Container Gardening Essentials

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Container gardening is not the best activity
for anyone with a commitment phobia. In fact, one personality trait
that has a lot to do with determining success at gardening,
especially container gardening, is consistency. Consistency and a
regular routine are essential for container gardening because the
plants probably can’t survive otherwise. Your potted herbs are not
in a habitat where they can sink their roots farther down and draw
what they need from the ground around them; they are entirely
dependent on you for all their needs. If that statement has you
looking anxiously for the nearest exit, you might reconsider the
container garden thing.

But for those comfortable with a high level of plant dependency,
container gardening offers plentiful rewards along with the daily
necessities. Your climate, and where your containers are situated,
can determine the level of care and attention your plants need.
Where rain is plentiful, for example, container herbs sitting
outside on a porch may be fine left alone for days or weeks at a
time; where I live in the desert West, a small pot in full sun can
cook in an afternoon. Indoors, the sun exposure and the humidity of
the air can be factors in how much attention the plants demand, and
here they must adapt to cooling and heating systems sometimes at
odds with Mother Nature.

And let us not forget the plants themselves. Not all plants are
created equal when it comes to their light, water and feeding
requirements. Getting to know your plants and what they need is the
crucial first step, followed by situating their containers in the
best place for them to grow. This last step is sometimes open to
compromise, depending on the spaces available to us, so we
sometimes have to help the plants adapt to less than ideal

Water, Water

When a plant is first potted up or repotted, then given a good
soaking, it needs time to settle in and adjust to its new life, so
leave it in some shade for a few days and keep the potting mix
uniformly moist. Gradually move it closer to its sunnier spot but
keep it moist until the plant’s fully established. Stashing a
mister nearby makes it easier: Whenever you’re walking by, just
give a spritz to add humidity to the area around the plants.

Once all your plants are established in their pots, check your
container garden every day. Stick your finger into the soil, and if
it’s dry about 1 inch or so below the surface, water well. The
general idea is to let the plants dry out slightly, then water
heavily, until water runs out of the bottom of the pot. In the arid
West, that drying out can happen between breakfast and your first
coffee break, so a watchful eye is especially needed here. Watering
becomes a daily vigil, but perhaps your climate is more

Here are some tips on making watering chores more

  • Whenever possible, group potted plants together. Not only is
    watering easier because they’re all in one place, but that also
    will increase the humidity in the air around the plants.
  • Not all plants are created equal when it comes to their light,
    water and feeding requirements.
  • Whether your water source is a hose or a watering can, be sure
    there’s a water breaker, an attachment that goes on the end of a
    hose or on the spout of a watering can that turns the heavy flow
    into a softer sprinkle. If you don’t have a water breaker, pour the
    water directly into your hand and sprinkle it onto the plants
    yourself so that they’re not subjected to a deluge that can
    dislodge soil and bend fragile stems.
  • Be sure that in each pot you’ve left about an inch of headroom
    between the soil surface and the top of the pot. This will prevent
    water from spilling over the top before it has had a chance to be
    absorbed by the potting mix, and you’ll end up with less mess.
  • Be sure your pots drain freely, wherever they are situated. If
    they’re outdoors on a porch where water can run freely out of the
    bottom, fine. If they’re indoors sitting on trays or saucers, be
    sure those saucers are emptied after a good watering, so the plant
    roots aren’t sitting in water, just waiting to rot. Also, consider
    adding an inch or so of gravel to the bottom of a tray plants are
    sitting on, which adds humidity to the air around the plants and
    avoids pot bottoms sitting in water.
  • Watering is less consuming if all your plants are eventually
    in the biggest pots you have space for. Cute, small pots dry out
    too fast, while bigger pots give the roots space to reach farther
    down and find what water is there.
  • Keep in mind that some herbs are natural water guzzlers, while
    others are quite drought tolerant. Some love full sun, while others
    appreciate shade, especially in the hot afternoons. If you can
    group your plants according to their needs, you’ve made your job

Food and Such

Some people actually think herbs don’t need fertilizer. That’s
pretty much a myth, at least in most cases, and almost always
untrue when it comes to herbs growing in pots. It is up to you,
their keeper, to ensure that plants have the nutrients they need to
grow, and constant watering washes those nutrients out of the
potting soil regularly.

The story on Page 18 gives a good rundown on the nitrogen,
phosphorous, potassium and trace element needs of a growing plant,
as well as some easy organic fertilizing teas you can make
yourself. If you’re not a purist about an organic approach, an
all-purpose water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro can be
used. Just be aware that a plant’s feeding needs change over the
course of a season; higher-nitrogen fertilizers promote green
growth, good in the beginning of a season and for those herbs you
grow mainly for their leaves, such as basil and parsley. But if
you’re looking for flowers, you’ll want to eventually cut back on
the nitrogen percentage to encourage bloom.

The general rule is that when fertilizing container plants,
dilute the fertilizer by half from the directions on the bottle for
outdoor feeding. There are some dilute fertilizer types that can be
applied every time you water, but I tend to take a more individual
approach, checking about once a month and applying what the plant
seems to need when it seems to need it, and only after a thorough
watering. Foliar sprays are helpful, as well.

Plant TLC

Regular watering and feeding go a long way toward helping
alleviate the stresses of life in a container, as do assuring that
the plant is getting just the right amount of sun, shade, or heat
and is protected from wind and hail damage. If all goes according
to plan, soon you should have sturdy, healthy, strong plants. That
doesn’t mean your job’s done.

Some other things to think about:

  • Some plants, particularly those growing indoors, need to be
    rotated so that they grow symmetrically rather than bending toward
    the light source.
  • Groom your plants periodically, pulling off any dead or dying
    leaves or branches. That ensures that the plant’s energy is
    directed to the growing parts.
  • Healthy plants are pretty good at defending themselves against
    predators, but make it a point to inspect your plants carefully
    from time to time, looking for insect pests and other problems. Any
    diseased plants or branches should be removed promptly and thrown
    away, not composted or recycled in old potting soil, which only
    magnifies the problem.

Pot Spotlight

Looking for a potted herb that is as easy to care for as your
teddy bear? Try Aloe vera. It’s a great plant, needs water only
occasionally, no fertilizing to speak of and seems happy being
pot-bound. The best green color happens when it’s not getting too
much sun, so if the leaves are turning gray, move it to a slightly
shadier spot. Then, when you’ve accidentally burned yourself, break
open a leaf and rub that soothing gel on your skin. It’s a

Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a
freelance writer and editor in Las Vegas, where she grows herbs in

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