a spot where it gets too hot, roots will burn.

• Soil: Fill the entire container with soil, instead of filling the bottom half with packing material or broken pots. "This is true in regions of the country with especially long growing seasons or if it's something you're going to keep in your pot for a long time."

• Water: Plants will tell you when they're thirsty. "If you see the plant is starting to droop or the leaves start to fold in together, it's just saying, 'Hey, mom, I'm thirsty.' If they're starting to turn yellow or they're starting to droop and you touch the soil and it's wet, then you've given it too much water."

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