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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
3:59 PM Mon, Sept. 24th

Earthy advice to fill containers

Have you noticed that with the state of the economy retailers have reduced inventory choices? At the garden center we, too, must be extremely careful with inventory cost, but over the past couple of years two of our departments have seen dramatic increases in demand. Unsurprisingly, anything to do with edibles - vegetables, herbs, grapes, brambles and fruiting trees - are off the charts in sales. Interestingly, the other is the container department. I guess that's because it is so easy to garden in a pretty pot and less costly than a full-fledged garden. Also, with the right plant selections for a container garden, plants can thrive just as long as they would in the ground.

With that being said, my mind and back have been focused on pottery and gardening in containers. My back because I just received the latest shipment of beautiful glazed containers, an entire semi-truck full of every shape, size, and color imaginable. Some of these are huge, so they are HEAVY, and my back knows it! My thoughts because 1) so many of these new pots have gone to create my own container gardens and 2) I had to decide how best to share the experience with you readers.

The most important consideration of container gardening has to do with potting soils. Soil is so important that I can become obsessed about the subject. I personally have designed all the soils at our garden center so they are suited to our unique mountain climate. For the most part, you can grow any and all plants in containers using a good planting soil. Generally, these mixes are light and drain extremely well.

Some plants prefer, and in some cases actually require, special potting mixes. Cacti, succulents, orchids, and African violets require a potting mix that drains faster than an all-purpose potting soil, and that's why there are specialized mixes for these plants. However, you can create your own perfect blend for such picky plants as cacti and other succulents. Simply blend one part sharp builder's sand with two parts potting soil.

Many popular culinary herbs, especially those native to the Mediterranean such as oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme, actually grow better in potting mixes that aren't too rich. To my knowledge there aren't any potting mixes just for herbs, but it's easy to make your own. All you need to do is combine one part sand to two parts potting soil, and then add a generous amount of small pebbles or perlite. Such a mix will replicate the gravel-like soils found in the Mediterranean, and provide the ideal home for your herbs.

Match your plant to its pot. Consider how large the plant is likely to get at maturity, and pick a pot that gives it plenty of room to grow. Small plants, like pentas, will do fine in a small pot, although they likely will need to be watered once if not twice a day in summer. Gardens in larger containers usually do not need to be watered quite as often. My ideal container is made of glazed Asian clay and is 18 - 24 inches in diameter.

Where you place your plants should be governed by the growing requirements of the plants they contain. Keep in mind that even plants that, in the ground, would ordinarily thrive in full sun may, in a pot, benefit from afternoon shade. This is especially so when containers are on a patio or a paved surface, because they can heat up very quickly. Thankfully, one of the truly great things about growing plants in containers is that you can move them around until you find the perfect spot for each one. Moving a container is much better than losing a prized plant. It also pays to place your container plants close to a source of water. After all, the more convenient it is to water your plants the more faithful you're apt to be about watering them.

Remember, the quickest way to lose a container plant or a houseplant is to water improperly, so water only when necessary. Try to water very early in the morning before the heat of the day puts stress on plants. Water when needed. When the soil is dry to a depth of one or two inches, it is time to water. Consider watering TWICE each time you do. Soak the soil well then wait a few minutes, maybe while you water other plants, then water again. During the first application water is absorbed very quickly, but it often leaves dry spots or gaps within the potting mix. The second watering hydrates those gaps, delivering a thorough watering. Considering its effect, this watering technique is well worth the extra time involved.

I hate to admit it, but I am guilty of killing some of my container plants this week. Because of the heat I was watering all of my smaller blooming containers once each day, which was right for most of the small pots. However, it was too often for my shaded begonias, which were not happy, to say the least, so some expired. Of course, my cacti and succulents prefer much drier conditions, going several days between waterings, even as long as weeks for my native varieties. Be aware that not all plants need to be watered at the same frequency.

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This Saturday's gardening class starts at 9:30 a.m., and is entitled "Containers Sure to Please." Next week's class, July 10, is "Sweeter Fruits, Grapes, and Berries - What Grows Best and Where." Classes are free, informative, and a lot of fun.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Ken Lain says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden smarter and get our local garden timing right." Throughout the week Ken can be found at Watters Garden Center located at 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or may be contacted through www.wattersonline.com.