The experiment



Over the past week, Ball FloraPlant has sent me* 4 big boxes of annuals, most of them brightly colored petunias, osteospermum, verbena, calibrachoa, and other sun-loving container plants. To test, I guess—but both the amount and (to some degree) the type of plants are inappropriate for my small, mostly shaded courtyard space. I’ve used what I could, and, fortunately, I have at my disposal 11 large concrete planters that are all in fairly sunny positions. These are designed for the beautification of our neighborhood’s commercial district, and since I am the beautification chair, I am in charge of filling them. We use a professional service for our hanging baskets, but there’s not enough left in the budget to do that for the planters.

For most of them, I used a mix of homegrown seedlings raised by an Allentown resident in his basement, and they all have cannas that have been overwintered for the past ten years by another neighbor. But for one, I planted it (shown almost filled above) with the Ball offerings. There was no regard for color clashes or harmony of form. There are red petunias, fuschia petunias, bright orange marigolds, maroon verbena, bright red verbena, and pink calibrachoa. And some other stuff. I thought  a multi-colored burst would be fun; the others are more conservative.

Sorry, earth, I did not use the plantable pots—any sign that something is already in a pot could say “steal me.” Some of these planters are filled with invisible weeds that will materialize in abundance in about a month. Passers-by invariably mistake them—even when they’re filled with flowers—for  seating or garbage bins, and sometimes people just pull the plants out for fun.  They’re watered by volunteers—most of the time. I pulled a full bag of disposable needles out of this one once.

All reasons why I saw this as the ideal testing situation—thanks, Ball Floraplant!—and I’ll be reporting on their progress. Are any of you participating in public beautification projects? Frustrating, rewarding, or both?

*F.T.C.-required gift disclosure

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I work on a number of pro bono garden projects and could offer some suggestions that might prove helpful.

    A layer of mulch about an inch thick would suppress many of the weeds and reduce the demand for watering. If your budget doesn’t allow for something like pine bark chips,than shredded tree leaves could work too.

    Also if your hanging baskets use coir liners, you could save a bunch of money by using a couple of layers of burlap instead. My wife Chris, got fed up with the expense of coir liners and used some of my burlap (some leftover from B&B trees, some from coffee bags from our local organic roaster) to line her window boxes. Looks great, lasts 2-3 years (perhaps longer in a northern climate) and costs nada.

    And yes, public projects do get mis-used by people with a serious lack of home training. Good luck! 🙂

  2. It’s funny but I was talking to some people in our nursery group, and few have ever been sent samples of plants to test. Someone in garden media thought that was unusual, that the people likely responsible for selling them never get to test them. I could go either way, not sure I need new marigolds and petunias to test. You say they send them to you, “to test, I guess—but both the amount and (to some degree) the type of plants are inappropriate for my small, mostly shaded courtyard space.” Do they send along any paperwork telling what the test is, or why they sent them to you? The people in our group indicated they just show up. Just curious if the even say why they are sending them.

  3. Trey,

    The big growers send out flats to writers/bloggers every season. And, yes, they do let you know plants are coming. I think trialing is assumed. You usually don’t know what you’ll get, which is kind of fun. I got a flyer along with these plants, but not detailed cultural info. The Ball website has all that. I actually think the public planter is ideal for trialing–that is a common use for this type of plant.

    That’s because we picked these containers out ourselves, and bought them using grants. The city does not choose them or pay for them. (Or plant them or do anything.) This traditional form is best for the type of architecture we have. Plus, they are really, really heavy. You’d need a forklift to steal them. A plus.

  4. Ah, I have been waiting for a container gardening blog to comment about how much I love the “thriller, spiller, filler” idea started by someone in the garden writing biz to guide us in plant selection.

    Most of the annuals at our local store are labeled like this. However, I would like to add to the list, “Fainters”…that keel over immediately in our Southern heat and “Hitlers” intent on pot domination, usually something like verbena! This has been a huge help for me. Looks like you’ve got all three going on in these very attractive planters…give us an update photo in August please.

  5. The biggest problem in our public garden, the Bridge of Flowers, is people stepping on (briefly) bare spots of earth while having a friendly boxing match, or playing let’s throw the toddler over the side of the Bridge and into the drink. Parents can have so much fun with their kids. And of course, there are the dogs . . . not allowed, but hey, who reads signs.

  6. I love your planter and look forward to seeing those petunias waving over the edges later this Summer! I hope those marigold grow up fast, so they don’t get overwhelmed.

    I haven’t done public landscaping per se, but I can tell you that when weeding the pots and berms outside of my business, I have found people to be very creative with their ciggie butts. This is a personal rant of mine; how can you look at a beautiful berm or pot full of blooming plants, and think it’s an appropriate ashtray? I know some of them feel guilty, because I find butts carefully tucked up under plants, placed under moss or rocks, etc.

    Somebody in our state once tried to create legislation for a fine ($90 per infraction, I think) for littering cigarette butts, specifically. I wish it had passed!

  7. Agree w/Kaveh – $90 is ridiculous for butt-litterers. Maybe $1000 & some trash pick-up community service hours would be better.

    My semi-public beautification project this year involves, of course, the garden @ my kids’ school. We are looking to double our planting beds and renovate a patch of landscape that’s been taken over by African lilies. My pie-in-the-sky plans involve building a shade structure in the center of the garden to serve as outdoor classroom space & “sanctuary” for the older kids who just prefer to sit & talk during recess. It’s going to be a busy summer !

  8. I’ve joined a volunteer group that maintains the entrance to New Orleans City Park. I find it to be rewarding. The only disappointment so far is that someone must have cut several of our new agapanthus blooms on one side of our entrance. Minor amounts of trash that get windswept into the bushes is to be expected. I’ve only been in the group since March, so I’m anxious to see how the garden looks each season.

  9. Hey Liz, to further on Frank Hymans idea I know Chris at Cafe 59 on Allen and Franklin is big on neighborhood improvements and is big on gardening. Cafe 59s scrap are composted for west side gardens and I’m sure he would donate the burlap coffee bags should you require them for street planters.

    Also, these planters are all over the city. But its so odd because there will be like one in the middle of no where on Broadway that is totally empty and neglected. Why is this?

  10. Thanks, Dave & Frank,

    As I said, the Allen street baskets are outsourced so I don’t need to collect burlap. (thank heavens) All I have to do are the planters.

  11. Finished our town plantings last night, then hit the hardware store for “decorative “chain and a lock to secure the new urns to the library stairs. Shame the world is the way it is. I would not stop my efforts to beautify though, too depressing to think it would ever come to that…just gotta try to stay one step ahead )

  12. My old street had concrete planters that must have weighed 200 lbs each on a sidewalk next to a slope. Since they were too heavy to outright steal, instead some of them were knocked down and rolled down the hill into the adjacent ravine- luckily no one was walking on the paths below at the time.

    The remaining planters were emptied, bolted to the sidewalk, and refilled. They’ve stayed put ever since. They’re filled with lavender and rosemary, which don’t mind a lazy watering schedule and handle most Seattle winters gracefully.

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