No matter if our place on the lake is a spacious home or a rustic cabin, we seem compelled to adorn them. We furnish them with couches and curtains, boats and beach toys and, in addition, most of us feel the need to beautify them.
I daresay the earliest cave woman brought flowers into the cave. ~ Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden
Container gardens are the perfect way to add flowers and plants to our lakeside dwellings. Unlike in-the-ground gardens, they are utterly egalitarian. Space and climate are rendered inconsequential and lifestyle becomes immaterial.
Inexperienced gardeners…Elderly gardeners…Even gardeners busy with careers and families can find time for a container garden… ~ Sydney Eddison, Gardens to Go
Following are five steps to create wonderful lakeside container gardens.
The locations. In residential landscape design, nothing is more gracious or warmly welcoming than an entrance filled with attractively planted containers. The same theory applies to lake settings. Since guests and residents alike often come and go by boat, the dock becomes another entranceway. And since so much activity occurs near the shore, lakeside patios and decks become important outdoor living spaces.
The dock Depending on dock layout, placement choices abound. Think about the end of the dock, at the corners of adjoining sections and twin containers flanking the beginning of the dock.
Lakeside patio or deck Dea Whitten has gardened for many years at her home on White Iron Lake just outside Ely. When deer became a continual source of frustration, she turned to containers: “A fun thing about lots of containers on the deck…you can rearrange like you would your living room. I like to divide the deck into two sitting areas.”
The containers. This may seem far too obvious but a key consideration is the container itself. I can't emphasize enough the value of a good pot. An unattractive container can’t be hidden no matter how many fabulous plants you stuff into it. Spend the money up front and purchase good-looking, heavy-duty containers that will last years.
The plants. While it might be good to have a clear design in mind, always be open to impulse and to different combinations. If in doubt, try it! How fun to plant something new and even if it doesn’t thrive, don’t we usually learn more by mistakes?
Here are some basic concepts about plants for lakeside container gardens. • Use lots of green. Green is nature’s most prevalent color and I find it unifying, soothing and the perfect backdrop for colorful flowers, foliage and fruit. • Avoid plants with big, floppy foliage like elephant ears (Colacasia cvs.). • Avoid plants with thorns and poisonous plants.
Tropicals In addition to common plants like bougainvillea, canna, dipladenia, hibiscus and mandevilla, try a bay or olive tree.
Lonnie LaMontagne has stunning gardens at Burntside Lodge on Burntside Lake and has experimented with dock container gardens. “I planted Canna australis and petunias in one of the dock pots because the combination of the pot color and deep red of the canna was extremely pleasing.”
Herbs Sturdy herbs such as lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme are excellent choices and smell nice, too.
Fruits and Vegetables Blueberries, cranberries, lingonberries and alpine strawberries (fraises des bois) are fruit options. Lettuces of all kinds and colors can be planted early in the season, and later, cherry tomatoes.
Others Many perennials and grasses are good options. Consider, too, water plants such as lotus or papyrus.
Pot 'em up. Because I’m a firm believer in the equation of healthy soil = healthy plants, start with top-notch potting soil. Read the label carefully. Don’t buy “garden soil” or “topsoil” and don’t use soil from the outdoor garden.
Amend the potting soil with good compost and fill the container about 2/3 full. Place the plants and add more potting soil, being careful to leave room at the top as a water reservoir. A thin layer of organic mulch (shredded leaves, pine needles, shredded hardwood) can be beneficial to conserve soil moisture.
Maintenance. Container gardens require maintenance to keep plants looking ship-shape.
Water Supplemental watering will be imperative and vital. Twice-a-day waterings might be necessary on windy days. Cathy Nyquist has grown plants with excellent success on her Forest Lake dock for several years and has a nifty trick to make watering easy. “I keep a full watering can on the dock next to the pots. I water everything well and then fill it up with water and set it near the containers. As long as it’s full, it won’t blow off.”
Deadhead Since you’re out on the dock or near the lake anyway, it should be a breeze to regularly deadhead spent flowers and nip off bad foliage.
Fertilize Many plants are heavy feeders and additional nutrition is beneficial. Choose from among the many organic options.
End of the season The easy solution is merely to dump everything—plants, soil and mulch—on the compost pile. By gardening time next year, all should have decomposed nicely. If one is feeling ambitious, certain plants can be overwintered as indoor garden plants while others such as tuberous begonias and cannas can be stored.
Finally… Take advantage of your proximity to water and its tempering effect. Plant hardiness might be a full zone higher, especially near a big lake. Get a head start in spring and make early season visits to nurseries and greenhouses when benches are overflowing with plants. At the end of the season, the lake should mitigate early frosts and your containers will look gorgeous far into the fall.
This story also appeared in Lake Country Journal, March/April 2011.
Photos courtesy of Dea Whitten's container gardens on White Iron Lake, just outside Ely, Minnesota.