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Meyer Lemon Tree BlossomsDespite a warmer than average winter, I’ve been going over my gardening plans for the coming seasons as I focus on my indoor garden. It’s rare for me to talk about what I do and my upcoming gardening plans. I currently live in an urban apartment where gardening space is limited, but have learned to maximize the small space available with container gardening.

I base most of what I do with my garden off of gut instinct and luck in combination with the knowledge I’ve picked up through trial and error over the years.

What Worked

  • Mixing My Own Soil

Living in an apartment, my access to soil and compost is incredibly limited. In the past I’ve relied on a popular brand of potting soil with varying results. My goal this past year was to find a more rich soil mixture that required less maintenance. I ended up using a mixture of potting soil, a high quality compost, sand, and soil conditioner mixed in accordance to the needs of individual plants.

Mixing my own soil turned out to be the best thing I could have done for my little container garden—it retained moisture without becoming waterlogged. To cut down on cost, I looked for ripped, discounted bags at garden centers. The potting soil I used was leftover from the prior year and I would recommend cutting it out completely if possible.

  • OrchidsOrchids

During the winter, mold can be a major problem with indoor plants. My apartment has poor air circulation that created a severe mold problem with the sphagnum moss potting medium used for my orchids. The mold caused root rot, so the decision was made to replant them in bark which has completely abolished the mold problem. While still healing from the mold attack a year later, all have stabilized and look to be healthy.

  • Lizard TerrariumTerrarium

After longing for a terrarium, I finally created a large and nearly self-maintaining eco-system plus an additional lizard. A layer of rocks under the soil help create a self-watering system that the plants thrive on. Beneficial springtails help to tidy the enclosure and decompose waste. Can’t wait to add some live moss!

  • Overwintering Herbs

Currently, our mild winter has made wintering over the many herbs and plants incredibly simple. The hardier plants are unmoved since summer while the more tender are housed in a small pop-up greenhouse for protection from the winter nip.

  • Container PondContainer Pond

Mid-summer, I picked up side project and turned a large, cracked planter into a container pond. This was an especially cheap and simple project—the container was clearanced for $6. Easy to maintain, the pond and goldfish within provided a tranquil addition to an already relaxing jungle. The goldfish have adapted well to overwintering in a tank inside

What Didn’t Work

  • Balcony GardenLack of Space

This past year, I grew both lemongrass and tomatoes; however, both plants grow fairly large and take up a lot of space. Since they shaded out many of my other plants, I have decided I will not grow them this coming year in order to make room for new plants.

  • Various Tropicals

I grow many tropicals that rotate between inside and outside depending on the weather. Both last winter and this current winter, I have found molding soil due to my apartment’s poor air circulation. Currently I have been treating with cinnamon to keep the mold at bay, but would like to find a better solution in the future.

After busting the pot on my large White Bird of Paradise, I attempted to repot it on my own despite suspicions it would be a two person job. I was unprepared for the thick, stiff roots that grew straight down and the three plants separated as I loosened the old soil. In the end, I ended up with leaning plants that were growing into one another.

My cats have done a good job of eating the foliage and even killing a few. I have resorted to placing them in odd places so the plants will have time to begin their recovery.

Looking Ahead

  • Seed SproutingSeed Sprouting

The warmer than average winter is wreaking havoc on my gardening plans as I’ve been cautious of planting seeds with worries they’ll sprout too early. However, I have picked up some new seeds to try of which includes fenugreek, cattails for my pond and cat grass in hopes of distracting the cats from my tropicals.

  • Enduring Soil

When I created a soil mixture last spring, I tried to plan ahead in anticipation of this growing season as I wanted the repotting to be minimal. I added plenty of soil conditioner to each pot in hopes that it would decompose throughout the year, leaving another year of rich soil for each plant to continue growing in. I am eager to see how well (hopefully) this has worked out.

  • Meyer Lemon Tree in FlowerLemon Tree

I will endure the continual wait for the first lemons to ripen on my Meyer Lemon tree. I’m also hoping to see the growth even out a little more this year. The tree is currently in full bloom with a scent that fills the entire room; however, I won’t be leaving many lemons to grow as it’s still a young tree.

After a fairly successful year, this coming year looks to be a promising experience with plenty of room to grow and expand my gardening knowledge. So, how did your garden grow this past year? Got any interesting plans for the 2013 season?

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Whether off to college or going on vacation, leaving plants alone can mean death for the poor creatures. This can be complicated when there are many plants involved—or even an entire garden. Despite having a plant sitter, I have lost many plants this way and have since devise d a better plan to help the sitter succeed.

Casualties: Thyme almost died while I was away last.

Casualties: Thyme almost died while I was away last.

There are a pot load of factors to what sort of care is needed for the plants:

  • The number of plants.
  • Whether they’re indoors or outdoors.
  • If they’re growing in pots or plants in the ground.
  • The time of year and location.

I find summer to be the most difficult and stressful time for outdoor plants. While a week away from home may not sound long, during the summer heat, plants may need watering every day. Despite this, I am always tinkering and evolving the systemleft for the plant sitter.

Find that Special Somebody

Surprisingly, the most difficult challenge may be finding the right person to house sit the plants. This person must be somebody who is not only willing, but also enjoys caring for plants. Previous plant care knowledge is always beneficial. A close neighbor, friend or relative is often the best bet if caring for a garden or jungle of house plants! If only a few plants are involved, it may be easier for the caretaker to watch them in their own home.

Clearly label all plants!

Clearly label all plants!

Keep it Simple

Do whatever you can to make care as simple as possible. Using neat handwriting, clearly label all plants, the bigger the tag, the better—large popsicle sticks work great! Some people only see “plants with green leaves,” so leave labeled photographs of the plants—I’ve even emailed this last minute to the sitter. Make a list of all plants and their locations, don’t want one passed over! Include detailed care instructions that include a watering schedule; note any plants that have special or differing requirements. Make all care accessories easily accessible—nobody wants to hunt for a watering can. Will anything need fertilizing? To avoid overwhelming the caretaker, try to do this beforehand or use fertilizer stakes.

Watering can in an easy-to-find location

Watering can in an easy-to-find location

Outside Care

Outside plant care can be fairly basic during the cooler months, but may be complicated by the heat of summer as the ground and potted plants will dry out quickly with a lack of rain. Because of this, plants may need to be watered daily. Optionally, self-watering pots can help alleviate some of the work while mulching can help the soil retain moisture longer. Large vegetable gardens may even be mulched with grass clippings. While watering cans work great for a small amount of plants, choose a garden hose for a large number of plants–sprinklers, soaker hoses and sprinkler hoses work great for large areas.

Special care: this orchid is in a dormant period and must not be

Special care: this orchid is in a dormant period and must not be watered

Prioritize

Chances are, the designated plant sitter may be overwhelmed and unprepared for what some may call a jungle. It is important to make sure they know which plants are most important and irreplaceable or difficult to replace. This way, they can focus their attention on these plants, increasing their chances of survival. The plant sitter is only as good as the plant owner, at least while you’re out of town anyway, so proper cooperation is required.

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With record temperatures and much of the United States in drought, garden care can become a little more complicated. Soil dries out faster and sensitive plants may wilt in the heat of the afternoon. Enduring an abnormally hot summer can put a lot of stress on plants as well as the unprepared gardener. There are some simple precautions that can be taken to ensure any garden withstands the heat.

Keeping Cool

The heat will quickly rid pots of precious moisture. I recommend checking plants twice daily and watering as needed. Plants that are root bound will need to be watered more often, up to twice a day. Be careful not to overwater; soil should dry 2” down between watering to prevent root rot. Protect plants from direct sunlight damage by watering in the early morning or evening. Be cautious when watering in the evening, some plants are prone to fungal diseases if they stay wet.

Avoid evening watering:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Orchids
  • Beebalm
  • Cucurbitacae: cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons
  • Solanaceae: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers

Dryer than a Desert

Soil that is too dry will be reluctant to retain moisture. The best way to combat this is to water the plant and then let the pot sit in a tray of water until it has soaked up the moisture. If the soil dries out completely, the plant will need to soak in a tray of water until it will retain moisture again.

A Solid Watering Idea: Ice cubes!

Need to keep plants cool and watered throughout the day during the summer? Try placing a layer of ice cubes on top of the soil. As the cubes melt, they will not only provide a steady water source but can also cool the soil down. Any plants that are root bound and dry out quickly during the day will appreciate the steady water source. A steady water source will help prevent having to water multiple times throughout the day.

Take a Second Look: Pot Color

If temperatures are high and plants are in direct sun, avoid using black containers. Black attracts the heat from the sun and can overheat sensitive plants. Notice a plant wilting in the middle of the day despite being well-watered? Try moving it to an area that is shaded from the afternoon sun. Ensuring plants are protected from the heat of the day will give delicate plants a much needed break.

Staying in the Shade

Any plants that are found wilting in the blazing afternoon sun should be relocated to a more protected area. Many of these plants are either not hardened to the direct sunlight or are intolerant of full sunlight and require morning sunlight or shade. Being aware of a plant’s light requirements can help eliminate unnecessary stress that may slow or kill growth.  If the plant simply needs hardening off, place the plant in the direct sunlight and gradually increase the amount of time. For example, start with 15 minute increments and increase the time daily

Being able to help a garden endure these unrelenting, scorching temperatures will ensure it’s survival. The now prepared gardener can beat the heat without breaking a sweat.

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Fundamental maintenance is necessary for keeping any container garden alive and thriving. My container garden hosts quite the arsenal of plants this year which requires a strategic plan of action.  While it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of gardening, creating a routine will help to simplify the maintenance.

Water

Adopting a watering schedule is very important. Plants growing outdoors in containers will need more care and attention than plants growing indoors. Outdoor plants will require more frequent watering. Many factors attribute to the watering needs of a potted plant. These needs will depend on the size of the plant, pot, temperature and location.

Soil Quality/Condition

A good quality potting soil is preferable. Cheap soils may have a lot of filler that will cause the dirt to dry out quickly. I prefer to mix my own soil when I have the space and time—this year I’ve used a mix of cow manure compost, soil conditioner, sand, and a high quality potting mix. I mix in accordance to the need of the plant; the size of the plant in ratio to pot size should be taken into account when mixing soil. When planting a small plant in a large pot, a lighter soil mixture may make all the difference on whether the plant lives or dies.

Some plants that prefer well-draining soil:

  • Lavender
  • Tarragon
  • Citrus
  • Rosemary
  • Succulents
  • Cacti
  • Many tropicals

Repot if necessary

Nearly all newly purchased plants will need to be repotted into a bigger pot with fresh soil. To check if your plant needs repotting, simply turn over the pot and look at the drainage holes to check for visible roots. You may also gently remove the plant from the pot, if it comes out as a large, root entangled clump then it is time to repot. When repotting, it is important to loosen the roots—some dirt should be left around the roots.

Fertilize

Does your potting soil bag say it will feed your plant for six months? While this may be true for some plants, I have found that any vegetables, herbs, or plants that are heavy producers or fast growers will require fertilizer before the six month period. Using a good fertilizer on a regular schedule will help keep your garden green and thriving. Heavy feeders will require fertilizer weekly; while light feeders may require it monthly or less. Every plant will show signs of stress when in need of fertilizer; this may include yellowing or paling of leaf colors to wilting of leaves and lack of new growth.

Prune

Many plants will fail to thrive if not pruned. Pruning not only shapes a plant, but encourages bushy, new growth and proper airflow to prevent diseases. This is especially useful with herbs and necessary with fruit trees. Herbs will bush out, producing more leaves to be collected for your next meal. Pinching back new growth will also help delay flowering to prolong the usability of the plant.

According to Alli Cobra of our own “Greenhorn Wisdom” fame, for fruit trees, it is necessary to remove center branches to help air flow and prevent disease.

She also feels it is important to remove:

  • Center branches
  • Overlapping and crossing branches
  • Branches with weak crotches — for example, branching has a very high angle that is less than 45 degrees
  • Any other crowded areas to improve overall airflow

Deadhead

Flowering plants do best when deadheaded. This is the removal of dead or dying flowers. By removing the dead flowers, the plant will put more energy into producing new flowers instead of producing seed. Many plants can be kept flowering throughout the season if deadheaded when necessary.

Protection from the Elements

When growing in containers, plants will need protection from the weather. This is particularly true if in a place with a harsh winter and long periods of frost. According to Alli, surrounding the pot with mulch or leaves, placing in a shed or garage after reaching dormancy or placing them in a trench may make all the difference on whether the plant will survive the winter to thrive when spring arrives.

Growing on a balcony will also leave plants more prone to being blown over or knocked over by a pesky squirrel. To help discourage this, place a layer of small rocks in the bottom of pots.

Whether protecting one plant or many from a troublesome squirrel, every garden thrives with a little routine. Armed with the basic knowledge of container garden maintenance, any garden under your watch will not only remain green and lively, but will flourish and impress.

Looking to get into container gardening? Try reading our article about getting started here: “Gardening in Small Spaces

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Whether a novice or an experienced gardener with a lot of land, plants such as mint need to be kept in check. That’s why container gardening is great! They are easy to start, maintain and are wonderful for those with little time or space. There is little to no weeding, no tilling, and allows plants that aren’t winter hardy to be grown.

Any container will serve well in a garden, but be mindful of size ratio in comparison to how large the plant will grow. Growth can be stunted or need water more frequently in a container that is too small. Putting a layer of rocks in the bottom also helps to keep the pot upright as the wind may blow over a top heavy plant. Searching for broken plants and pots three stories below may not smiled upon by a neighbor’s dog.

Raised Garden Beds

Raised beds have recently gained a lot of popularity due to a book called All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. In the garden center, I regularly get customers inquiring or raving about this technique. While raised beds are nothing new, they do offer a unique, space-saving garden. To simplify, it involves a raised wooden bed filled with an extraordinarily nutrient rich soil and compost mixture. These beds can be modified and customized to suit the gardener’s needs. They utilize all available space, allowing the gardener to grow a lot in a small area.

Trellised cucumbers

Growing Up

When faced with a small amount of space for a large, trailing plant then the best way to grow is up. While falling into this category, tomatoes are typically grown on a trellis; however there are other plants that also grow well this way. Cucumbers are an excellent choice for this as they readily take to trellising. Peas, squash, beans, and melons can also be effectively trellised. Be aware that any plant with a large fruit will not grow as large due to the extra weight that must be supported. Once big enough, be sure to train any trellised plant to climb onto the trellis.

Layering – The Waterfall Effect

See how stunted the sage is?

Layering can save a great deal of space. Placing tall plants behind short plants is one version of this, but a more effective version is raised containers behind shorter containers. This way plants of the same height can all get the right amount of sun. For example, last year I grew some herbs in a long planter, but the basil quickly grew so tall that the sage’s growth was stunted due to sunlight being blocked out. If these were layered, the sage would have still been able to get enough sun to grow well.

Thrifty Containers

Where to find cheap pots and containers:

  • Garage sales
  • Flea markets
  • Thrift stores
  • End of season clearance
  • Freecycle
  • Craigslist
  • Friends, family, and neighbors

Holes can be drilled in any container to create a successful addition to any garden.

Thrifty Container ideas:

  • 5 gallon food grade buckets are perfect for tomatoes

    Burlap sack for potatoes

  • An old tire
  • Pots
  • Food grade plastic buckets: 5 gallon frosting buckets from a bakery.
  • Raised wooden gardening beds
  • Metal cans
  • Any plastic containers

Some plants that grow exceptionally well in containers:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Many flowers
  • Strawberries
  • Herbs
  • Lettuce

Look for patio versions of plants as these are selected for their exceptional growth in limited space or try a dwarf fruit tree. Get ready to experiment with a variety of containers and plants. Container gardening offers something for every gardener: the decorative, creative, thrifty, or trendy.

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