Evergreen Park man creates InGround Planter System, making it easier for homeowners to exercise their green thumbs

Dan Billings spends his weekdays in the pits of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, and he used to spend weekends on his hands and knees surrounded by plants, pots and bags of potting soil.

Landscaping his Evergreen Park back yard was a creative outlet, he said, but he began wondering if there wasn’t an easier way to get the plants in the ground.

Digging the holes for annuals is the most time-consuming part of gardening, so why not put a permanent pot or sleeve into the ground so it wouldn’t have to be done year after year, he said.

“I’m no genius,” he said. “I thought somebody had to be doing this already.”

But when every garden center and hardware store he visited had never heard of such a thing, Billings was encouraged by store employees to create one himself.

Three years ago, the Plant Exchange InGround Planter System was only an idea, but now the planters dot the Billings family’s sizable yard and can be found in several stores.

The system, which Billings calls “ridiculously simple,” is made up of two parts. The first is a permanent sleeve of durable plastic that stays in the ground all year once the original hole is dug out for it. The accompanying planter that goes into the sleeve is made of the same durable plastic so it can be used for more than one season. At the bottom of the planter is a tray that holds up to one quart of water that drains the overflow into the sleeve.

“It used to take me seven or eight hours to do all my (initial) gardening,” Billings said. “This year I planted everything sitting at a table on my porch on a cold and rainy day, and it only took me about an hour and a half to finish 15 planters.”

With the help of a friend, Billings crafted two planter models and took a few sample photographs to use during sales pitches to local stores.

In addition to saving time, Billings said the system can be a big help for those with limited mobility who can’t spend hours on their knees or for people who live in areas with rocky soil or clay or that are experiencing drought conditions.

The tray in the bottom of the planter acts as a reservoir, giving the plant a constant water source. Plants that require soil richer in nutrients than the natural surroundings provide can be placed in potting soil or mulch, giving them the best situation in which to thrive.

The planters can be moved from sleeve to sleeve as the sunlight moves or moved indoors during late freezes or potentially destructive summer storms, Billing said. A gardener can showcase prize blooms by temporarily using the planter as a centerpiece, he said.

The durable sleeves can withstand the potential invasion of tree and bush roots, letting gardeners use more of their yards for flowers.

“Everybody has spots in their yard they’d like to plant in, but they can’t get to them easily,” he said. Pointing to a row of shrubs along his fence separated by colorful blooms, he said, “I never would have planted there before because the roots would have filled in (and killed the plant).”

Customers of Tholen’s Landscape & Garden Center in Bourbonnais have told owner Nancy Tholen that they like being able to surround plants with gravel without having to dig a new hole in the rocks each spring.

Her Bourbonnais and Kankakee stores have carried the planters since mid-April and have sold about 70 percent of their original order. Tholen said she is considering reordering.

“The idea is to be able to plant annuals within gravel, and this gives you a method to do it,” she said. “It works.”

Eventually the line may expand to include a variety of pot sizes and colors, but for now Billings is concentrating on spreading word about his current model, which is 10 inches wide and holds 5 quarts of soil.

In addition to the Tholen stores, kits containing three permanent sleeves and three planters can be found at Alsip Home & Nursery in Frankfort and St. John, Ind.; Sid’s Greenhouses in Palos Hills and Bolingbrook; and Wannamaker’s Home and Garden Center in Downers Grove. They can also be ordered at Billings’ Web site, http://www.ingroundplanter.com. The online kit price is $21.99.

While sales haven’t taken off yet, Billings believes it’s just a matter of spreading the word.

“It’s a simple system, but it’s foreign for many people,” he said. “It’s an educational process because people don’t immediately think of the benefits.”

Copyright, 2007, Daily Southtown. All rights reserved. REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED.