If you've killed enough outdoor container plants to fill a small forest, you're not alone. To figure out what went wrong and avoid making the same mistakes next time, take a look at the top 10 most common remedies for container plants in decline:
More plants die from too much water than any other cause. While it may seem counter intuitive to let plants dry out, it actually benefits plants by allowing oxygen to pass into the soil. So let your plants take in a breath of fresh air once in a while.
Use your finger to test whether the soil is dry 2 to 3 inches below the surface-that's when you should water. Also, when in doubt, check your plant's roots by gently lifting it out with the tip of a spade. Look for black or mushy tips, which indicate rot.
Try to avoid going to the opposite extreme and lettingyour plants dry out. Unless you're growing a cactus or succulent, it's not going to appreciate being thrown into the desert. To help find the right balance between too wet and bone-dry, consider buying a moisture meter. These inexpensive little gadgets take the guesswork out of watering by telling you when the soil is nearly dry, which is the right time to water.
All plants need light to survive. You probably knewthat already but did you know that the most common cause of lack of blooms is insufficient light? In general, low-light plants such as impatiens don't need direct sun.
Part-sun or medium-light plants such as violas do best with three to four hours of direct morning sun and some dappled afternoon sun - light that's filtered through a nearby tree, for example. Zinnias, petunias, and other full-sun plants generally need size hours or more of direct mid-day or afternoon sun per day to do their best.
Believe it or not, plants can get sunburned, too. And until someoneinvents a sunscreen lotion for plants, it's important to avoid putting medium-or-low-light plants in too much scalding afternoon sun. Different seasons can also mean fluctuations in light intensity, so while a plant might have been happy with a few hours of direct sun in early spring, it may be getting too much sun once the dog days of summer roll around.
One advantage container plants have over garden plants is that you can move them around as the seasons change. A good rule of thumb for low-light plants is to put them in dappled shade or a place where they will get early morning or late afternoon sun.
Plants in containers need to be fed more often than plants in the garden. Frequent watering causes nutrients to leach out of the soil over time, leaving impoverished soil. The solution is to feed all of your foliage plants about once a month during periods of growth.
Feed blooming plants more often, since they require more energy for flower production-about once every two weeks while in flower. The rest of the time, you can treat them like foliage plants. If you're planning to overwinter your containerplants, stop fertilizing completely by September so plants go dormant in time for winter.
Prevent pest and disease problems from rearing their ugly little heads by practicing good hygiene. This means disinfecting your tools with rubbing alcohol or a bleach solution after each use, rinsing out old containers with soap and water, and throwing out potting soil if it was previously home to diseased plants.
You can nip most insect problems in the bud if you catch them early enough. Start by spraying plants with a strong stream of water and wiping the insects off with a damp paper towel. Disease pathogens thrive in wet conditions, so keep leaves dry and soil slightly dry.
Choosing the right container for your plant is almost asimportant as putting it in good soil. Since most flowering annuals don't have very deep root systems, they'll do well in containers that are wider than they are deep.
If, however, you fall in love with a tall container and want to use it, fill the bottom half with a filler material such as packing peanuts or broken up shards of pottery, then add potting mix on top. This helps provide better drainage and prevent root rot. Use a container that is no more than 2 to 3 inches larger than the roots of the plant, so the plant doesn't drown in excess soil & water.
The soil around a plant's roots is its house, andjust like the houses we live in, the soil in containers could use a little spring-cleaning every year. A potted perennial may live several years in the same potting soil. To keep that soil healthy,it's important to revitalize it every year. Take the root ball out of the pot and carefully remove some of the old potting mix from the sides and bottom of the root ball, then add new potting mix to the container and replant.
Look at a plant's place of origin to see if your conditions will be a good match for it. For example, violas and other woodland plants love shady, moist, humus-rich conditions resembling those found in their native environments. Plants from arid regions, such as many ornamental grasses and bulbs, prefer dry conditions and well-drained soils. Choose the right plant for the right place and you can avoid many ailments.
Annuals will die when freezing weather comes, and you can choose new ones next spring. But if you plant perennials in containers and want them to last through winter, check each plant's hardiness zone to make sure it will survive in your region.
Plants in containers tend to be more vulnerable to extreme temperatures, so it's wise to buy plants that are hardy to at least one hardiness zone colder than the one you're in. For borderline plants, provide extra mulch or move them into an unheated garage in winter to keep them safe.
Part 2 continues where Part 1 left off. We start here with Tip 14
14. Spur strawberries by rooting plant runners. All types of produce more fruit if runners are clipped allowing them to produce no more than three daughter plants each summer. When runners produce daugther plants, place them - still attached to the mother plant - into a small pot filled with soil When the daughters grow enough roots, simply clip them off the runner. Give the new plant away or start a new strawberry bed.
15. Safeguard compost from contamination. Avoid adding feces from dogs, cats, or pigs to your compost pile because it can carry harmful pathogens that can transfer to vegetables grown from that compost. But it is OK to use horse or cow manure that has been aged at least on year.
16. Eat your flowers! Learn which ones are safe to eat and only choose organically grownpetals. Nasturtium blooms add a peppery flaor to salads, minced snapdragon petals lend a confetti color to butter, and pea flavor tulips make a beautiful edible cup for tuna or chicken salad. Remember to remove the pollen-laden bitter pistils and stamens inside.
17. Help birds build nests by providing narrow grasses, fine strips of bark, thistle, burlap, or milkweed. Stuff a mesh onion bag with pieces of yarn 8" long or shorter, hair, feathers, or small twigs and hang it in a spot protected from rain and cats.
18. Make your own fertilizer. Collect leaves of comfrey and stuff them into a bucket. Compress the leaves with a brick or rock, cover the bucket and let the leaves decompose for 6 weeks. The result will be a black liquid that looks like motor oil but is a godsend for plants because it is high in potassium and nitrogen. Dilute with water (one part of the liquid comfrey to 15 parts water) and use the mix when watering plants, or spray it directly on leaves.
19. Plant annual geraniums in clay pots or planters, which tend to dry out faster than other types of plant containers. This is a good thing because annual geraniums need to thoroughly dry out between watering periods. For most other annuals, use ceramic, poly resin, concrete pots with saucers to retain moisture.
20. Design high impact containers with monochromatic color schemes. Stock with one color per pot, adding interest by filling companion pots with plants that have a related hue by different shape or texture. If you are unsure, group plants together in your shopping cart before buying to see how they look together; cool and warm tones of the same color sometimes don't blend.
21. Use your ingenuity when mixing up solutions to keep deer away. Deer learn quickly, so switch products frequently to keep them guessing. Try garlic spray, predator urine, and commercial deer repellents. All will work - for a while. Reapply often. The best solution may be to place motion-activated sprinklers in the garden. Deer never get used to being hit with a sudden blast of water.
22. Preserve fresh herbs for soups and stews. Fill an ice cube tray with chopped herbs, top with water, and freeze. When the cubes are solid, move them to a plastic freezer bag. Use as needed.
23. Till soil sparingly. Mechanical tilling is fine for a new bed or one that is heavily compacted. But continual grinding, year after year, will disrupt the soil structure, turning it into a powder that won't hold moisture. Till sparingly and be sure to augment annually with leaves.
24. Shake out the salt. Epsom salt can be an ally in the garden when scratched into the soil The salt's magnesium and sulfer help germination and flowering while improving the uptake of phosphorus and nitrogen.
25. Sharpen your edge by using the proper edging technique. Make a vertical cut with a flat-edge spade along the outside line of your bed. After making the vertical cut, move to the other side of the bed. About 3" away from the outside edge, angle the spade to about 45 degrees and cut to the bottom of the vertical-edge side. Shake off excess soil, then toss the remainder into a compost pile. Mulch to the edge of the inside cut. The edges keep the lawn at bay for about a year.
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