In a world of limited time and space, container gardening makes more and more sense. Growing in containers allows you to create special gardens to fit any space. Successful container gardeners know that a good looking, well-maintained and long-lasting container doesn’t just happen. When a few basic principles are applied, even first-time gardeners can create and maintain attention-grabbing containers.
Growing plants in containers can bring instant rewards. When the temperatures increase plants seem to go into a growing frenzy. If they do not have access to water and nutrients, plants become stressed and unhealthy looking. Watering is a bit of a balancing act. Trying to determine how much and how often can be a challenge. My strategy is to water containers thoroughly when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Some potting soil mixes have a tendency to dry out on the surface but stay moist deeper in the pot. In this case digging down into the pot may be necessary. Consider using the same potting soil for all your plantings. This allows you to become familiar with the color change of the soil when it is dry.
When watering I make sure that each pot gets enough water for some to drain out of the bottom of the pot. This ensures that moisture has reached the deepest roots. I avoid watering at the end of the day after the sun has gone down. Without sunlight and warmth to evaporate moisture on the leaves foliage stays wet longer, creating an ideal situation for foliar diseases.
During the summer, containers may need water every day. A little trick I use if I am going out of town and will not be available to water my plants is to place saucers under containers in hot, sunny locations to help the soil retain moisture for a longer period of time.
Fertilizing is important when growing in containers. Potting soils are made from a variety of materials, including peat moss, vermiculite, bark, and perlite, but rarely contain nutrients unless specifically stated on the bag. To provide the nutrients plants need to grow, I add a balanced, time release fertilizer to the potting mix at planting time. This will slowly feed the plants for the next several months. If a container is watered every day you can imagine how much fertilizer is leached out of the pot. To ensure my plants don’t run out of nutrients, I also begin liquid feeding a few months after planting. This year I am using fish emulsion once a month, which my plants seem to love.
In order to have show stopping containers remember to water regularly, fertilize often and scout for diseases and insects. To keep my containers looking their best, I deadhead faded blooms. Deadheading redirects a plant’s energy from seed production back into flower production. In addition to faded blooms, you should also remove any dead, diseased or dying leaves and stems. Do not be afraid to look inside, above and below your plantings for problems. Many insects like to hang out under the leaves.
Some plants grow more vigorously than others. As a result, it may be necessary to cut some plants back to keep plantings in balance. In addition, containers are often overplanted. Removing a few stems or leaves to improve air circulation will help plants stay healthy.
Some plants may need a total overhaul by midsummer. If a plant is ratty and looks spent from the summer heat, cut the stems back by as much as half their height. Avoid pruning your plants during the heat of the day, which can be stressful. Instead, prune them in the morning or evening while the stems are firm yet bendable.
To learn more about container gardening, stop by the New Hanover County Arboretum on May 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. Chill out with a cold drink or micro-brew and discover how to use color, texture and shapes to plant beautiful container gardens that can withstand the intense heat of our summers. This event will be $25 for Friends of the Arboretum members and $30 for non-members. To register call 910-798-7660.
For answers to your gardening questions, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Susan Brown is the consumer horticulture agent with the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension of the N.C. State University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.