Every year Bonnie and Keith Whitenight transform their lakeside outdoor living spaces into a floral paradise.

The decks off their house are adorned with a bounty of planters attached to the railing, and moss-lined baskets hanging from hooks on hanger plant stands or from the eaves. These are brimming with ever-blooming choices such as Begonia sempervirens, trailing geraniums and impatiens. Hostas add a diverse foliage interest. Although impatiens have been banished from most gardens due to the downy mildew scourge that rampaged through the country, the Whitenights find the plants don’t succumb to the disease when grown in containers.

Anyone going up or down the stairs to the dock also is treated to the experience of walking through an avenue of foliage and blooms growing in planters on the landing rails. The hostas are free from slug and deer damage because they are high above the ground. The red flowers of the begonias and impatiens add further lively interest.

There are planters on the dock (last year the Whitenights tried a red-flowering canna lily, which gave a tropical flair to the space), but it is on the deck above their dock where they have created a veritable floral bower. Here in the sun-intensive spot they opt for drought-tolerant, sun-worshiping plants. A white mandevilla spills a cascade of trumpet-shaped blossoms over the edge of one corner; red flowering mandevilla climbs up a trellis, creating a sense of privacy from the nearby dock. A long, narrow planter lines the railing along one side. It brims with Polka Dot vinca, a white-flowering charmer with a saucy pink “eye.” Trailing petunias add more color in other containers, and sun-loving tomatoes grow up a wire support in another pot.

The space is a joy to be in, and passing boaters enjoy the floral display that’s visible from the water.

Care and Feeding

All these pots and planters do require care. The biggest job is in spring when the Whitenights replenish all their pots, emptying last year’s planting mix onto the garden beds and refilling the containers with fresh mix. “It’s a big project,” Bonnie said with a hint of understatement. “Keith and I work on it together.”

They choose a potting mix that has time-release fertilizer, giving the plants a good start when they’re first transplanted. The slow-release fertilizer lasts about a month. After that, they fertilize weekly with liquid Miracle-Gro, which they apply with a hose sprayer using premeasured doses.

To make the ongoing maintenance easy on the dock and upper deck, they keep fertilizer and pest remedy supplies in one of the planter boxes. A hose delivers water directly from the lake to make watering easy.

Deadheading is a well-recognized technique for keeping plants groomed and encouraging ongoing flowering. The Whitenights find that the begonias and mandevillas benefit from deadheading. The petunias and vinca take care of themselves.

Learning to garden is a lifelong endeavor, and there is always some trial and error to find the best plants for the situation. The canna lilies the Whitenights grew on the dock last year were a new project.

“The flowers kept falling off, and when we’d cut the top of the plant off, it would sprout from there and spread.” When it did flower successfully, they loved the bold, orangey-red color, and the plant’s height, which screened the dock from passing boats. The hardest lesson they learned was the need to wedge the canna lily pots in place with stones or another heavy object. With the canna lilies reaching about 4 feet high, the pots were top heavy, and two of the three were blown into the lake.


Keeping pots watered, especially during intensely hot days when watering must be more frequent, can be a chore.

Many people, including the Whitenights, mix polymer crystals (also known as hydrogels) into their posting mix (or they buy a mix that includes the crystals). These crystals, about the size of coarse salt grains, are touted as being able to absorb and hold up to 600 times their weight in water and then return it to the soil when it goes dry. It sounds great, but surprisingly, studies have found that it makes little to no difference for reducing the frequency you need to water.

A professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Jeff Gillman tested five brands of hydrogels and explained his findings in his 2008 book, “The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t.” He wrote, “In most cases, hydrogels just don’t work very well. While these products have shown themselves somewhat useful in some tests, they haven’t proven themselves on a consistent basis, and when they have reduced watering frequency, they haven’t reduced it by much.”

A more surefire way to keep your pots watered without your constant attendance is with drip irrigation. Attach a drip system and timer to your dock hose outlet and run the spaghetti lines discretely to each container. If you set up the system before you fill the pots with the growing mix, you can run the line through the drainage hole up to the soil line so the line is less visible. The length of time and frequency you should run the drip will depend on the size of your pot and the water requirements of the plants.

No Strangers to the Lake

the whitenights first came to the lake 20 years ago in 1999. They lived in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Bonnie began her career teaching kindergarten and later provided reading academic support for other teachers. Keith managed an engineering consulting firm that specialized in providing impact studies for bridge and road projects.

Avid fishermen, Keith and his brother, Vic, belonged to Larry’s Creek Fish and Game Club on the 22.9-mile-long tributary of the West Branch Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. The two families always wanted to retire on a lake, but hadn’t decided where. A neighbor mentioned Smith Mountain Lake, and they all came down to investigate.

The weekend of their first visit, Vic and his wife, Linda, found a lot on North Dam Road and decided to build a house there. “We knew we weren’t going to build,” Bonnie said. “We kept looking for a house that would be near Vic by both land and water.” It took them until 2002 to find a fixer upper that they felt was a good starting point for their ultimate dream retirement home.

Keith and Bonnie moved permanently to the lake in May 2015, and began major remodeling projects to enlarge the home and modernize the kitchen. There was a lot of upheaval for some time, but now the house is roomy and comfortable, somewhere both Keith and Bonnie love to be.