Gauging your container gardens Water needs

The top inch or so of the soil mix in any given pot is sure to dry out faster than the rest below. So don't trust your eyes to tell you whether the pot is thirsty; plunge in your thumb or a finger to a depth of at least 1 inch and as much as 3 inches to find out whether there's moisture at that level before concluding that the mix is dangerously dry. (Okay, you can also buy a product called a moisture meter and insert its long, needlelike probe into your pots to get a fairly accurate reading. If you like gadgets, go for it. But keep in mind that you're sacrificing a prime opportunity to play in the dirt.)

Watch for drooping or wilting, or a tired or off-color overall look to the plants. Also, if you can pick up the container, you may notice that it feels too light.

To water your plants properly, you have a variety of options; use whatever's convenient for you and for the potted plants. Look into using the hose, with a hand attachment to deliver the water more softly; a watering can, perhaps with a long neck and with or without a "rose" shower attachment; drip emitters; or a plastic watering tube inserted into the middle of the container. In some cases, bottom-watering (setting the pot on a saucer or tray of water and letting it soak up what it needs from below) works quite well. Lately, there's been a lot of innovation with self-watering pots, and you may want to invest in one of those.

  • jcJABE/f
  • jcJABE/f

No matter how you water, be gentle. A jolt or direct hit can splash soil out of the pot and maybe even dislodge your plants. Also, sloppy watering tends to wet plant foliage, which is wasteful and can lead to fungal diseases.

Here are a few moisture-conserving tricks for plants that dry out too fast:

  • Spread a very thin mulch on the surface of the potting mix.
  • Move pots into the shade for part of the day.
  • Sink a pot partially or fully into the ground in your garden.
  • Nest a small potted plant in a larger container that can "take the heat" for it.
  • Yank out any weeds that appear in your containers — weeds are notorious water pigs!

Many tropical plants, tropical houseplants, and large-leaved plants appreciate a little extra humidity; a little more than what's available naturally in the air. Here are a few good ways to help them:

  • Set their pot on a tray or dish of pebbles, where excess water from above can stay and gradually evaporate, which effectively raises the local humidity.
  • Get in the habit of misting such plants regularly. In fact, keeping a water-filled mister right nearby is a good way to remind yourself to do this.
  • Clustering or grouping such plants is always a fine idea — there's strength in numbers. The close proximity encourages a damper microclimate and reduces sunlight on the sides of the pots, because some of them will block, or partially block, one another. (Plus, keeping them in a group can look quite splendid.)
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