Archives For container gardening

Are your summer or early fall container gardens looking tired? Change out your container gardens to extend your displays well into the fall.

PHOTO: Fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale.

A fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale. Photo by Tim Pollak

Gardening in containers can offer us year-round seasonal interest, and we can extend the garden seasons to create vibrant container gardens. I’m a huge fan of fall container gardens with a rich variety of color, texture, and hardiness that carry their beauty well beyond the first frost. 

A container garden that changes its appearance from one season to another is the definition of a seasonal “change-out” concept. Change-outs can be done by simply removing or adding one or more plants, objects, or other material to the container to add seasonal interest. Color alone can offer more impact on the container garden than any other design element. (However, nothing has more negative impact on the container garden than a poorly maintained appearance or bloomed-out flowers.)

PHOTO: Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals.

Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals. Photo by Tim Pollak

Change-outs should take advantage of seasonal blooming plants and colorful foliage and textures in prime condition. The change-out can add instant color or texture to the display and create a “wow” from one season to another. Color schemes can change through the seasons as well, such as pastels and soft tones in the spring, bright and colorful combinations in the summer, warm and autumn-like colors in the fall, to greens and interesting textures in the winter. Your container gardens can change and develop through the year much like a garden bed or border do in the landscape.

While chrysanthemums still reign supreme in many gardens and containers every fall, try other interesting plants such as asters, ornamental or flowering kale and cabbage, heuchera, pansies and violas, and ornamental grasses. These plants all are cold hardy, and will tolerate light frosts, lasting well through the autumn season.

PHOTO: A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors.

A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors. Photo by Tim Pollak

I love the combination of using purple or blue asters with ornamental kale—the colors play off each other nicely in a long-lasting display. Using other lesser-known plants—such as some of the fall-blooming salvias—can add height and create interesting combinations in your container gardens. Cold-hardy vegetables and herbs can also be added for interest and texture. I like using swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and alliums to add interesting and colorful effects to my containers.

Another thing I like to do when creating fall displays in containers is to incorporate pumpkins, gourds, dried corn, branches and leaves of trees or shrubs, and autumn or Halloween decorations. A fun and simple addition to your fall containers may be to simply carve out a large pumpkin and use the pumpkin as a container, placing a combination of fall plants in it to decorate your front door or patio.

PHOTO: Fall container garden with cabbages, asters, and curry plant.

A fall container garden planted with cabbages, asters, and curry plant. Photo by Tim Pollak

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Harvest Activities for Horticultural Therapy

How best to utilize the resources of your therapeutic garden before closing down for the winter.

Clare Johnson —  October 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

I make no secret about the fact that fall is my absolute favorite season. Between the pumpkin-spiced treats, falling leaves, warm-toned landscape, and endless fall activities, I simply can’t get enough of the many opportunities that fall brings. 

Fall also happens to be my favorite season for horticultural therapy. This exciting time of year is when all the off-site therapy gardens are reaping the benefits from their summer of hard work. The fall programs begin after a brief hiatus upon the completion of the summer program, and many enthusiastic gardeners return to plentiful crops and beautiful blooms just waiting to be enjoyed. 

Today I’m describing three of my favorite fall activities and their therapeutic benefits: fall planters, mum pumpkins, and harvest herb dip. 


Fall planters

PHOTO: Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Students at Christopher School work to transition their school garden from summer to fall.

Creating fall planters—either in a personal, tabletop container or raised garden bed—is a great way to prepare your garden for the fall while adding seasonal interest. This activity works well for a group of any size or ability. 

During this activity, our groups begin to remove overgrown summer crops for composting while replacing them with edible fall crops and autumn blooms. For our off-site therapy gardens, we typically plant cabbage, kale, onions, pansies, and mums. This allows the group one more opportunity to work in their outdoor garden before the impending first frost.  

Therapeutic benefits

This activity brings a cyclical close to the gardening season. In the beginning of spring, we discuss seed germination and the life cycle of a plant. It is important to relate this activity back to the spring to highlight how far the garden has come during the harvest season. The theme and symbolic nature of this activity—events coming to a close or new beginnings—is useful in horticultural therapy groups. Take time to think about how you can relate this to your specific audience and how the message can resonate with them—either as a group or individually. 


Mum pumpkins

The mum pumpkin activity is always a big hit in horticultural therapy. The supplies needed for this activity are as follows: one small pumpkin (I use pie pumpkins), a spoon for scraping, cut flowers, and floral foam. This activity can also be done using soil and cell-pack flowers such as mums or pansies. 

The mum pumpkin activity has two large components to it: the carving out of the pumpkin and the planting or arranging of the flowers. It typically takes a full 60 minutes for a large group of horticultural therapy participants to complete this activity as well as a decent amount of space. 

PHOTO: A pumpkin planted with a selection of fall mums.

Beautiful mum pumpkins created in an off-site horticultural therapy facility.

The first step is carving out the pumpkins. For many of the contracts, we like to wash and save the seeds for future baking enjoyment. Often, hand-over-hand assistance is needed in order to help our participants scrape out the pumpkin innards. This creates a wonderful opportunity for fine motor and rudimentary skill exercise. Once the pumpkins are clear, the floral foam can be inserted for the mum arrangement. (If you choose to fill your pumpkin with a planted flower, I would recommend using 1-2 cell-pack pansies per pumpkin.)

Therapeutic benefits:  

One of my favorite aspects of this activity is the sheer joy that radiates from our participants after they create a beautiful, seasonal centerpiece. This activity allows participants to create something that is their own, something with their favorite colors, and plant material that will bring them joy every time they see it. It’s important to insert activities such as these to encourage self-expression and promote joy. That, after all, is one of the greatest benefits to gardening. 


Harvest herb dip 

Our simple and delicious harvest herb dip has been a late summer and fall favorite for many, many years. Why is that? It involves a beloved activity for all individuals—eating! For our harvest herb dip, we collect fresh herbs from our garden as well as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and other goodies to create a delicious snack. 

PHOTO: Pepper plants.

Baby sweet peppers grow in the Christopher School Enabling Garden.

For our groups, we supply each participant with a paper bag and encourage them to pick items that they’d enjoy in their dip. We commonly collect chives, parsley, peppers, and cucumbers. Once each participant has collected their desired items, we head inside to wash and prep the ingredients. While the participants are chopping their various herbs and vegetables, the horticultural therapist and/or aides mix the two store-bought ingredients: whipped cream cheese and sour cream. We use roughly one 8-ounce container of cream cheese with 4 ounces of sour cream. (This recipe can also be made with greek yogurt in place of the sour cream. )  

With the base of the dip mixed, each participant gets a personal bowl of dip in which they can pour and mix their ingredients. Then, with some sliced cucumbers, peppers and crackers, the participants dig in! 

PHOTO: Student eating herb dip.

A student enjoys his homemade herb dip with garden cucumbers and peppers for dipping.

Therapeutic benefits:  

Inserting activities involving edible garden items is always rewarding. In my first year, I discovered that many horticultural therapy participants (namely students) had never seen a tomato, pepper, or cucumber grow on a plant—let alone one they tended to and cared for themselves. The therapeutic benefits for this activity relate to educational opportunities. We often take time to discuss what other food items can be made from our delicious garden harvest to get participants excited about healthy and sustainable foods. It never ceases to amaze me how much fun students have picking and eating delicious vegetables! 

There are many more activities that one can do with a group or individual in a therapy garden during the fall season. Simple and inexpensive garden-maintenance activities provide wonderful opportunities for socialization and conversation regarding healthy practices for living things.

Fall is a beloved season by all of our garden groups, and it’s important to squeeze in as much time as possible in our outdoor therapy gardens before the midwestern winter knocks at our door. With the beautiful fall colors, plentiful harvest, and mildly cool weather—it hard to imagine a more desirable place to be than a garden.

Happy harvest! 


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Create Your Own Horticultural Therapy Containers at Home

An ideal horticultural therapy garden consists of three components: accessible planters, comfortable surroundings, and lush, sensory-rich plantings.

Clare Johnson —  May 17, 2014 — 1 Comment

It’s finally starting to feel like spring in Chicago, which means it’s time to get those home gardens up and running.

In the Horticultural Therapy Department, we’re in the process of setting up our off-site gardens at facilities all over the greater Chicago area. These gardens come in all shapes and sizes and fall on a wide spectrum of costs. For today, we’re focusing on how to create your very own home horticultural therapy garden—or perhaps more accurately—your own home horticultural therapy containers.

PHOTO: Three container plantings of varying heights.

Three containers at various heights create visual interest in the Buehler Enabling Garden.

To start your own home horticultural therapy garden, the first thing you need is a good container. At the Buehler Enabling Garden, as well as off-site gardens, horticultural therapists utilize raised, round containers for planting. 

We recommend that you purchase a planter of decent size (24 to 28 inches in height and diameter) or a few slightly smaller ones. This will enable you to plant a wide variety of plant materials—from grasses to small perennials, herbs to large vegetables. Also, be sure to use a container with drainage holes to avoid root rot and water logging.

The next item you’ll need is a rich, nutrient-filled, potting soil. If you’re using a large container, filling the entire container with soil will make it heavy and difficult to move. Placing light, mesh landscape materials in the base, such as Better Than Rocks drainage medium (sold in rolls of bright green mesh), or household items like empty water bottles and landscape fabric, will help keep your container light and decrease the amount of unnecessary soil.

PHOTO: A circle of Better Than Rocks planting mesh is cut out of a roll of the material, and placed in the bottom of the pot.

Find Better Than Rocks drainage mesh—used in the bottom of our pot—at your local nursery.

With the container(s) set and filled, we are now ready to plant our home horticultural therapy garden.

Gardens planted with a horticultural therapy intent often consist of plant materials that are engaging to the senses and good for programming. When I refer to “programming,” I’m speaking to the desired slate of uses for the garden. Your “program” may be to provide yourself or a loved one with an easily accessible personal garden to tend to and enjoy. It may also be to grow edibles that can be picked, prepared, and shared with friends and family.

Being in a garden facilitates therapeutic outcomes and interacting with plant material enhances the therapeutic experience that much more. By selecting plants that will encourage activity, you are increasing the likelihood for therapeutic outcomes.

Some of my favorite horticultural therapy-inspired plant pallets are those with a variety of textures and sensory qualities as well as pallets that bring about seasonal harvest.

DIAGRAM: Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

Sample diagram for a sensory container garden planting

In the first sample illustration, I’ve laid out a container of sensory-rich plant material as one option for your garden. Start with a “thriller” or focus plant such as a Pennisetum rueppelianum grass or Caladium X hortulanum (1). This plant can be placed along the side or in the middle. I like to place my focus plant slightly off center in my containers. Next, add some filler sensory plant materials such as Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Kong Red’ coleus (2) and perhaps an edible plant such as a Stevia rebaudiana (3). Stevia is one of my favorite horticultural therapy plants; the super-sweet leaf makes for a fun treat when maintaining your garden. The final plants are your trailing or spilling plants. This will bring added visual interest to the outside of your container and give your garden that extra pop. I love to use Ipomoea batatas ‘Margarita’—Sweet Potato Vine (4) and/or Calibrachoa x hybrida—trailing petunias (5)

Each of these plants has wonderful sensory qualities. The grass stalks or large caladium leaves provide soft fascination as they rustle in the wind. The coleus and stevia add visual texture and color while also lending themselves to programming. The coleus plants can be picked and used for flower pounding, pressing, or for propagation. The petunias can be used for pressing flowers, and at the end of the season, you can dig out your sweet potato vine and eat the tuber/potato at the root. 

DIAGRAM: Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting.

Sample diagram for an edible container garden planting

The second illustration—and container—has been laid out to focus on edible plant material. This planter would be ideal for a household that would like to have fresh harvest for cooking activities and experiences. A cherry tomato plant such as Solanum lycopersicum ‘Sun Gold’ (1) can easily be grown in a container. This variety performs very well in our climate (USDA Zone 5) and produces delicious, orange-colored cherry tomatoes. Tomato plants will get leggy as the season goes on, but certain plant material can be placed next to a tomato without interfering with or overpowering it. I enjoy placing a few varieties of herbs in my edible planters. In this example, I placed Ocimum basilicum ‘Super Sweet Genovese’ basil (2) and Thymus vulgaris, or garden thyme, (3) with my tomato, so that I could make delicious items such as fresh pizza, bruschetta, and tomato-basil-mozzarella paninis throughout the summer. Lastly, because it’s an absolute favorite, I snuck in a few Lavandula angustifolia ‘Mini Blue’ lavender (4) plants. These can be used for pressing, drying for sachets, and pure sensory enjoyment.   

A horticultural therapy garden is about enjoyment and interaction. At the end of the day, you want it to be something that you enjoy caring for.

During this time of year, local nurseries and stores are chalk full of garden experts who will be happy to help set you up with all the materials you need. And remember, staff and volunteers are always available at the Chicago Botanic Garden to instruct you on fun and simple gardening basics; just come visit us and ask!

Happy gardening!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

One of my signature projects at the Chicago Botanic Garden is designing and building the hypertufa troughs for the Heritage Garden spring display. While our greenhouse staff spends their winters growing the unique and beautiful plants that we feature in the troughs, another team is hard at work making the troughs.

PHOTO: Troughs finished and curing.

PHOTO: Heritage Garden troughs from May 2011 display.

Hypertufa is a simulated stone container that is durable in all weather conditions, but lighter-weight than solid stone or concrete. Our trough style, which is rectangular with a distressed finish, is designed to look like vintage livestock feeders that you might imagine aging for generations in the English countryside. 

Making troughs is a heavy and dusty job, but the result is a unique and lasting piece of garden artistry. Here is how we make them at the Garden: 

Step 1 

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Create a wooden frame with an open top and bottom. We build it so we can easily take it apart in Step 6. Line the interior of the frame with heavy-duty plastic sheeting so the concrete does not stick to the frame. 

Step 2 

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Mix 1 part Portland cement, 1/3 part peat moss, and 1/4 part coarse perlite. We add water until the wet concrete slowly falls off our shovel. 

Step 3 

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We pour about 2 inches of concrete into the bottom of the frame. 

Step 4 

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Place another large sheet of plastic on the inside of the frame. Add a 4-inch layer of sand on top of this sheet of plastic. 

Step 5 

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Between the two sheets of plastic, start pouring in more concrete to form the side walls. We try to make the walls about 2 inches thick, making sure they are as even as possible and have no air pockets. As the walls get taller, we keep adding sand on top of the second sheet of plastic. The sand supports the walls until the concrete hardens. Fill concrete to the top of the frame, making sure the support sand is also at the same height.

Step 6 

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After the concrete sets but is not completely dry (6-18 hours, depending on its consistency in Step 2), we remove the wooden frame and plastic.

Step 7

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We then distress the trough to give it a weathered appearance. We use a variety of tools to do this, including hammers, chisels, and wire brushes. This year we even used a power washer. Once the trough is distressed, we drill drain holes and let the concrete completely cure for several weeks. Once cured, it is ready for our spring display!

You can buy pre-made hypertufa containers, but this is definitely a project you can do at home for a lot less money and in a design style that is uniquely your own. Be creative. Add pebbles, shells, or beads to give your trough a little extra flair. Pigment in the mix can give it a color that better matches your décor. Adding more perlite or peat moss will make your trough lighter and give it a slightly different texture (but also makes them a little more fragile, in our experience). Leave the exterior of the trough smooth, rather than distressed, for a more formal or modern look. Lining the mold or frame with leaves (especially those with prominent veins or patterns) is another fun look for the troughs.

When we have a little bit of hypertufa mix left over at the end of our projects, we also like to make unique containers from simple molds that we find around the workshop. An upside down garbage can lid makes a nice birdbath mold. An old plastic bowl can be the perfect shape for a windowsill herb garden. I have even used an old box to make a hypertufa boot tray—who doesn’t need one of those?!  Silly or serious, there is no limit to your hypertufa container options.

PHOTO: Heritage Garden troughs from May 2009 display.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org