7 Thoughts on Gardening Pots

One of the biggest things I do in my landscaping is to make maximum use of gardening pots for container gardening. Not just any pots will do in my garden and here’s how I use them all.

Big Displays

Let’s be honest here – bigger is better. 🙂

Pot Construction

Clay pots. When it comes to outstanding looks in the garden, I tend towards large clay pots. These work well for me and I get great growth out of the clay. Water drainage is better than plastic and the pots tend to be cooler in the summer.

Plastic hold water better than clay so don’t drain as well. I prefer the extra drainage so I can move water and food to the plants easily. Given I don’t “leave home” very often in the summer, I’m around to water my clay gardening pots.

Concrete A lot of folks like the use of concrete pots as they’re durable and are tough to knock over in the garden. I’ve had one of these urns (at one time) and found while they didn’t blow over, they weren’t overly large-sized for growing plants given the size of the urn (in other words, the urn is large but the side walls are thick and there’s not as much room for plant roots as you might think.

Wood grows a good plant and looks attractive in the garden as well. Use cedar to prolong its life.

My Favorite Pots

My favorites are clay pots, the bigger the better. And yes, I know they’re heavy and break but there’s still nothing nicer in the garden than old clay pots with flowers spilling over the edges.

But if you want…

Even Bigger Displays

This is where we start to see huge plastic and fibreglass pots come to their own. The larger sizes of this kind of pot makes both the construction and handling of the clay pot difficult.

For Growing In

I used to use a lot of small clay pots for specific specialty plants and propagation but I’ve pretty much switched to plastic pots. I recycle from year to year and never purchase any but add to my collection from purchased plants. When they crack, I toss them into recycling.

These are easy to grow in and transplant out of (the clay tends to “grab” onto the soil) when you grow as many plants as I do, every little bit helps.

Hanging Baskets

This is my pet peeve when it comes to gardening pots. I absolutely hate the cheap plastic baskets commonly sold in garden centers. If you want a good display of hanging container plants, then use a wire-basket with peat or coco-liner (line that with an old bit of plastic for serious water-holding improvement) and grow a garden. Small plastic pots heat up too much and stress on the plants is inevitable.

Image by Lynn Greyling from Pixabay

Novelty

And yes, I know there’s a place for whimsy in the garden but I confess I’ve never gone there.

That’s my take on gardening pots – agree or disagree as you will – in my own garden.

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How To Make Your Own Grow Bags of Compost

Yes, you can use old pantyhose or garbage bags to make your own grow bags. Here’s how.

OK, so it’s silly season in the greenhouse research area.

Use Old Pantyhose

Some researchers have taken old nylons (looks to be about that size anyway) filled them with compost to make their own grow bags and started growing in them.

Their results indicate that this indeed might be a good way to grow plants. They state that this might work in areas where there is no soil.

Ah yes. We’ve been doing this for years folks.

Use Green Garbage Bags For Inexpensive Grow Bags

I used to grow tomato plants in green garbage bags back in the early ’80s because I couldn’t afford the fancy grow-bags.

Lay the bag on the ground, fill it with a minimum of 12 shovels of soilless mix and away we’d go. After the crop was done, pick up the bag and old stems (carefully because it would be wet) and dump it into a compost pile for recycling onto the garden. Re-use the bags if they were OK (hey, they cost me a dime each!) :-). This was inexpensive gardening using what we had.

I’ve even taken bags of soilless mix (the 30-litre size) cut a hole in them and grow on the greenhouse floor rather than ground. This was rather more expensive than the old garbage bags but I wanted to see if it was workable. (it was).

Poke holes in the bottom of the plastic bag to allow the water to drain.

Real soil or potting soil in bags does compact so if you want to try this, stick to the peat-based soilless mixes.

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Put the garbage bag in a funky container

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

Can you use straight compost as a growing media?

Yes, you can *if* your compost is fully composted.

If it is not (or you’re in doubt) then only use it at 10% of the total volume of the soil (in other words, 1 shovel of compost for every 9 shovels of a peat-based soilless mix).

Fully composted material is fine — partially composted material may contain too many salts and burn tender seedlings. Here are the posts on how to make compost

As always, if you’re not sure try growing some tomato seedlings as they’re the most sensitive plants in the home garden. If they grow well, you’re fine.

But yes, a researcher has just figured this out. Good to know. And if you do have lots of extra old nylons around, you might give them a try. The only issue is to ensure you have adequate soil, support, and water for your intended crop.

how to make grow bags

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The Most Important Skill In The Garden Is Watering

Watering Individual Plants

A Simple Home Drip-Watering System

  • Take a large plastic bottle – cut off the bottom end about a half-inch from the bottom.
  • Take the screw-cap top off and with a hot needle, poke a hole in the top. Note that a drill is usually too large.
  • Put the top back on the bottomless bottle – and dig a hole about 8-inches deep right beside your tomato plant.
  • Set the bottle into the hole – pierced cap end down. Backfill it and fill the bottle with water through the cut-off bottom end.
  • The pierced cap will slowly leak the water into the soil and will provide a few hours of regular deep watering. If they leak out (emptying the bottle) within an hour, the hole is too large. You want a steady and very tiny trickle of water.
  • The trick is to make one of these bottle waterers for each tomato in your home patch and fill them up once a day. This will keep the ground uniformly moist (but not soggy) and will allow the tomato plant adequate moisture.

Drip Irrigation

There are quite a few drip irrigation systems on the market, and here are a few things you really want to think about.

If you have a well?  Get a filter at the beginning of your system if you live in the country. You’ll be surprised how much “small sediment” can quickly clog up a drip system.

That’s assuming you’re using a by-pass so you don’t filter garden water. If you’re taking it after the filter, you’ll find your filters will clog much faster.

Distance Apart for Tubes

Drip irrigation usually only covers about a foot or so on either side of the hose. This means if you have a 4-foot wide bed, you’ll need two runs (down and back) to properly irrigate. A single run will not provide enough water.

It’s far better to have the hoses closer than too far apart – so if you have to err, do it on the side of close.

Drip irrigation systems are also quite useful in creating an excellent soil moisture level without losing much water to evaporation. The only problem with them is they do tend to clog up and you’ll have to check them out daily or your plants will quickly suffer.

A drip irrigation system flow rate can be calculated by knowing the flow rate of each emitter and then counting the emitters. Or, by immersing the entire system into a 5-gallon bucket and timing how long it takes to fill up the bucket.

Overhead Systems

If you use overhead irrigation nozzles, water in the early morning so the sunshine has a chance to dry out the leaves. Watering in the evening will bring on fungal problems as the leaves will stay wet all night. (remember that damp and dark create homes for fungus to grow)

And no, watering during the day doesn’t “burn” the leaves. That’s an old wives’ tale.

And definitely, use a form of rain gauge to figure out how long to run the irrigation system. A rain gauge will work quite nicely to tell you how many inches of water you can apply with your irrigation system in an hour. Most gardens do nicely with approximately 1 ½ inches of water per week.

If your hose puts out 1 inch of water in an hour – you need to put 1 ½ hours of water onto your plants. Split this amount into two ¾ hour segments equally spaced over the week (say on a Tuesday and Friday – or Saturday and Wednesday)

Rather than purchasing an expensive rain gauge, I use an old yogurt tub and mark (using a permanent magic marker) every half-inch up the container for a few inches. When I start the sprinkler, I time how long it takes to put a half-inch of water into the container. And that’s my base time. Double that time for an inch of water etc.

Hand-watering The Garden

The last resort but a relaxing one is to hand-water your plants. I say last resort because hand watering is usually not as consistent as a sprinkler or drip system. You tend to water more at the beginning and less as you get closer to finishing. You tend to overwater some plants and underwater others.
Having run a nursery with many different workers doing the watering, I can tell you that these variations do make a difference when spread out over a growing season. I use sprinklers in my gardens (I’m also a lazy gardener who wants super yields too).

However you do it – do not let your plants wilt or suffer from moisture stress if you want a good garden.

Container Gardening

There is a very simple rule when it comes to applying water to container garden plants.

Always water so that at least 15-20 percent of the water poured in the top comes out the bottom.

Having done this, do not water again until the surface of the soil is just dry to the touch.

Until your finger comes away dry from touching the soil, the plant does not require watering.

This system of watering ensures that the entire soil ball is wet so tender young roots do not go begging for moisture. If the soil ball is wet right to the bottom of the pot, the roots too will grow to the bottom of the pot.

Deeply rooted plants are invariably healthier and better able to resist stress than are the more shallowly rooted ones. A thorough watering also ensures that all excess fertilizer salts are always being moved to the bottom and right out of the pot so as not to damage the tender young feeder roots.

“Another reason why plants kept in rooms are generally unhealthy, is, that they are watered in a very irregular manner.”
Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden 1858

You Can Create An Amazing Container Garden By Following The Tips In My Ebook.

When Your Container Goes Bone Dry Because You Forgot To Water

Should the soilless mix dry right out, it will pull away from the sides of the pot as it shrinks. This will allow the water to run quickly and easily down between the pot wall and the soil ball. This, of course, isn’t doing any good to the plant in the process.

The remedy with these types of shrinking soils is to sit the pot in a tub or pail of water for at least an hour to allow the soil ball to absorb all the water it can handle and expand again.

If the container is too large to move into a tub, then very slow and often-repeated waterings will accomplish the same thing. I have often had to trickle water over some of the larger containers three or four times, with a half-hour between waterings, to convince them to rehydrate and soak up moisture.

And it doesn’t matter what kind of container it is, the rules are the same.

Learn Restraint

“A great many ladies kill their plants by extreme kindness; that is, they keep on feeding them until the plants get too much water, when the roots rot and the plants die.”

Heinrich The Window Flower Garden 1887

The secret to this container watering, whether it be inside or outside potted plants, is to learn restraint.

If you touch the soil and your finger comes away damp, then do not add more water. Too much water will kill a plant almost as fast as will too little. If your finger comes away dry – then and only then do you water.

Mr. Heinrich did not mean to be particularly sexist when he refers to the ladies killing their plants by “extreme kindness”. The fact is that at the time of writing, maintaining the container gardens was very much a proper ladies form of gardening.

Women, at least those who would purchase and read a book on container gardening, did not work out in the fields. They gardened on a more refined scale in a container garden.

How things change!

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Recipes For Potting Soils

This is one of the best articles on soilless mixes I’ve read in a very long time.  From adding compost to specific recipes at the home scale, you’ll find this one useful to bookmark and refer to again and again.
The one thing I’ll quote here is the following test procedure. This is critical for any soil/compost mix you make up (and even a few purchased soils I note)

Consider pretesting your potting mix by doing your own greenhouse bioassay. To do a bioassay, grow cress, oats, beans, lettuce, or another fast-growing crop with a high germination rate in your soil mix. If there is a problem with the mix, you will see it in reduced germination or poor seedling growth. You may also compare your new mix to a mix that you are satisfied with.

Here’s the URL for it.

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Why You Can’t Grow Calibrachoa and Other Plants in Containers

Many gardeners have trouble growing plants such as Calibrachoa and don’t know why they can’t grow them in containers. Here’s the deal to understand.

This plant is often described as a “high feed” or “high iron” plant and while they do love to be fed, and won’t produce well under low-feeding regimes, there are other factors at work.

Plants such as Calibrachoa lack the ability to take up iron under high-intensity cultivation – and this is particularly true when the soil media pH is too high.

In order to succeed then, you have to ensure the soil acidity stays acidic.

In order to succeed then, you have to ensure the soil acidity stays acidic. If you have high-alkaline water, you’re turning your soils alkaline with every watering. And thus making it hard for this particular plant to thrive.

In our greenhouses with our high-alkalinity, high-pH water, I had to add acid to the water in the propagation house to make sure I didn’t wreck the pH of the soil with these tender seedlings and cuttings. Once out in the nursery and garden, they were fine (for the most part).

Understand that plants in containers thrive on soils that are more acidic

Also, understand that plants in containers thrive on soils that are more acidic than the preferred soils in-ground culture. In other words, grow a bedding plant in a container and it wants more acidic soil than it does in the garden.

Iron deficiency symptoms

Iron deficiency symptoms include chlorosis (yellowing) of the younger leaves and mostly concentrated along the stem and lower section of the leaf next to the stem.

There is usually minor “netting” of the remaining green leaf surface. Note that once these start to happen (in even a barely noticeable way) the plant becomes susceptible to other issues such as moderate overwatering or root disease.

In other words, the iron deficiency reduces its ability to fight off minor stress.

The best pH is between 5.5 to 6.2 for Calibrachoa. On the whole, keeping pH around the 6.0 mark is the best plan.

If you see growing problems with this plant, then do check for soil pH first and if that’s fine, investigate further.

A regular soil test kit will give you “close-enough” data.

If pH is too high

If the soil pH is too high, then you have to acidify the soil and you can do this by adding acid to the irrigation water (vinegar works well on the home scale and you do have to test to bootstrap your way to a 5.5-6.0 water pH test ) or using an high-ammonium, acid-reaction fertilizer (such as 21-7-7 or 9-45-15) will drive the pH down. Adding an iron-drench to supersaturate the container soil is sometimes used as well.

Cool, humid and low-light conditions can make a small problem seem much worse.

So if you’re having problems growing this particular plant, or even trouble growing a great container plant, now you know how to go about it and produce a show garden.

Here are other container gardening ideas you’ll want to know

What You Need to Know About Organic Potting Soil

There’s a real demand for information on organic potting soil in container gardening, so I thought I’d pass along a few thoughts from my nursery and garden experience.

Peat Based or Not?

There is concern in Europe and the U.S. about the sustainability of wetlands and peat bogs. Some over-harvesting and lack of management have reduced supplies below a sustainable level and the horticultural industry went exploring options.

I note the Canadian situation is a little different as they have regulations about bog reclamation and are world-leaders in reclamation technology. (plus they have so much of the darn stuff)

One such alternative that works well in some trials is coir.

Coir is the shredded up parts of the coconut after processing. So it’s a naturally occurring substance and (the best part) it’s waste material that used to be thrown away. It makes an excellent base for growing.

But having said that, it’s produced in far-away places in limited quantities (with the attendant shipping costs and environmental costs of that) so it’s not available for commercial production and expensive on the home scale relative to peat.

It usually comes in compressed bricks (that darn shipping again) and you’re going to have to soak it thoroughly to expand it

Compost

If you’re going to use a material such as peat or coir that is essentially nutrition-free and is primarily to hold the roots, you really do want to give the plants essential micronutrients and something to grow on. Here’s where we can add compost to the mix.


If your compost is perfectly finished and wonderful stuff, you can add quite a bit more than recommended rates without hurting your plants. But if it’s not quite right (and the only way you’ll know is by having it tested in a lab) then you can do some serious damage to your plants quite quickly.

Stick to levels below 10% on the home scale. You’ll find commercial mixes with higher proportions but these have been tested before mixing.

Hint: try growing tomato seedlings in your homemade soil mix before you put expensive plants into it.  Tomatoes tend to be quite sensitive to soil problems and if they’re not growing well (or die) it’s an indication your potting soil isn’t right

Minerals

Plants require mineral charges to get them growing. They get these naturally from soil but unless you add material such as iron to your soil you’re going to find your plants languishing. Again, in practical terms you can use something like fish emulsion on your organic potting soil to add these minor trace elements.

Plant Food

Here’s where compost and fish emulsion shine in creating an organic potting soil that produces a whomping big and healthy plant right from the get-go through to harvest.
My containers are all started off with a shovel or two of compost in the mix and then I use the fish emulsion on my containers all summer-long to produce huge crops of plants.

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