17 March 2008

Containing yer gardening enthusiasms Part 2: Tips for Success

Last time, I promised we’d have a chat about some tips for container successes, so here we go:

Containers: You can use just about anything you want for containers, and people do! I’ve seen wonderful planters made with old shoes, tea kettles, vases, baskets, purses, as well as the dizzying array of containers that are actually designed for plants. The main thing to make sure of is that they have drainage holes. Don’t bother with the ‘layer of crushed gravel’ or other supposed helpful options for drainage: if Jeff Gillman says that this doesn’t work, that’s plenty good enough for me. A pot shard over large drainage holes will keep the soil from coming out the bottom, but that’s all I bother with. If you buy a fabulous container that is lacking drainage holes, you can either drill holes in it (with the proper drill and bit) or do what I do: plant into a slightly smaller, plastic container with drainage holes in it, and slip that into the more ornate planter. Larger containers are heavier, but they have more room for multiple plants. I'm very partial to terra cotta, and to brightly coloured, glazed pottery containers in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Soil: use the best quality potting medium you can afford. You can make up your own mediums or purchase pre-made, but one thing I don’t recommend is using garden soil. Not only is it full of weed seeds and living creatures that might not appreciate life in a container, it’s generally heavier which makes containers that much harder to move around. You can make up good potting medium using a mixture of screened compost, sand, peatmoss or peat substitute (I’m not weighing in today on the peat argument) and perlite or vermiculite.

Watering: This is definitely one of the secrets to container success: making sure that you don’t let your containers dry out. This means watering daily, in most cases, depending on the time of year and the climate. Come autumn, when the plants have slowed down growing and days are cooler, you might not have to water daily; it just depends. Grouping containers together helps to keep moisture in the containers so you might not have to water quite so often. Some gardeners recommend adding those moisture-holding crystals, but they’ve been shown not to be particularly useful, so I don’t bother with them anymore.

Fertilizing: You can mix slow release fertilizer, organic or otherwise, into your potting mixture before planting, but you’ll still need to fertilize later in the season. I usually toss bonemeal and seaweed meal into my container mixtures along with some compost, and then water with liquid seaweed fertilizer once every two weeks. When you do fertilize, make sure that you have watered the plants well before fertilizing, or you can burn your plants roots.

Plant selection and care: as hard as it is to do, the theory goes that we’re supposed to select young, healthy plants that aren’t yet blooming for our containers and gardens. The theory makes sense, of course: plants that aren’t yet blooming tend to settle in to new conditions (whether in gardens or containers) because they aren’t focusing their energy onto creating flowers and seed. But when we’re starved for colour, it’s hard not to buy the plants that are already putting up flowers, isn’t it? Well, you’ll really thank yourself if you do buy plants that aren’t yet flowering, or if you disbud those that are forming flowers. Trust me on this. Within a couple of weeks, those new plants will have settled in and be flowering nicely. This is where it helps to have a greenhouse or other place to hold your containers for a couple of weeks while you are waiting. And you can always buy or create a couple of planters already in flower, just to help you get through the early weeks. I’ve been known to do that, too.

Deadheading is vital for prolonged bloom; after all, annuals are programmed to flower, set seed, and die, so if we prevent them from setting seed, they’ll keep flowering, determined to have their progeny live on after them. While you’re deadheading, you might also remember to cut container plants back a bit every week or so to encourage a new flush of growth and keep your plants looking lush and healthy. Somewhere, someone told me to use think thirds: cut back a third of a plant to a third of its height every three weeks. I might not get the every three weeks part right, but I remember to trim plants a third at a time, and they seem to do quite well. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Next time: some tempting plants I love in containers. But first, since it's now St. Patrick's Day, at least in Nova Scotia...


  1. hey Jodi - thanks for the great tips on container gardens! between you and the others who have participated in this months workshop, I'm feeling pretty darn confident about my ability to plant and maintain a few. In fact, I've already started buying my pots and today I purchased some Canna for my "thrillers"

  2. I agree and make my own container mixes. Last year some of my containers died because the mix didn't have enough compost. The soil was too compacted. It was a name brand too and I trusted they knew what they were doing. I work in 1/3rds. Soil, Composted Material, Fine bark chips. I add Espoma fertilizers depending on what each plant needs. I also fertilize my heavy bloomers once a week with 1/2 solution of a liquid mix. You give great advice and your flowers show their happiness.

  3. great set of tips for container gardening :)
    I loved St. Patrick's Day card.

  4. Top of the Mornin to ya,

    I really appreciate your container tips Jodi. Your containers are most boutiful and beautiful.

    I also like the shamrock at the end of your post. Happy St Pattys day to you.

  5. Lot's of goodies in this post! I'm partial to terracotta too, gives the plants some air around their roots (ie. their environment won't turn anaerobic).

  6. Lovely cats! Toby Soprano!!??;)) Isn't he tenor?

  7. Thanks for posting this. I use a lot of containers and skip the crushed gravel, too, with no ill effects.

    Currently my pots are either terra cotta, concrete or fiber glass. I'm thinking of getting iron urns but don't want burn my plants. I've heard they can overheat in the sun. Any experience with this, Jodi?

    Charmian- who's still up to her knees in snow

  8. All good tips Jodi. I hadn't heard the threes one, but will keep that in mind. I'll admit I find it hard to prune any plant though. I purchased a bag of garden soil once and it was just like using dirt! Weeds and turned hard as a rock. Now, I use potting soil. And another tip: if the contents of the bag are wet(Walmart) don't buy it!!

  9. As always, great advice! Let the container season begin! What do you think will be the color of choice this season?

  10. Thanks for the good tips on containers! Using a smaller pot inside of a larger one that doesn't have drainage holes is a great idea.

  11. Great article - I love those blue containers - absolutely beautiful!

  12. lots of great tips here Jodi. Since I don't have seaweed, I do the prairie version for making my own compost tea. I've found that my container plants respond well to some diluted tea. It's the deadheading that really makes a difference isn't it?


  13. Great post, Jodi. I knew most of it, but sometimes I forget bits, so it's great to have this all put down like this.

    Just look at that Rhodochiton! Mine didn't do all that well last year. I'm thinking I might try to grow one from seed, which I should be starting inside now, if I'm going to do it. The vines aren't easily found here, in fact, last year where I bought mine is the only place I saw it all year.

  14. I tend to overwater rather than underwater. Thanks for all the useful info. Since I live in the Piney woods of Texas, I sometimes throw in pinecones along with the terra cotta shards. To get rid of them and to make the container lighter to life.

  15. Wonderful tutorial, Jodi, and thanks for the lovely St. Paddy's day card, makes me want to sing that old ditty, "Me Mither and Fither are Irish" ;-> I can now understand why I have such poor luck with containers, other than good soil, I don't follow any of those ideas. Bad gardener. Maybe this year, since I can no longer claim ignorance as the reason for faulty flowers!

    Frances at Faire Garden

  16. I plan to do lots of containers this season, so this was just what I needed to read. Thanks for all the great information.

    Happy St Patrick's Day to you! Just spoke to my sister Jody in Oklahoma, who has a birthday today. As kids, we always had to plant potatoes on this day, and she hated that!

  17. Jodi,
    Someone gave me the "hint" about using at least 1/2 of a baby's disposable diaper in the bottom of a pot. They retain a LOT of moisture, and, theoretically, you don't have to water as often. I thought I might try it this year. ;-)

  18. Great post, Jodi! I'm guilty of always letting my containers dry out--especially the porch pots. I just tend to forget them somehow. My goal for this year is to not kill my container plantings :-)

  19. Nice post, Jodi! And that picture of the hanging basket makes me kick myself for not buying the Rhodochiton seeds that I had in my shopping cart, and then took out, while purchasing at Select Seeds the other day!

  20. Excellent tutorial Jodi. Here I cannot get away with putting plants in plastic containers and then into beautiful pots without draining holes. It rains a lot here and soon the containers will be filled to the brim with water and my plants will drown.

  21. Hi Jodi,

    Great advice on the containers! I'm putting in many more huge containers this year in an effort to create more of a courtyard look on the patio where we eat al fresco. BIG CONTAINERS!!!

    In the past I have used the Miracle Gro soil. I have had good success but am moving to a soilless mix this year as you recommend. My local nursery recommends one called Sunshine Mix. It's quite pricey, so I hope it's good. There is just nowhere for me to mix and store mine in bulk until we get the garden shed built.

    Robin at Bumblebee

  22. Great post. Did you buy that striped pot on your step or did someone make it for you? Darling!

  23. This is an excellent collection of tips for container planting success Jodi. Very helpful to see them all listed together...good reminders as we get started planting (soon!).
    The hanging basket is gorgeous!

  24. Hi Jodi,

    The St Patrick's day postcard is very sweet!
    I've enjoyed both your container articles - your explanations are really good and I love the photo on the steps.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  25. I do have a few potted plants but I generally keep away from them. Ours are devoted to cherry tomatoes on the back deck. In season they're always nice to pick and eat as we go off on our merry way.

    I feel sorry for the store bought plants taken home. I can't count the times people have asked me why the lush beautiful container full of flowers they bought just a few days ago is dead.

    Checking the container I find the potting mix stone dry. I always recommend watering in the morning and then again late afternoon in the hot summer months. Or at least go back in the afternoon and check. Those store bought containers have a tendency to dry out way too fast. Unfortunately that advise is usually given at the funeral.

  26. Jodi, thanks for the container tips! I love the colorful containers on the porch steps.

    I can't wait to start filling my containers! Soon!

  27. I had the opportunity to visit a large wholesale importer of pottery in Ft Lauderdale last week and was blown away. I could not believe the variety of colors, shapes and sizes. I had a budget of $1,500 to spend and ended up well over $2,000. there were just to many choices. Container gardening is a great way to get kids involved in gardening too!
    Rees Cowden

  28. Great post! Another tip I have used for years is this: In using my really large and deep blue glazed pots (I have a collection of them) I put chunks of foam packing material in the bottom 1/4 to 1/3. Annuals do not generally need that depth; they don't tend to send their roots down 2'. Also, this strategy uses up less of the pricey potting mix and makes the pots a bit more lightweight. I have done this for years and my plants have no difficulty with this. They are always huge and flower abundantly!

  29. I am really enjoying your container gardening series, Jodi. It is helping me formulate my "battle plan" this year. I just went out yesterday and cleaned up the plants I currently have in containers and was pleasantly surprised to find that a petunia and a kalanchoe had overwintered! Can you believe it? I couldn't. When I'm out working with my containers, I think of you now. :)

    Cindy at Rosehaven Cottage

    P.S. LOVE the vintage St. Patrick's Day postcard! I'm more Scottish than Irish as well, but can't resist all that green.

  30. I once had about 40 pots to water and very little time... I guess this was the reason for my failure in container gardening. But I'll have a new try...this summer. I'm very curious to read about "your" ideal container plants..
    Happy Easter with a lot of sunshine!


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