I've always thought of hanging baskets as the costume jewelry of the gardening world. They add the finishing touch to your garden after the irrigation has been installed and the mulch has been laid. And like any good accessory, they should always be kept looking shiny and new.
Hanging baskets require special care. A big part of their appeal is their lush, overflowing appearance, which means hanging baskets must be planted tightly to achieve this look. They have reduced room for soil and retain less water than in-ground gardens. Hanging baskets are usually planted with soilless potting mix because it's lightweight. But these peat-based mixes contain very little nutrition, so hanging baskets also require more frequent fertilization than gardens planted in the ground.
Meticulous maintenance is the key to flourishing hanging baskets. Consistent deadheading keeps flowering annuals from going to seed and encourages continuous bloom, so you should do it at least once a week. Plants with large flowers or flower heads, like geraniums and petunias, should be deadheaded more frequently, as soon as their flowers begin to wilt. You'll also want to keep trailing plants from becoming leggy. To keep stems compact, cut back every other stem by a third when they start looking stretched and disproportionately long. Blue fan flower (Scaevola), Summer Wave trailing torenia varieties, and million bells (Calibrachoa) are good examples of annuals that benefits from this kind of trimming. Remove dead or yellow leaves whenever you walk past your basket. Impatiens may need this kind of de-leafing every few days.
Fertilize your hanging basket once every two weeks, using a balanced fertilizer. A soluble fertilizer delivers nutrients more quickly than granular fertilizers and is a better choice for hanging baskets.
Hanging baskets dry out fast; their volume of soil is relatively small and they're exposed to the elements from all sides. In hot weather, you may need to water your basket as often as every day. If you forget to water and the soil in your basket dries out so much that it pulls away from the edges, soak the entire basket in a tub of water for 30 minutes to hydrate the potting mix. If you can't soak the basket, water it thoroughly every two hours until the soil has fully expanded.
Keep your eyes open for pests and diseases. Because the plants in a hanging basket are placed so close together it's easy for pathogens to travel from plant to plant. Check your basket at least every other day and remove any leaves that show signs of disease (mold, mildew, or leaf spots). Nip any pest infestation in the bud by handpicking pests, removing the affected plant parts, or treating the plant with a lower-toxicity labelled pesticide such as insecticidal soap, neem oil, or pyrethrin. But keep in mind that even organically approved pesticides such as these can be harmful to bees; if you must apply them to flowering plants, do so in late evening when bees are not actively foraging.
Another way to keep your hanging baskets fresh is to replace annual plants selectively as they pass their prime. If you started the season with pansies surrounded by ivy, replace the pansies with verbena in June, then chrysanthemums in September.
Be attentive to your hanging baskets. They may not last as long as a favorite piece of jewelry, but a few well cared for, creative containers can perfectly accessorize your home and garden, adding the sparkle that will take your landscape from ″nice″ to ″wow!″
Ellen Zachos is the owner of Acme Plant Stuff (www.acmeplant.com), a garden design, installation, and maintenance company in NYC specializing in rooftop gardens and indoor plants. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and six books and also blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com. Ellen is a Harvard graduate and an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden. She lectures at garden shows and events across the country.