Six ways to save money on container gardening
Now is the prime time to plant your summer flower pots, an annual rite of spring that can get expensive by the time you’re done buying bags of potting mix, fertilizer, new plants, and such.
Here are six ways to hold down costs:
1.) Scavenge the yard for perennial flowers that you can dig and divide to use in pots. The best are ones with colorful foliage that add interest long beyond the few weeks they’re in flower.
Good choices include golden creeping sedum, variegated liriope, coralbells, foamflowers, foamybells, hosta, euphorbia, ajuga, variegated brunnera, golden sedge, golden-variegated Japanese forest grass, lamium, and most any fern.
Return the perennials to the ground in fall to overwinter.
2.) Put some houseplants you already have to double-duty. Most houseplants appreciate outdoor “summer vacations” in the heat and humidity, so why not use a few in your summer pots alongside new color-coordinated annual flowers?
Examples include palms, crotons, dracaena, wandering jew, snake plants, spider plants, golden pothos, peace lilies, and rubber plants.
Just don’t shock houseplants with too much sun when moving them outside, and get them repotted and back inside when late-season nights start dipping into the low 40s.
- Read more on double-duty houseplants
3.) Don’t overpack your pots. Some gardeners like instant impact and plant their new transplants so they almost touch.
Keep in mind that those transplants will grow and that if you’re patient, fewer plants will fill in nicely within a few weeks.
Bigger ones, such as lantana, sweet potato vines, and many petunias, even get big enough for a single plant to fill a 12-inch pot in a matter of weeks.
4.) Stretch your potting mix. It’s not a bad idea to replace your pots with fresh mix each season, especially if you had any disease issues or are using a mix that breaks down quickly and becomes compacted in one year.
Otherwise, you can “refresh” your pots by mixing half of last year’s mix with half new mix. Or if you make your own homemade compost, stretch new store-bought mix by adding 25 to 50 percent of compost to it.
Don’t scrimp by buying cheap, heavy, poor-quality potting mix (quality makes a huge difference), don’t dig up soil from the ground (too heavy and possibly contaminated with disease or weeds), and don’t try to reduce soil quantity by adding stones, foam, or other materials to the bottom of the pots (counter-productive for good drainage and reduces root growth).
5.) Repurpose containers you might have around the house instead of buying new pots.
Most any container – from boots to bathtubs – can become a flower container, so long as it has adequate drainage for water to drain out the bottom.
6.) Skip hydrogels. These are pellets that supposedly cut down on watering by absorbing water and then gradually releasing it as the potting mix dries.
Research has found that they make little, if any, difference and aren’t necessary for good pot growth.
Two better ideas for reducing watering are to line the inside pot perimeters (but not the bottom) with plastic sheeting and to group pots together in wind-protected areas.
Research from England also shows you might not need to water as much as you think.
- Read George’s column on five ways to put together a nice summer-pot combination
- Read George’s article on how to “containerscape” with potted plants
Divide and move those crowded spring bulbs
One reason spring bulbs can go downhill in blooming after several years is that they’re getting too crowded.
Just as most perennial flowers can be dug, divided, and transplanted into new spaces with more elbow room, so, too, can flower bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and such.
Although spring bulbs are generally planted new in fall, existing ones can be transplanted any time they’re dormant between late spring and early fall.
The next few weeks are actually the best time to do it because you can see from the yellowing/browning foliage where the bulbs are. If you wait until summer or fall after the foliage has decayed, you risk slicing into the bulbs when you dig blindly.
The ideal strategy is to wait until the to-be-moved bulb foliage has at least yellowed. Fully brown is even better, which means you’ve taken full advantage of the leaves’ refueling capability (via chlorophyll and sunlight).
After yellowing/browning, dig up whole clusters and shake off the soil. Then pull apart the individual bulbs and cut off the foliage. That’ll give you bulbs to replant one by one at a depth that’s two-and-a-half to three times the height of the bulb. (Example: a two-inch daffodil bulb should go five to six inches deep.)
Bulbs that divide especially well include Siberian squill, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow, snowdrops, grape hyacinths and daffodils. Tulips divide, but most of them tend to go downhill in ensuing years whether you divide or not.
No need to water or fertilize. Scatter a balanced, granular over the bed in early fall, just as the summer-dormant bulbs are coming back to life by sending new roots into the soil.
- Read George’s “A bulb for every spot” article for ideas on what bulbs to plant where.
Maple trees looking bare?
If your maple trees are unusually thin in the canopy so far this year, there’s a good chance nothing serious is wrong.
The problem likely is a result of excess seed production that has supplanted and delayed leaf growth. Given warming temperatures, lengthening days, and time, there’s a good chance the trees ultimately will leaf out to near-normal levels.
Maples are trees that tend to produce their winged seed pods in varying amounts from year to year – some years producing massive amounts.
This apparently is one of those years, as you might be able to tell by the number of “samaras” (what people often call maple “whirlybirds” or “helicopters”) laying on the ground.
Although it’s been unusually chilly for much of the spring, most maples didn’t have their flowers and resulting seed pods aborted by a killing frost as was the case with many magnolias. That, combined with the heavy seeding, added up to a perfect storm for pods.
Massive seed production diverts tree energy from leaf development as well as taking up space and light that otherwise would be open game for the leaves.
Now that the seed pods are on the ground, trees can turn full attention to the leaves. Arborists say that should allow thin canopies and sometimes nearly-bare tops to fill in within a matter of weeks.
If that doesn’t happen and branches are bare heading into summer, that’s the time to look into other possible causes of maple decline, including rotted or damaged roots, wilt disease, and reactions to increasingly hot summers and erratic weather.
- More when-to-do-what tips: George’s “Pennsylvania Month-by-Month Gardening” book