Flowering Container Gardens – the basics and beyond
Making beautiful, long lasting planters and hanging baskets is like making anything, from apple pie to quilts to bookcases. If you start with good ingredients and handle them thoughtfully, you will have great results.
Recognizing the light and temperature conditions where the finished planter or basket will sit or hang is the first thing to consider. A ho
t south porch against a brick wall is very different from a cool north-facing patio. Selecting the right plants for your container or the correct nursery grown planter or basket is crucial to success. To see a list of great long-blooming, trailing and upright container plants for sun and shade, click here.
Quality planters and baskets start with strong growing, vigorous young plants, the best potting soil you can make or purchase, and a plan for ongoing fertilization. Correct and regular fertilization is the key to producing something really outstanding. Because so many plants’ roots are sharing a container, and because regular heavy watering can flush out fertilizer, the level of fertilization must be high, without burning, and consistent in delivery over time.
The easiest way to do this is probably to top dress the basket after planting with a slow-release, prilled fertilizer such as Osmocote. Use the 4 to 6 month formulation and apply one tablespoon to an 8” pot, and an extra teaspoon for each additional 2” of pot diameter. It won’t burn, and doesn’t really kick in for about ten days, so the plants have a chance to root in a bit.
Liquid fertilizers, including fish fertilizer, are great also if you want a little more involvement with caring for the planters or baskets. The label rates are set for safety, not for performance, so generally you can double the rate without any dire consequences. However, it’s not good to fertilize at any rate when the planter or basket is wilting or if the day is extremely hot – the dissolved fertilizer interferes with the plant’s ability to absorb water via osmosis.
Please don’t be tempted to use a container without a drain hole; build up of salts can burn your plants, and overly wet soil prevents roots from taking in any oxygen. It’s a little-known fact that roots need air too. Several holes are better then one. With enough drainage and quality potting soil, it is difficult to over water planters and baskets. Water deeply when you do water… this means at least a quart of water in a 10” basket.
Another key to great planters and baskets has to do with soil levels in the container. You should make the planter or basket in such a way that when all your plants are in place, there is one inch of free space in the top of the basket. Without this free space, you will not be able to get enough water into the planter when the weather turns hot.
Most planters and baskets are prepared in nurseries under conditions of very high and careful fertility. Feed formulated to yield about 200 parts per million of nitrogen, plus potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and bunch of lesser micronutrients is provided on a daily basis at most commercial nurseries. Plants accustomed to this rate of feed can start looking shabby with in three or four weeks if some feeding isn’t resumed. Lack of fertilization and incorrect watering is probably the main cause of decline in planters and baskets.
Be prepared to water your basket once a day, and twice a day when the weather gets hot (over 85F). A good way to tell if your hanging basket is moist enough is to lift it a little each day before you water it. This way you get a sense for how much it usually weighs, and you can water it more heavily it feels light. If it feels very light and is wilting, you may need to water it several times or immerse it in a bucket of water. This is because as the soil dries out, it shrinks and pulls away from the edge of the basket. Then, the water can just run quickly through the space between the basket and the soil and never really moisten the roots.
If the weather is extremely hot, think about moving your planters or baskets to a shaded, cool position until the weather changes. Setting them on the ground also slows water loss. This can be especially helpful to keeping fuchsias blooming in the late summer.
Deadheading isn’t necessary with many modern hybrid annuals, such as trailing petunias and bacopa, but is never harmful. Some larger flowering plants, like geraniums, dahlias, and marigolds, look much prettier after the spent blossoms are removed. I personally enjoy picking off the dead flowers and pinching scraggly limbs once a week or so – it’s a great way to check in on my hanging baskets and get up close to those gorgeous, colorful flowers.
If you are raising fuchsia baskets or shade pots containing fuchsias, be sure to keep pinching them just a little throughout the summer. The nicest fuchsia baskets I have ever seen were grown by a man who pinched 1/6th of the growing tips on his baskets each week until frost. In late August, when many fuchsias have succumbed to the heat, his were huge, lush, and covered with flowers.
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