Caring for potted plants

As with all things sustainable, setting things up right makes living with container plantings much easier. And knowing what to do over the long haul can make a believer out of you, even if you've failed with pots before. Follow these considerations:

✓ Containers: If you're buying a new container, sustainable choices include terra cotta (glazed or unglazed), wood, recycled plastic, or even the new ultra-sustainable pots made from the hulls of grain. Repurposed containers can be anything that strikes your fancy. I've seen plants in coffee cans, old shoes, brake drums, hollowed-out stones or tree stumps, clay sewer pipes, and wheelbarrows.

Make sure that your container has a drainage hole in the bottom; if it doesn't, carefully drill one with a masonry bit. The pot should be sturdy and weather-resistant. Very porous containers need watering much more often; sealing the inside with roof sealant helps retain water. Avoid moss-lined baskets, because they don't thrive unless they're watered nearly every day in summer. Putting plants in a plastic pot and then inside a more attractive outer pot makes care a lot easier and helps soft, low-fired pots last longer.

✓ Soil: Commercial potting soils have improved a lot over the past few years. Many good organic products are available. Soil for pots is lighter than what's in the ground and in most cases doesn't even contain any actual soil. Lightness offers fast drainage and makes it easy to move plants around, but it also means that the soil will dry out fast and won't hold nutrients as well as heavier soils.

You can add manures, compost, or real soil to commercial potting mix, or you can make your own from scratch. Incorporate some mycorrhizal fungi at planting time to bring life to the soil; this addition can make a huge difference. Polymers (special additives that hold water) are controversial; I don't recommend them.

✓ Planting: Be sure that your plants are healthy and well-watered. Knock plants out of their pots by turning them upside down while holding the soil in place with your hand and then giving the top edge of the container a gentle tap on the edge of the pot you'll be putting them into. The plants should slide right out. Check for a well-developed root system, discard any plants with circling roots, and give the roots a little back-scratch to loosen them up before sinking them into their new home.

As with any planting, don't plant too deeply, and water thoroughly as soon as you're done. Adding mulch on top of the soil helps save water and keeps the roots insulated.

  • Fertilizing: Use an organic complete fertilizer. Potting soil contains few natural nutrients, so you have to supply everything. Quality fertilizer makes all the difference. Fertilize every month or so during the growing season (except for succulents and cacti, which need much less), or try a slow-release fertilizer made for pots.
  • Watering: Plants in pots need watering much more often than if they were in the ground, and missing a watering can be the beginning of the end for delicate species. If you water by hand, fill the pot at least twice to make sure the water goes all the way to the bottom of the root ball and to flush out any salts that may have accumulated. Apply enough water so that some of it leaks out the drainage hole. If you can place pots in the rain now and then, they'll really appreciate the purer water.

If your pots are on an automatic irrigation system, put them on their own valve, and program the controller to water them at least every two to three days in summer (depending on the weather) unless they're succulents or other very drought-tolerant varieties. Consider running water into a big stew pot while you're waiting for the hot water to arrive at the kitchen tap and using the saved-up water for your potted plants. Finally, self-watering planters with a reservoir and a wicking system make watering a simple matter of refilling the reservoir now and then.

Remember that cacti and succulents need a resting period in fall and winter. Bring them into a brightly lit room if you live in a cold climate, and protect them from rain during the cool season.

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