Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
December, 2008
Regional Report

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Holes drilled in their bottoms ensure good growing conditions for these pots of jade plant and staghorn fern.

Pots of Passion

Come out of the shadows and stop apologizing! Container gardens are real gardens, no matter what some say. But if you want to know more about your growing collection of pots, read on.

Dirt Issues
Everyone (except a few people with perfect native soil) complains about their "backyard" dirt. In our regions, however, we should be allowed to whine nonstop. If it's not heavy clay, it's sticky gumbo or pure sand. We have the extremes of soil chemistry covered, but growing plants need something nearer the middle of the spectrum. Mixing your own and growing in containers of all sorts and sizes takes the "dirt" problem off the potting bench. This task is neither complicated nor difficult, and can be adapted to a variety of plant types and pot sizes. My basic recipe is simple: a bag of good potting soil, half that volume of ground bark, half the bark's volume of compost, a scoop of sand and one of lime. That's it, unless there's no fertilizer in the potting soil. Then I add a balanced, organic, granular formula -- about a cup for every wheelbarrow full of mix. For succulent plants, add more sand. For annuals and perennials that demand great drainage, add more bark. Shrubs and trees in pots for year-round outdoor use benefit from a composted manure product, which I don't use in mixes for food crops. And if you intend to bring the Norfolk pine indoors to decorate it for the holidays, leave out the manure for aesthetic reasons. The fragrance it gives off in a warm room might not be welcome!

More Container Smarts
It should go without saying that all containers for plants must have drainage holes in them. Not a layer of gravel in the bottom of a huge ceramic pot, though a pot-in-a-pot arrangement is fine. Just don't forget to take the growing pot out to dump any water that collects in the "sleeve" pot. Remember that more plants in containers die from poor water management than any disease or insect attack. Do your homework to learn which plants can, and may need to, dry out a bit between waterings, and which ones must have consistent water access to succeed. Know that a close grouping of plants raises the humidity in that area. If you are growing Mediterranean plants, space them for decent air circulation around each pot. Rosemary is a good example of these plants, since it rots in the center when crowded wherever it is planted. It's a good candidate for a solo pot. Combination pots are all the rage and can be stunning, but planting in individual pots has some advantages. You control their soil, sun exposure, and care regime, so you can tailor all these elements. If you want to rebloom an amaryllis in a solo pot, it's not a problem to turn the pot on the side and let it rest. That's not possible if it's planted at the base of an arborvitae.

Tips from Experience
Gardening is a journey, not a destination, after all, and some potted plants will die. We learn along the way which exposures are too hot or too wet for particular species. We figure out which plant wilts first in a group of twenty on the deck. It's like the canary in the coal mine, telling us to act soon. Crisp tips on otherwise fine green leaves can mean it's time to leach the pots of accumulated salts. That's the act of running water through the pot twice or three times. Watering from the bottom is fine for most established container plants, if you leach the pots occasionally, too. Remember to dump the water that runs through a pot and rests in the saucer below. Or use a turkey baster you've set aside for this purpose (and no other, please).

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