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Top 10 remedies for the container blues





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 letting your 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 knew that already but did you know that the most common cause of lack of blooms is insufficient light?  In general, low-light plants such as impatients 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 someone invents 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 container plants, 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 as important 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, and just 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.


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