Potted Plants Just Won't Stay Put

Flowers and vegetables in containers move where you want them and where they get the best results

AROUND mid-April, when crisp nights melt into warm days, Graham and Michele Kinsman of Point Pleasant, Penn., start moving their portable garden onto the patio.

Bay trees are the first to leave the greenhouse, followed by a calamondin orange and a bottle brush that is now nine feet tall. The 12-year-old lantanas wait until early May, and not until all danger of frost is past do the hibiscus come outdoors.

The result is a secluded garden where only paving stones existed a few weeks earlier. It's the couple's favorite place to relax, read, and occasionally enjoy a meal while watching butterflies and birds.

What the Kinsmans have done for the past decade or more has steadily taken hold around much of the country in recent years. ``What we see,'' says Mr. Kinsman, who runs his own company dealing in unusual garden equipment, ``is an upsurge in container gardening. I'm not talking about small containers, the little six inch pots, but large planters, 20 to 24 inches across ...''

Planters, he notes, make it simple to beautify any outdoor area where people gather. He's seen many a swimming pool site dominated by dull, lifeless, gray concrete, ``transformed in a matter of minutes when appropriate planters were brought in.''

Another plus for container plants is that they can be grown behind the garage or some out-of-the-way place and brought to the viewing area at the peak of perfection. And, like furniture, they can be moved around as the need or mood arises.

This trend toward planters isn't restricted to ornamentals. Lisa Crowning of Thompson & Morgan seed company notes a growing interest in container vegetable gardening as well. ``Many families haven't the time or space to dig a 20 by 30 foot vegetable garden, but they're very happy to have a cluster of containers outside the kitchen door,'' she says. To this end the company markets a number of varieties suited to containers, as do most seedsmen catering to the home garden trade.

As president of the Burpee Seed company, George Ball has been monitoring garden trends for decades. He notes that containers are a natural part of the modern garden which is markedly different from its 1970s counterpart.

For one thing today's gardens are smaller ``as they have to be in this era where the two-income family is the norm rather than the exception,'' Mr. Ball says. Modern families have less free time to garden and more activities outside the home that compete with gardening. ``So whatever we do, we have to make it easier for people to garden,'' Ball says. To this end he has introduced the ``convenience factor'' into the company's breeding programs.

Along with improved flavor, vigor, and productivity, a new introduction must have some other quality that is appropriate for the modern garden. Take Northern Exposure, one of Burpees new tomato introductions for 1994, so named because it can thrive in cooler than usual temperatures.

Added cold tolerance which allows fruit to set in the cooler weather of early summer qualifies as a ``convenience'' trait. Then there's the plant's peculiar growth habit. Like Heatwave, introduced last year, Northern Exposure has an ability to grow back in on itself, rather like the curled fingers of a loosely cupped hand. This results in a compact plant overall yet one with relatively long fruit-bearing stems, ideal for the container gardener or for one with space for no more than one or two tomato plants in a regular garden.

To Ball, modern hybrids like these will play a key role in the modern garden. In contrast, growers of heirloom varieties and some specialist seedsmen describe hybrids as all hype and little substance. So it takes someone like Rob Johnstone to bring a little balance to the subject. His Johnny's Selected Seeds company based in Albion, Maine, sells both open-polinated varieties and hybrids.

Customers ``choose varieties based on their flavor and performance in the garden regardless of whether they are hybrids,'' Mr. Johnstone says. ``Hybrids may or may not be superior. When they are superior in any way, we carry them, otherwise our preference is for open pollinated simply because it is so much simpler to produce seed.''

Linda Sapp of the Florida-based Tomato Growers seed company agrees: ``We carry both types because both have qualities worthy of inclusion in our catalog.'' But she notes that productivity tends to be higher in the hybrids and that most hybrids are better adapted to container culture.

But even though quick-maturing hybrids give results sooner than in the past, and row covers, mini greenhouses, weed-beating mulches and other products of the garden industry make gardening simpler, maintaining a good garden will always take some commitment in time and energy.

As Graham Kinsman, contemplating the garden that will again take shape on his patio, notes: ``There will never be a totally no-work garden, but then no real gardener would want it any other way!''

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