How to plant an apartment-friendly container garden for the fall



Bring the outdoors inside with elements of nature in your container garden. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

What’s not to love about Colorado fall weather? Warm days and cool nights are perfect for checking out the changing colors in the high country. Pack a lunch, hike some trails and let nature inspire your creative plantophile side.

Then, when you are back home in your apartment or house, get your green thumb going with some imaginative indoor plant gardens.

Before getting started with an indoor garden, can you continue growing outdoor containers that have been on your deck or patio all summer by moving them inside?  Absolutely, and right now is the best time to bring back outdoor vacationing house plants, herb containers, cactus and succulent containers, and any other plants that can work in your indoor spaces.

Only bring in healthy plants, and check for disease and insects. If any are detected or leaves are sickly from something (even if you can’t identify the culprit), just toss the plant, since problems spread quickly among house plants.

Since apartments and houses usually have less light than outside conditions, shade-loving annuals like begonias, fuchsia, caladiums, ornamental peppers and coleus are some of the easiest to grow indoors. Consider taking cuttings from outdoor plants to grow new plants.

Growing plants indoors is becoming as popular as baking your own bread. Both go hand in hand, since there is nothing like noshing on a toasty hunk of artisan bread while admiring your latest green works of art. Invite friends over to join in the planting fun (and ask them to bring additional plant supplies and some jam for the bread).

A succulent garden in a large dish. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Easy dish gardens

Planting in a container or dish is super easy. A container garden can be any type of grouping, including indoor foliage and blooming plants, culinary herbs, cactus and succulents, fairy gardens and whatever else inspires you.

Location

Light matters with indoor plants; some need more light than others. Read the plant tag and locate dish gardens and other indoor plants as recommended. Light intensity is often measured in foot-candles, which is the light illuminated on a 1-square-foot surface from the light source such as a window. Colorado State University has a guide for distances from windows for high, medium and low light conditions.

Supplemental artificial lighting such as an LED grow light on a timer can help plants tremendously. Check local garden centers and specialty indoor plant stores for lighting supplies.

A dish garden in full bloom. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Choosing plants

Just like when planting outdoor containers, use the tried-and-true rule for a mixed dish garden. Combine thriller (tall), filler (round around the middle) and spiller plants (edging). Smaller dish containers may need just one of each, with more for larger dishes. You don’t have to follow this three-tiered rule. Single-plant specimen containers (like the tiny ornamental peppers) are fun, fun, fun (and come in assorted colors). Go for bright colors on house plants and various shades of green. Toss in variegated leafed plants to kick it up a notch. The key is to plant the plants closely so they look filled in on planting day.

The short list of more traditional foliage and blooming plants to consider for mixed containers include:

lemon cypress (tall)
anthurium (tall)
euphorbia (tall)
arrowhead plant (filler, spiller)
ivy (spiller)
coleus (tall, filler)
cyclamen (filler)
croton (tall, filler)
poinsettia (tall and filler for holiday)
kalanchoe (tall and filler)
cyclamen (tall, filler)
peace lily (tall and filler)
pothos (filler)
and many more

Popular single-specimen plants include:

bromeliads
seasonal cacti
streptocarupus
clivia
orchid
pelargonium
snake plant
palms
and many others

Herb plants can be grouped in one dish container or planted individually. Popular indoor herbs include:

chives
oregano
basil
rosemary
parsley
lemon balm
thyme
sage

Succulent and cactus dish gardens can be a mix of varieties, heights and textures. Popular plants include:

jade
echeveria
kalanchoe
sedum
lithop
faucaria
agave
aloe
and more

Divisions and potting up are long-term maintenance tasks with indoor plants — but that’s an article for another time.

Get creative with your presentation in a succulents dish garden. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Assembly 

The first and best choice is to use containers that drain through a hole in the bottom. Many types of containers work, including terra cotta, glazed, concrete, metal and glass. If using a non-draining container, be very careful not to overwater, which is the No. 1 cause of indoor plant death. Make sure the plants are shorter in their original growing container than the depth of the dish you’ll be planting them in.

Use new, sterile, general-use potting soil and a tiny bit of slow-release granular fertilizer to keep the plants happy. Cactus and succulent dishes require a sharp draining potting mix labeled for their purpose; that is sold at garden centers.

The plants you choose, sold in 2- to 4-inch pots, will be planted in the dish with soil. Larger potted plants (1 gallon) could work, but you’ll need to use large containers. Another option is to simply place plants closely together in the dish container; no need to remove plants from the pot they came in from the store. (Replace plants if they outgrow the dish space, or plant in soil.)

Once you have the container and plants, place the plants in the empty dish while still in their containers to see what look you like and how they can be arranged. When you’re satisfied, remove the plants from their containers and plant one at a time (I start with the middle plants). Start with a shallow layer of soil on the bottom, then fill in soil around each added plant. Continue placing plants next to and near each other. No need to be super gentle with the root ball unless the roots need a little teasing to break them up if they are girdled or in a circled mess from being in the container too long.

Cactus and succulents will be in a coarse material that often falls away when removed from the container. This is OK, since they are shallow-rooted and will establish quickly. Fill in soil where there are gaps, using a teaspoon for hard-to-reach places and tongs, and protective leather gloves or oven mitts when handling cactus. Leave a good ½ inch to 1 inch from the top of the container so soil and water do not overflow. When complete, gently water the foliage dish or herb plant grouping. Wait a few days to water the succulent or cactus group to give their roots time to heal and adjust to their new home. You can top the soil with small decorative rock, pebbles, moss or simply let the foliage be the show. Keep plants away from cold windows during the day and night.

A Denver Bronco fairy garden. These little gardens allow you to personalize your planting. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Fairy gardens

These are for young gardeners and are an excellent activity for the home-bound. Small plants are planted directly in the soil, along with placement of tiny fairy characters and accessories that add to the story you create. Independent garden centers specialize in fairy garden supplies.

A covered terrarium doesn’t need as much watering. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Container gardening in glass

Planting a small, attractive indoor garden under glass can be done on any budget and in a short amount of time. Styles, sizes and plant ideas can fit in decors from traditional to modern. First, choose your look and gather the materials. Use covered glass containers or something with an open top, such as an oversized brandy snifter, chic glass cylinder, fishbowl, fish tank or wide-mouthed jar. Shop craft or thrift stores and garage sales for bargains. There might already be the perfect container on a shelf in your closet or basement.

Covered glass containers will need less watering: every two weeks or so with regular lid opening to allow ventilation. An open top allows air circulation, so will need watering about every 10 days or when the soil appears dry.

Materials include drainage items for the bottom of the glass (1 to 2 inches deep) such as glass beads, aquarium gravel or pebbles. Next, sprinkle a handful layer of horticulture charcoal chips (sold in garden centers).

Depending on the size of the container, place a 2- to 4-inch layer of fresh potting mix over the charcoal chips.

If quarters are tight in the container, use a small spoon, tongs or chopsticks to nestle and position the plants. A small paintbrush can be used to gently brush off excess soil on the plants.

Plant choices vary from dwarf, slower-growing houseplants that do well in low light and high humidity. Look for bold colored foliage to add contrast and vary the plant sizes to lend interest.

Air plants

The genus tillandsia is the ultimate in unique, easy-care indoor plants. No soil is needed, ever. In time, they will even bloom. All they need once a week is a 15- to 30-minute soak in a bucket of water (misting now and then generally isn’t enough). Give them bright light, but no more than an hour a day of direct sun from a window. Display tillandsia (one or more) on sand or decorative rocks in a pretty bowl, hanging glass bubbles or a creative sculpture.

Local, independent garden centers sell terrarium and dish garden plants, air plants, plus cactus, succulents and herbs for making indoor dish gardens. Have fun putting together your own design or sign up for an online class or when in-person classes resume where the supplies and plants may be included in the fee.

Succulent and cactus dish gardens can be a mix of varieties, heights and textures. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Resources

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