The Garden Guru: Potting fans can’t contain their enthusiasm

Posted Friday, Jun. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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There is a legion of plant people who have made container gardening one of the hottest trends of the moment. I have to admit that I’m one of that clan. We’ve come to know that growing plants in pots as a real joy — and we’re doing our best to spread the word far and wide.

I’ve started a list of the reasons I’m grateful for this popular part of the gardening hobby. Here are the ones that come to mind first.

• It’s never too late to start plants in pots. You can even do so now, as we near the warmest time of the summer. There are plenty of plants that will do very well in the unique surroundings of a container garden.

• Every plant becomes a “star” when it’s grown in a container. The pot acts as its pedestal, raising it to a position of prominence in its surroundings.

• There is a pot of every size, style and color. Containers make their own architectural statements within their parts of the landscape. And it’s not just pots. “Containers” might be wire baskets, old wall fountains or cast-iron urns — there is absolutely no limit.

• You can group visually compatible containers into a community of plants. When they’re handled that way, container plants take the place of shrubs, yet they give so much more flexibility in your garden design.

• Rabbits and dogs won’t be as likely to bother plants in pots, especially large containers. When you begin to realize how difficult animals are to control otherwise, you really appreciate this solution.

• You can alter the potting soil to match each type of plant that you’re growing. Add more organic matter if you need better water retention. Add a little gravel for cacti and succulents that need perfect drainage.

• Pots ensure good drainage. That assumes, of course, that you have a drain hole in each pot in your collection. If you don’t, you’ll want to start drilling. Use a masonry bit and a variable-speed drill. Keep it lubricated with water as you carefully bore through the bottom. Rest it firmly against a block of wood to absorb the shock.

Or, much better, just don’t ever buy pots without drain holes, or at least have the nursery do the drilling (and accept the risk) for you.

• A container planting can look mature the moment you finish potting the plants up. Start with a handsome hanging basket or several 1-gallon pots of your favorite flowers. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll achieve the great look.

Container choices

One of the main reasons patio pots have become such items of style is because we have so many lovely types available in greenhouses and nurseries. There are so many glorious options that anyone can become a container-gardening guru in just a few moments.

The one place where too many people fall short, however, is in choosing the right pot size for the plants they’re growing. Too often, we shoot short of the mark, choosing pots that are too small. By mid- to late summer, our plants become root-bound and constantly dry.

Many of the plants we grow need pots that are 16 to 24 inches in diameter and height, and some will need pots that are larger still. Sure, those pots will cost a good bit more, but they’ll last for many years, so consider them as investments in successful gardening.

Potting-soil perfection

I’m really picky when it comes to potting soils. Almost all of the commercial mixes I see on the market are simply too “heavy,” that is, too dense. They may contain actual topsoil. They pack down with time, and they retain water too long. I like a bag of potting soil that surprises me with its light weight when I pick it up in the nursery.

If I’m mixing my own potting soil, it will probably contain 50 to 60 percent sphagnum peat moss. I’ll use 20 to 30 percent finely ground pine bark mulch, 15 percent horticultural grade perlite and, to give it some ballast against strong winds, 5 percent expanded shale. I blend all of that together with care, and it makes a great mix for almost all the plants that I grow.

Creating the plantings

You’ll hear landscape designers referring to “thrillers,” “fillers” and “spillers.” Tall plants that are the prime focal points of the plantings are the thrillers, because they’re the ones that provide the most visible accent. Spillers tumble out over the edges of the pots and hang down toward the ground. Fillers take up the rest of the space, adding breadth and fluff to their arrangements.

Before you begin your container career, look at what others have done. No doubt, you’ll see ample variations on this principle. And with hundreds of plant types at your beckon, there should be no limit to your creativity.

Feeding and watering

Plants in containers have smaller water reservoirs than their counterparts in the ground. That means you’ll have to water and feed them more often. With large plants in hot weather, you may even find yourself watering them daily, sometimes even twice daily, just to keep them from wilting badly.

Nutrients will drain away every time you water, so you’ll need an ongoing supply. Use a diluted solution of high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food each time. Supplement that with an encapsulated, timed-release plant food that provides continuous feeding for three months and longer. Your plants should have good color and vigorous, sustained growth all through the season.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: www.neilsperry.com.

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