Deb Babcock: Container gardening

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

With our short growing season here in the mountains, it makes a lot of sense to place some of your favorite plants in a container. Doing so will allow you to move parts of your garden indoors when the weather turns frosty, or bring colorful plants to locations where you can enjoy them more when in full bloom, moving them out of the way again once they’ve flowered.

Many residents in the Steamboat area have limited space for a garden and may enjoy a relaxing gardening experience with a group of container plants on the patio or porch. Containers also are a great way to grow certain plants that need soil more acidic than our local alkaline mixture.

The gritty truth, however, is that growing plants in containers is a bit more work than garden-planted ones. They generally need more watering, more fertilizer and replanting/repotting than garden plants.

For greatest success with container plants, start with proper soil — not soil from the garden. No matter how good it is, garden soil tends to form a dense mass that is difficult for roots to move through and tends to hold too much water resulting in soggy, suffocating soil. It also can lead to soil-borne diseases in container plants.

The best soil for container plants contains a mix of organic material (peat moss, compost, etc.) and mineral matter (sand, vermiculite, perlite) that provide adequate drainage, moisture retention and looseness for easy root movement. Most bagged soil mixes meet these requirements.

Plants in containers tend to dry out faster than garden plants, so they need more frequent watering. This especially is true on hot and windy days in our very dry climate. Water the container until it flows out of the pot’s drainage holes. This ensures that all the soil is moistened, and it also washes away harmful salts that tend to accumulate. If water comes out the drainage hole too fast, check to make sure it’s not just running down the sides of the pot, missing the soil. If the soil just won’t absorb the water, set the container in a tub of water and soak the plant or plug the drainage holes when watering and remove when the soil is soaked.

Because container plants need heavy watering, many nutrients are washed away. Regular fertilizer application is needed for healthy plant growth. Use water-soluble fertilizers according to label directions or slow-release dry fertilizers that nourish the plant steadily throughout a period of time.

When you see roots growing out of the drainage holes, chances are it’s time to re-pot your plant. Choose a container that is slightly larger than the one the plant has outgrown. You want to keep the plant mass well-filled with roots to occupy the soil mass. Allow for about an inch of fresh soil on all sides of the root ball. If the roots seem too compacted, gently pull them apart or cut vertically with a sharp knife in several places around the outside of the ball.

Be sure to keep delicate container plants away from drafts or areas where the sun shines too harshly.

And enjoy them. Plants in containers provide a moveable feast of color, texture and aroma.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. If you have quesions, call 879-0825.

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