Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
April, 2005
Regional Report

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A bountiful container such as this one depends on good quality soil, fertilizer, and plenty of water. (Photo courtesy of Proven Winners)

Magic Contained

If you live in an apartment with a balcony or patio, container plantings are a necessity if you want to garden. For those who live in a subdivision or on an acreage, containers may seem superfluous, but they are like the baguettes on a beautiful ring, making the major parts look even better. Or, one could liken them to the candy roses on a cake. No matter what the analogy, there is no doubt that container plantings embellish the landscape.

There is also no doubt that container plantings need to be done right, or they become an abysmal failure. Way back in my youth, I was fortunate enough to live in Seattle, Washington, where the leading greenhouse/garden center was Molbak's, and their specialty was container plantings. From them I learned some of the keys to successful container gardening. They're simple, but they must be followed.

Potting Mix
It never ceases to amaze me what people sell and buy that is labeled as potting soil. Unfortunately, bags of potting mix are seldom labeled as to ingredients. The first way to tell if a potting mix is good is by its price. The bad ones are cheap. Go for the ones that usually cost about $6 or $7 for several cubic feet.

The next clue is weight. Pick up the bag. If it's very heavy, then it's probably not a good blend. The best potting mixes are rather lightweight. They are usually composed of peat moss and perlite; some also have composted bark added. Because of the concern about the depletion of peat bogs, some potting mixes now use coir, or coconut fiber, instead of peat moss.

Good-quality potting mixes usually include a wetting agent, which helps the mix absorb water quickly and easily. Before planting, wet the potting mix thoroughly. Warm water wets the mix faster than cold water does. The easiest way to do it is to dump it into a large tub, add water, stir, add more water, stir again, repeating until all of the mix is moist.

One of the boons to container gardening has been the advent of polymer products that hold and slowly release water to the plant roots, acting as a water reservoir. They usually look like large salt crystals. When wet, they resemble large blobs of gelatin. It is crucial to follow manufacturer's directions. Newer formulations can be added as disks or sticks and may include fertilizer and mycorrhizal fungi that enhance plant growth.

Some manufacturers include fertilizer in their mixes, but it's easy to add when you're preparing the mix. Choose either a slow-release chemical fertilizer or a dry, balanced organic fertilizer that can be mixed in. Another option is to mix in some compost -- about one-quarter by volume. Even with one of these additions, you'll get the best results by feeding at least once a month during the summer months with a water-soluble fertilizer, following manufacturer's directions.

Although it is possible to use containers that don't have drainage holes, your gardening life will be much easier if the containers do drain. Before buying, make sure there are holes or that they can be drilled. To keep the soil from washing out of the pot, place a piece of screen over the bottom. This is a lighter and more efficient solution than the old-fashioned method of adding gravel to the bottom.

The most stunning container plantings are the result of overplanting. You want them to be lush and overflowing. For instance, depending on the plants chosen, a 14-inch pot could readily accommodate as many as nine or ten annual plants. Although with the right care, just about anything can be grown in a container, annuals remain the plants of choice. But, oh, what choices! Breeders and growers offer an ever-expanding variety from which to choose. Obviously, the possibility of plant combinations is infinite, but if your imagination needs a kickstart, visit the Proven Winners Web site:

Ongoing Care
Besides the usual maintenance of tidying and trimming as necessary, be sure to feed during the summer as directed above and water, water, water. Even with the addition of the water polymer crystals, it pays to check plants daily, especially when the heat of July and August rolls around. Other than that, sit back in the lounger, and enjoy being surrounded by beautiful container plantings.

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