Container Gardening Essentials

Vital information for container gardeners

| June/July 2004

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 conditions.

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 forgiving.

Here are some tips on making watering chores more manageable.

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