Hanging baskets

What’s the secret behind the hanging baskets around the downtown area? Hint: In several ways, the flowers need to be vibrant.

In early June, after months of being nurtured in the comfort of the greenhouses at the Strawberry Fields Nursery in Bells Flats, the day came for the hanging baskets to be brought into town and hung from their summer perches. But as luck would have it, says nursery owner Elana White, “a horrible storm came in. Bits of plant material blew off, but to our surprise, all the plants came back. Especially the petunias.”

Yes, petunias. Who would have thought the frilly plants would be so resilient?

In a summer that will be remembered for its lengthy spells of fog and rain spells (and now the weather is stretching its equinox muscles with gale-forced winds), you might be wondering which flowering plants are the hardiest souls.

“Petunias are incredibly tough, even in driving rain,” says Elena. “That’s why we feature them in our hanging baskets that we grow for the city.”

Strawberry Fields Nursery has been in business for 41 years, and for 20 of those years Lorne and Elana White have created hanging baskets of flowers for the city of Kodiak – its residents and visitors – to enjoy all summer. The flowers, as you can imagine, need to be XTRATUF (like the boots), and over the years, the Whites have concocted a winning formula to make sure the plants survive whatever Mom Nature throws at them.

Nasty weather outside? While we might cozy up on a couch with hot tea and a book, those baskets just hang there, without rain jackets or umbrellas, spinning and bobbing in the cold rain. 

So what makes a good hanging basket for Kodiak’s weather? 

Always start with a good soil base, says Elana. Such is true for all gardening efforts, right? But it’s especially valid for containers and hanging baskets in which plants grow with limited room and resources.

First step: Fill the bottom with 1/3 beach peat and top with a high-quality potting soil; not soil from the garden, but bagged potting soil. What is beach peat? Beach peat is created on local beaches by one of nature’s most efficient Cuisinarts, the ocean. The end result is an pulverized soil amendment, a magic mixture of seaweed, leaves, sand, barnacle bits, spruce cones, plant stems, fish bones and an occasional bird feather, all shredded and homogenized by wave action.

You won’t find beach peat in commercial garden centers, yet it’s coveted by local gardeners for its smorgasbord of macro and micronutrients and who-knows-what that plants thrive on. 

The pattern in which the Whites plant the different flowers in the hanging baskets (each one measures 16 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep) is determined by how the baskets are arranged in a group: Four baskets hang together around a central light pole, which means the emphasis goes to the outside.

One central plant is a Tidal Wave petunia. “My favorite petunia is the cherry red or purple,” says Elana. “Red velvet is too dark to see from a distance.” (Elana told me years ago that for plants viewed from a distance, light colors are best).

Next are three “blue splash” lobelia, not the trailing lobelia, but the bushy and stand-up ones. Five blue cascade or blue sapphire lobelia does the trick.

No more lobelia plants than that though, because lobelia are space hogs, taking more than their share of the limited pot space. 

Three white Bacopa plants are added, along with three Kenilworth ivy (also known as ivy-leaved toadflax) whose green tendrils and flowers, as Elana says, “give a little whimsy in the wind.”

As the final embellishment, a yellow or gold “gem” marigold is shoe-horned in. Its splash of extra color manages to show through even on the windiest days.

During the summer, the city of Kodiak’s Parks and Recreation Department waters the hanging baskets, but are the plants fed in any way to help keep them lively? “Yes,” says Elana. “We give them an initial shot of high phosphate, time-released fertilizer, but what the city does after that, I don’t honestly know. Whatever they do, it seems to work great.”

Now that fall is in the air, it’s worthwhile to look around and note which flowers are faring well and which have been reduced to mush under the stress of wind and rain. I’ve noticed that pansies and dianthus adapted well, but calendula and nasturtium blossoms pretty much dissolved like tissue paper.   

Finally, my hat (headband) is off to Strawberry Fields Nursery and the city of Kodiak for providing such wonderful bright spots during our Summer of Sogginess.


Garden chores

– Keep harvesting herbs and veggies when they are ripe and ready. Don’t just wait until the season is “over” by harvesting the whole lot all at once.

– Prepare for leaf-raking season by building or repairing compost bins.

– Reminder No. 2: Clean out the freezer of last year’s berries and turn them into jams, jellies, cobblers or smoothies.

– Prepare beds for planting spinach and garlic soon.

– Remember that fall is the season for planting flowering bulbs.


Marion Owen is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, which is available through Amazon. To learn how to garden in Kodiak, sign up for Kodiak Growers Facebook group, and chat with folks at local retailers and farmer’s markets. You can find Marion Owen on Facebook, Instagram or visit her blog at https://marionowen.wordpress.com

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