For Successful Container Gardening
- Provide additional drainage holes in the base of your pots
- Use soilless potting mix specifically formulated for container gardening
- Add slow release fertilizer to the soil upon planting
- Water your plants on a routine schedule
- Use big pots to increase your growing power
It may seem straight forward or common sense to do the five items listed above, but many people skip some of these steps when they assemble their container gardens and patio pots because they are either in a hurry, want to avoid spending extra money, or they don’t understand the negative impacts to the plants’ overall health and appearance when they don’t follow The 5 Must Do’s listed above. But, do these 5 important steps and you will achieve successful container gardening status every time.
DRAINAGE – Must #1
Most pots on the market today have only one small drain hole in the base (or none at all) – and this is not sufficient. If the soil in the pot remains too wet, the plants’ roots will not get the oxygen it needs. And oxygen is required, along with carbon and hydrogen, for plants to grow. Having constant wet soil in the base of a pot is similar to walking around in wet sneakers. While it may be tolerated for a short period, if air is not provided soon, rot or death may set in. Everything above the pot is depending on what is going below in the soil, so Must #1, providing additional drainage, will allow for the free movement of water throughout the soil profile which is extremely important because as those spaces filled with water are vacated, air can replace them for the plants’ roots to use oxygen.
Without sufficient drainage, your plants will not perform as well which leads to failure. It is a step you should not forgo or skip, and must do in order to achieve beautiful plants in your container gardens and patio pots. Once you see the difference in your plants health, you will find adding drain holes so valuable, you will never skip this step again. And, although specific potting mixes have ingredients to help create pore spaces for air, adding more drain holes to the base of your pots only enhances the soil environment for your plants. It leads to ultimate success because the roots are thriving in a healthy soil environment which is well-drained and balanced.
So get your power drill out and use a drill bit to create holes about the size of a quarter in the base of the pots. Be sure to drill at least 5 or 6 holes evenly spaced apart (one in the center and a few around the diameter). If the pot cannot be drilled (e.g., ceramic or clay), make sure it has at least one drain hole already built into the base by the manufacturer, or reserve that pot for plastic plants or water gardening. Do not use pots with no drainage capability. This always leads to poor results, trust me.
SOILLESS POTTING MIX – Must #2
Soil (dirt) from the ground cannot be used as a substitute for potting mix when planting up your patio pots and container gardens. Must #2 is you must use soilless mix specifically formulated for container gardening. I know what you are thinking, if plants can grow in the ground, why can I just dig up some dirt and use that in my pots? Well, for starters, soil from the ground becomes very compact in container gardens. Plus, with container gardening, you have to water more often resulting in the ground soil (dirt) becoming even more compact and dense in the pot as it compresses down in limited space. Young new roots cannot grow through this and cannot get the oxygen or water they need.
To prove this point, I put ground soil (dirt) into a mason jar and soil from potting mix into another mason jar. The weight difference between the two jars was substantial. The dirt jar weighed about two pounds and was very heavy. The mason jar containing potting mix was light as a feather. Imagine roots trying to penetrate the heavy compacted poor soil, plus it won’t contain the balanced nutrients or air spaces for the roots to thrive and survive. Roots are just as important as the top part of the plant – if not more important. Everything below the soil impacts the results above the soil.
Additionally, soil from the ground (dirt) can harbor soil borne pathogens, insects, and weed seeds – and you don’t want those in your container gardens. The ground soil may be too hard (clay) or too porous (sand). Soil in container gardens must have good pore structure for root growth, water holding for even distribution, and oxygen for the roots, and of course, nutrients for the plants to grow healthy and strong. Soil from the ground will not give these must needed elements to plants in container gardens. And trying to find the ideal ground soil that has all of these factors is a big chore, if not impossible.
Bottom line: Do not use Dirt. Dirt is a four-letter word in the world of container gardening.
Most potting mixes on the market contain a combination of bark, wood fiber, coir (a by-product of coconut husks) or peat, vermiculite, perlite, and maybe some compost. The little white pearls you see in the soil is called perlite. These provide pore (air) spaces in the soil required for roots to grow. Other ingredients mentioned help with water retention (peat moss, coir), drainage (pine bark, perlite, rice hulls), and nutrients (compost). You want a balanced soil that can hold 25% air, 25% water, and the rest, 50%, is organic matter. Plants must have the appropriate pore space, water holding capacity, and nutrients to grow. This is especially critical in container gardens because roots are confined, cannot extend out to find its needs elsewhere, and they depend on their current environment and “you” to grow well.
So when planting up your container gardens and patio pots, go out there and invest in a couple bags of potting mix specifically formulated for container gardening. The good news is there are many types available today, and by the way, none of the potting mixes used for container gardening contain any real soil (dirt) at all. Now you know why, it is should no longer be a surprise to hear this. Once you start using potting mix, you will be pleased to see how well your plants are growing and thriving. There are tricks to extend your potting mix life, but that is another topic to be posted later.
SLOW-RELEASE FERTILIZER – Must #3
Once you have your drainage holes and soilless potting mix in your pot, you want to add slow release fertilizer to the soil to obtain optimum growth. Slow release fertilizer will provide small amounts of nutrients to the plants’ roots over a specific period of time. While some potting mixes come pre-charged with fertilizer (meaning they add the fertilizer in the mix as an ingredient), it may not be substantial enough to keep your plants fed throughout your container gardening season. Add some when you get started, and don’t have to think about it again unless you are dealing with a high demanding plant or you didn’t follow the rest of The 5 Must Do’s.
Many slow-release fertilizers on the market are available in a granular form which is easy to apply. The little round balls you see in the granular fertilizer bottles or bags are called prills. Each contains a balanced release of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium – the three macronutrients needed most by plants). Nitrogen promotes leaf, stem, and above ground growth. Phosphorous promotes rooting, flowering, and fruiting. And potassium helps with disease prevention and cold tolerance. If you put too much of any, you can burn the plants or even kill them. However, the nutrients in the prills of slow-release fertilizers will slowly leak out into the soil as water vapor is absorbed into the prill through its coating. It dissolves the fertilizer inside to feed your plants during your container gardening growing season – which is typically 3 to 4 months in Connecticut, from May to September. As the soil temperature warms (during the summer months when you want your plants to thrive the most and when they need more nutrients during their most active growth period), the nutrients are released even more when the prills’ coating expands as a reaction to the warmth in the soil. Think of the slow-release fertilizer feeding as a well-balanced diet for your plants to stay healthy and beautiful. It will be handled for you in a controlled manner.
Add the slow release fertilizer upon planting your container gardens to ensure a continuous feeding routine. Sprinkle it on top to the 1 to 3 inches of the soil like you would bacon bits on a salad, and you are all set for the container gardening season. Do this one simple step, and you will be amazed at the results. And it also eliminates the needs to add water soluble fertilizer as a supplement later in the season, especially, as I said, if you follow all five of The 5 Must Do’s.
WATER – Must #4
Forget container gardening if you are not willing to water your plants in container gardens and patio pots. Must #4 is all about giving your plants watering love and it must be done on some kind of routine schedule and based on the plant type, but it must not be skipped or completely forgotten. Watering in the morning is helpful because the plants take up the moisture during the day while photosynthesis takes place. If you can’t do it then, please do it when you get home after work. A plant will remain strong as long as the movement of water through the soil is in balance. And you are that balance. Without watering, your plants are doomed. If they don’t get water, there is no growth, and stomates in the leaves will close up to prevent further water loss to protect themselves. Then, the plant will wilt and it certainly won’t flourish. If no watering occurs for an extended period of time, the plant may reach a permanent wilting point and never recover. And you don’t want that after you invested in buying beautiful plants from the nursery to enjoy and show off at your home.
If you are not sure if the plants in your container gardens needs water, look at the plants – Are they wilting? Do they look thirsty? Or insert your finger into the soil at a two to three inches depth. Does it feel damp or sufficiently moist? It may be okay. But you absolutely cannot forgo watering your container gardens. Even if it rains occasionally, or you used drought tolerant plants, you must pay attention to them and their needs in regards to watering. Observe the plants’ overall health, get familiar with their watering needs, and pay attention. Climate in your area, the type of material from which the pot is made, and location will dictate some of the timing of your watering routine, but it is not the only factors you should pay attention to. Basically YOU need to pay attention to watering.
Some people think they can douse their container garden plants with lots of water all at once, walk away, and forget about it for a week or more. This does not work. The soil needs periods where it dries out a bit between watering too. It should drain (Must #1) and have some breathing room (Must #2). You don’t want to overdo it either, where the soil remains too wet. Wilt can be a result of overwatering as well as under watering.
Watering is one of the more difficult of The 5 Must Do’s to master because every plant and container type is different. And because people’s habits are different. And the weather and exposure will affect how much or how little water your plants will need. There are some tricks to help reducing your watering routine, but that is another post for another time. Bottom line, you MUST WATER your plants or they will die. Plants need water to live. In fact, every living thing on this earth needs water. We need water. Without it – we all die. If you will not water, you should not do container gardening. In my opinion, not watering your plants is like committing plant murder.
BIG POTS – Must #5
People fear buying big pots, probably due to concerns with cost, placement, and moving them. But big pots and container gardens make a big statement! They capture your attention, create a focal point worth noticing, elevate the arrangement of your showy healthy plants, and ultimately reduce the compaction problems of small pots – so movement of water in the soil is enhanced. Big pots also provide good anchorage of your large plants, hold more inches of water, don’t drain out as fast which helps to reducing Must #4 (but not eliminating that must), and enables you to grow larger, showier plants – leading to more bang for the buck. Go for supersized if you can.
However, with that said, big pots is listed last on The 5 Must Do’s list because it is not mandatory for success, but using them will elevate you to a higher level of container gardening. My recommendation is you should invest in at least one big pot. Just one. I believe you will never regret it. It makes a tremendous difference to the plants’ performance when you give the roots a large mass to grow in. Also, as noted above, using big pots make a big statement in your outdoor environment. So why not make your container gardening show magnificent for the season?
There are some tricks to helping with the amount of soilless potting mix you have to use to fill up a big pot, but that is for another post. Big pots may be a little challenging to move or fill, but place them in the right spot before you get started, and go back to Must #1 through Must #4 to get them in the best shape ever, and then wow yourself, your family, and your guests as they visit you to see your amazing and stunning container gardens. You will feel a huge admiration for your efforts, a new appreciation for the world of container gardening because you followed The 5 Must Do’s, and your plants will love you for it too.
The Five Must Do’s are all about achieving successful container gardens and patio pots. Do all of them, and you will be happy, if not overjoyed, with your amazing results – I guarantee it.
For the video version of my The Five Must Do’s, see the CT Style, WTHN.com, television program, when I was featured as a guest. Enjoy!
Written by Cathy Testa