Be kind to pot plants

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Pots in need of rejuvenation

Recent painting work on our house necessitated moving potted plants around, and made me realise how I am generally not very kind to them. Busy trying to keep on top of my garden borders, I tend to forget about the pot plants a lot of the time. I do usually get to water them regularly, but that is about it! Feeding, pruning and general care are usually forgotten about, so no wonder they look rather woebegone!

I've vowed to try to turn over a new leaf, and for a start to repot them all this spring into fresh, good-quality potting mix, with some well-rotted cow manure mixed in, then to apply some suitable granular fertiliser. Now is the perfect time for this task. Where it is not possible to move a plants into a bigger container, the root ball can be trimmed with a sharp knife so that there will be room in the original pot for some fresh potting mix. If you don't have time to repot, scrape away some of the old growing medium from the surface and add a layer of fresh potting mix on the top of the pot, then apply some fertiliser.

Pretty annual Lobelia happily growing in a pot in the garden of Grace Stanton in Sydney

Some of my pot plants are not doing well in pots and will be planted out into the ground. Whilst in general, my pot plants simply represent an overflow of greedy acquisitions for which no space can be found in the garden, pot culture does lend itself more to some types of plants than others, and ideally this should be their primary role! Too many small pots can give a cluttered effect - I think it is actually better to combine different plants into one larger container than to have lots of little pots of individual specimens.

Potted succulents in the garden of Jill Budden, Springwood NSW

Some plants need very good drainage and where this isn't easy to find in a garden with, for example, heavy clay soil, pots can provide a better home for these specimens. Many succulents fall into this category. Watering can be controlled and I think that the sculptural form of many succulents lends itself to container growing. It isn't always easier to blend in succulents with other sorts of plants, either - another reason for growing them in pots.

Potted cymbidium orchid in the garden of Holly Simmonds in Sydney

Epiphytic plants - such as orchids, bromeliads, zygocactus and ferns - also grow well in pots as this allows them the excellent drainage that they need. Containers are ideal where special potting mixtures are needed, such as those required by many orchids, or for the acidic medium needed by Camellia and azaleas. It is possible that in some cases, Mediterranean and Australian native plants might grow better in containers than in the garden, too.

Eucharis grandiflora

Bulbs often need good drainage and may grow better in pots than in the ground. Some bulbs - especially those from the Amaryllidaceae family of plants - need a dry spell over summer, and this may be easier to achieve in a pot than in the ground, by avoiding watering the pot at this time. The Eucharis lily (Eucharis x grandiflora) pictured above, is one example of a bulb that needs variation in watering at different times. Some of the more dramatic bulbs, such as Hippeastrum and Scadoxus puniceus, look better in pots, too. Some of these bulbs also like to grow in a congested situation - again a pot can provide this more easily than an open garden bed can. Some bulbs (for example, Neomarica caerulea) like lots of moisture and may be more likely to get this if grown in a pot where it receives regular watering. Aquatic plants such as Louisiana irises and Acorus can be grown in pots without any drainage holes - like a miniature pond!

Phormium cultivar in the garden of Anne Prescott in Sydney

Plants with bold, dramatic form in general often are not shown to their best advantage in a garden bed, hemmed in by other plants. A container is often the solution, and I have admired Phormium and ornamental grasses grown in large pots, used as effective focal points in gardens. On the other hand, tiny plants are often better off in pots, where they won't get 'lost' in the garden. Precious petite bulbs and rock plants may survive better in a container, and we can appreciate them better there. Placed on an outdoor table, they will be able to be admire at close quarters. Plants vulnerable to attack by pests such as snails may do better in pots - Hosta being an example - because we can keep a better eye on them.

Potted plants can be moved around, so are suitable for specimens that are cold sensitive and may need protection in winter. Some Begonia, for example, are a bit out of their comfort-zone in Sydney, but if grown in pots in a protected environment, they are more likely to flourish. Pots can be grouped to form pleasing combinations of plants, and then moved out of the way once the plant is not looking at its best.

Potted plants grow under a tree in the garden of Grace Stanton in Sydney

Pots let us add instant colour to our gardens - by choosing brightly hued ones in the first instance and by enabling us to grow annuals to cheer up a dull area in the garden. Pots also allow us to grow plants where it isn't possible to dig - such as in courtyards, on balconies and front porches and under trees where root competition is extreme. Pots allow herbs and vegetables to be grown where there isn't a suitable spot in the garden for a vegie patch. And - as in my case - they provide a home for plants when we run out of garden space! But I am going to try to give them more respect in the future.