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One of my favorite parts of spring is being able to finally put color back in the garden, and as soon as the tulips start popping, I know it’s time to refresh my hanging flower baskets. Every year, people line up at the local market to buy these hanging baskets of annual color, and they’re not cheap. Since they’re full of annual blooms, no matter how much you nurse them along, they’re not going to see winter. Lots of people toss those baskets at that point—but they are perfectly reusable. Here’s how to get year after year of beautiful blooms in your hanging baskets. 

It’s important to know, if you’ve ever tried to get a second year out of those baskets, that the odds were stacked against you. First, all the fertilizer in the potting soil that was used last year is now spent, and the soil itself is compacted. Second, you can’t achieve the same full baskets unless you start now, like basket growers do. Third, you have to know the right blooms to plant in order to get those really colorful, full looks. Here are all the tricks I’ve learned to use. 

Grow early from starts, not seed

No matter how early I started my baskets each year, they still looked just “meh” by springtime. Meanwhile, gorgeous, overbrimming baskets were available at my nursery and grocer. My friend Cynthia, who owns the 42nd Street Greenhouse in Utah and grows baskets, explained to me that nurseries don’t grow these flowers from seed. They use plugs, which are usually propagated clippings from existing plants. For instance, if you have a petunia, you can simply take clippings from it, dip the clippings in rooting powder, stick them in soil and voila: free plants. Since they’re growing from a plant, not a seed, they take almost no time to root and develop their own flowers. Once I learned this trick, the last thing I do every fall is take clippings and root them for my spring baskets. It’s not too late to do so now, if you can find pansies, petunias, calibrachoa, or other annuals you normally see in baskets. Purchase a six pack and start propagating. 

Some annuals grow quickly from seed and do well in baskets, like nasturtiums, so the time to start these from seed would be now. Other flowers that grow quickly enough to seed are marigolds and sweet alyssum. These seeds can get planted directly in the baskets or get started from seed in seed trays now.

Refresh the soil

Potting soil is easily compacted and at the end of the season, it has used up all the slow release fertilizer in it. So step one is to take the basket, dump the soil out, and break it up by hand. Once it’s all fluffy again, add a slow release fertilizer like Osmacote to the soil and mix it in well. Now put the soil back in the basket. You’ll find the plants can root themselves, they’re easier to plant, and will bloom over time thanks to the fertilizer. 

Pack them in

Baskets tend to have a lot of flowers packed into a very small space, and the nursery usually chooses a color theme and pattern of flowers that look nice together. Trailing plants go around the outside of the basket, while taller plants encircle the middle. Once they start growing, they can become quite large with blooms. So the first step is to choose your blooms. For trailing flowers, pick nasturtiums, which come in reds, oranges, and yellows. Petunias, particularly double wave, will continue to cascade over the side with big blooms all summer in every shade under the sun. Calibrachoa cascades like a petunia, with a small bloom—more of a spray of florals. Lobelia comes in every shade of purple and blue, and like sweet alyssum, they are tiny sprays of colored flowers. Fuschia is a draping bloom that explodes all summer in shades of pink and reds. 

For the center, consider marigolds, which come in red, orange, and yellow, or geraniums, which grow upright in the fuschia to red colorway. Of course, you can put any annual flower in the center, so long as it is low and compact, so daisies are an option as well as stock or even a compact snapdragon, all of which come in a rainbow of colors. 

You don’t have to just grow color, either; there are tons of herbaceous options to add green tones to your basket, including vinca and creeping jenny. 

Add some plant lights and incubate it until spring

Your basket shouldn’t go outside until it’s consistently over 50 degrees at night, so until then, your basket should live inside under a grow light. Ensure the basket remains moist but not waterlogged. When spring finally rolls around, remember to harden the plants off, rather than just putting them outside. 

By just refreshing your soil and propagating your own plants, you’ll save a ridiculous amount on these hanging baskets, which go for anywhere from $30 to over $100 each.

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