Gardening is no longer the exclusive pastime of homeowners with large yards. Almost anything can be grown in a container as long as you give your potted plants the same love and care you would a regular garden. John Nusca, owner of Toronto's FlowerJohn, shares his tips for successful container gardening.
1. Choose your containers wisely
While experienced gardeners might tell you any container will do, some materials are easier to work with than others, especially for beginners. Cheap plastic can deteriorate in the sun and is not meant for longevity, although its light weight is a plus. Terracotta pots are stronger, but dry out rapidly, so they often require more watering. If you opt for glazed ceramic pots (or any other salvaged container, like a teapot, small wheelbarrow or even an old bucket), remember to drill drainage holes in the bottom. Nusca also recommends going for large containers so you aren't "watering constantly." Finding the right containers for your needs can be tricky, but have fun experimenting!
2. Sterilize your containers
Whether you decide to use a classic terracotta pot or bust out an old boot or tire as a home for your flower or herb garden, make sure all surfaces are clean before you plant. This is especially important if you're buying secondhand containers that might have housed diseased plants. Use an environmentally friendly all-purpose cleaner to scrub your pots, then rinse and dry before planting.
3. Plan before you plant
Where you place your containers will depend on the types of flowers or vegetables you're growing. Some plants need full sun, while others prefer a little (or a lot of) shade. The beauty of container gardening is that you can move pots to more favourable conditions if they're not thriving in their original location. Similarly, plan within the container. If you're planting different flowers in one pot, consider how you would plant flowers in a backyard garden: taller ones in back and shorter ones in front. For containers, work from the inside out. Larger, taller plants should go in the middle and trailing flowers should be placed closer to the outside edges. Also make sure to group plants with similar growing conditions.
4. Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize
"To get big and beautiful flowers in a container, you must keep the nutrient level maxed out," says Nusca. "I fertilize every time I water -- what a difference!" For vegetables, be sure to use manure tea. It sounds disgusting, but it's natural and won't leave chemicals on your plentiful crops. Manure tea is essentially water extract from manure with soluble nutrients. It builds the organic content of your soil, which improves drainage and helps soil hold nutrients. "It gives by far the best results," says Nusca, "especially when used with green herbs, since it is loaded with nitrogen."
5. "Rotate" your crops
Planting different vegetables in the same containers has the same effect as farmers rotating their crops: different plants need and use different nutrients, so this helps keep soil healthy. But make sure to give vegetables room to grow and space them generously. Nusca also recommends that veggie growers plant crops that they will use and harvest regularly. This will maximize your use of the available space.
6. Water regularly -- and then water some more
You'll find that you need to water container plants more often than the rest of your garden. Especially during heat waves and in dry climates, this likely means watering daily. Each time you water, keep going until you see water coming out the drainage holes at the bottom of your pot. This is the time to stop, before soil becomes soggy or water is left standing, but it also ensures a generous drink. For those who can't make the commitment to water daily, self-watering containers are a must, as they have a reservoir at the bottom to keep your plants moist for a few days at a time.
7. Choose the best potting mix
Ideally, everyone could simply shovel soil right from the garden into containers and grow full, healthy plants. Unfortunately, this is not the case: garden soil is usually too heavy and contains too much clay, which will hold moisture in pots, drowning the roots. For containers, opt for something more porous. Garden centres sell packaged potting soil perfect for container gardening.
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