Container Gardening Essentials

Vital information for container gardeners


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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 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.

  • 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 easier.

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 healer.

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