Avoid These Container Gardening Mistakes

If your container plants are drying out or have rotting roots, you may have made one of these common container gardening mistakes.

| June 2012

Your garden is supposed to be fun — a place to relax in and recharge your batteries, a source of beauty and pleasure. But all too often, things go wrong. Those expensive tulip bulbs you planted last fall never came up. Your lilac doesn’t bloom. The lawn looks terrible. And worst of all, you don’t know what to do about it. The Anxious Gardener’s Book of Answers (Timber Press, 2012) contains great gardening advice to help you solve virtually any gardening challenge. In this excerpt from the chapter “Containers,” author Terri Dunn Chace provides tips for avoiding common container gardening mistakes. 

Not watering plants enough

In some places, especially hot, windy, sunny locations, plants in containers can suck up all the available moisture in their potting soil and start to wilt in a single day, or even in a matter of hours. If another day (or two) passes, you may not be able to revive a display.

You might think that plants in containers dry out alarmingly quickly because their root systems aren’t huge or able to avail themselves of extensive or deep-ground moisture in hard times, like plants in the garden can. But there’s another reason: their root systems are very nearly exposed, as a thin layer of plastic or clay is all that protects them from the elements.

The right way to do it: First, be wary of clay pots, which wick away moisture from roots. Try planting in a slightly smaller plastic pot and nesting it within a clay or ceramic one. Lightly mulching the soil-mix surface has the same benefits as mulching out in the garden proper—it helps hold in moisture and moderates soil-temperature fluctuations (you can use a thin layer of bark mulch or even pea gravel). Buy a potting mix that includes moisture-absorbing coconut hulls, or try moisture-holding gel or gel beads (follow the label directions or this material will lead to slimy soil mix).

There are some nifty watering gadgets available, including gauges that warn you when moisture is getting low by changing color, and ingenious self-watering pots.

If I goofed, can I fix it? Bring on the water the moment you notice a potted plant in distress. If you are lucky and your display is resilient, the plants will recover. They may shed a few flowers, buds, or leaves, but will ultimately forgive and generate new ones. Bear in mind, though, that putting any plant through repeated cycles of drying out and soaking can be stressful. For most plants, a regular, steady supply of moisture, with no wilting episodes, is much better for their health and appearance.

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