By Marni Jameson
Hope springs eternal. Otherwise, why else, on a gorgeous March day last week, a day bursting with spring, would I dash to the garden center, and fill up the back of my SUV with brightly colored annuals to replant my patio pots?
Why, when my success record for flower pots is about one in four, and that’s being generous? Usually, soon after I invest the time and money in flowers for my outdoor pots, I witness a widespread plant massacre. Like a scene out of Braveheart, I have seen an entire English army of flowers taken down either by my own hand, when I’ve forgotten to water, or by Mother Nature, when She serves up a late frost or a pounding hailstorm.
But like the gambler who can’t stay away from the black jack table, I play the odds again. And again. As I did this week.
Buoyed by the spring weather, the adrenaline rush I get when I have a new installment of fresh seasonal flowers on my patio (however short lived), and the power of intermittent reinforcement (those few times my brown thumb flashed green), I was drawn to the nursery like a hummingbird to the nectar feeder.
On that gorgeous spring day last week, the defensive line for the Los Angeles Rams could not have held me back, such was the strength of my optimism.
At the garden center, the aisles brim with lush, healthy annuals. If only I can keep them alive, I think and fight off a pang of guilt as I load my cart with sun-loving petunias in shades of bubblegum and grape juice, pentas with their white showerheads like floral fireworks, and leggy lavender. For contrast, I throw in some mixed greens.
Back home, I tear out the expired poinsettias, vestiges from the holidays, and prepare the pots for their next victims.
Only this time, before I sink more money, I call Gardeners Supply Company, an online supplier of gardening goods, with a store in Burlington, Vermont. The company’s website boasts access to gardeners who will offer advice, so I dial.
I get garden expert Annie Reno on the phone and ask how I can boost my chances for long-term flower survival. Together we put together these 10 tips for foolproof flowerpots.
- Pick the right containers.Big containers keep soil moist longer than small ones. Ceramic containers, which I favor, retain water. Be sure planters have a drainage hole, or several. Self-watering containers are also available. These have built-in reservoirs, meaning you water less often.
- Get the dirt. Don’t waste good planter mix in places that won’t ever see a root. Fill the bottom half of the planter with Styrofoam shipping peanuts, or rock gravel, to allow drainage. Put the pricier planting mix on the top half, where the plants are. This also makes moving planters easier.
- Follow the sun. “The biggest mistake consumers make is not choosing the right plant for the right spot,” said Reno. If the label says “sun,” don’t put this plant on your covered porch. Petunias, geraniums and daisies are good choices for sunny areas. Shade plants, like violets and impatiens, really don’t like direct sun. Also combine plants that have the same moisture requirements. Don’t put a drought-tolerant cactus with your water-loving hibiscus.
- Plan the architecture. Consider plant height, color and texture when designing your pot. Place an upright plant, like dracaena spike or fountain grass, in the center or back of the planter, then tier down to mid-height plants, then to plants that cascade, like potato vine.
- Color with care. Whether you go with all one color, or two or three colors, have a palette and stick with it. Work to coordinate with the colors in your patio area, such as furniture cushions, pavers, or planters. Until lately I have put the same color and type of flower in my flower pots for a monochromatic and monobotanical look. For instance, over the holidays I filled pots with only red poinsettia. Before that I stuffed the pots exclusively with yellow mums, and last summer with only bright orange geraniums. This year, Reno convinced me to mix it up. I chose a variety of sun-loving annuals in purple, pink and white.
- Vary your greens. I used to yawn when gardeners talked on about the beauty in different shades of greenery, but now I get it. Injecting shades and textures of foliage adds interest. This year, I mixed in grey velvety dusty miller, lime green potato vine and burgundy coleus.
- Use water extenders. Mix water absorbent crystals into your soil. They will absorb then slowly release moisture like time-release cold capsules, buying you time between waterings.
- Dead head regularly. I thought snipping off dead flower blossoms was just for looks, but Reno said dead heading also promotes new growth and bud rejuvenation. If you leave the dead blossoms on, the plant will go to seed. “Once a plant starts going to seed, it thinks it’s job is done and stops flowering.”
- Feed them. I like Miracle-Gro, because it helps my plants flower, but some pros think it’s cheating. “Plants get hooked on it, and become dependent,” said Reno, who prefers slow- release fertilizers. “They’re better for the plant.”
- Water appropriately. Read the leaves. “If leaves have their sad face on, they may be too dry or too wet,” said Reno, who warns that plants can drown from overwatering, as easily as they can die from dryness. You want planter soil to feel moist but not slushy. If a strong rain fills your pots, drill in a few more holes to add drainage.
“Any last words of advice?” I ask Reno as we wrap up our call.
“Have faith,” she said.
“Oh, I do!” I said. Isn’t hope and promise what spring is all about?
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.