In the Garden with Miriam Jabour|You don’t have to grow a full garden to have pretty plants

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 18, 2009

One way to brighten a corner, patio, front porch or an area that does not lend itself to planting in the soil is to plant in containers. And, they can look good alone or in groups.

Ornamentals, vegetables, herbs, roses, shrubs, trees, groundcovers and grasses are showing up in container plantings in every section of the country. Jim Wilson, born and raised right here in Vicksburg and author of “Bulletproof Flowers for the South,” tells readers that container gardening may have started as a trend more than 40 years ago, but it’s not a fad. It’s a different way of gardening, but it’s definitely here to stay.

Everything the container plant needs has to come from the gardener, because it can’t send out roots, says Wilson. Containers require regular watering and periodic fertilization. Controlled-release fertilizer, often incorporated into premium potting soils, can be added at planting, or a foliar fertilizer can be used every two to three weeks. Common granular fertilizer should never be used in container plantings. The ammonia and high salt content can harm roots.

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The best potting soils have no real soil in them, says Wilson. Potting soils are generally manmade, mostly with natural products that are designed to retain moisture without becoming waterlogged.

For most containers, Wilson recommends adding an eighth of a cup of dolomite limestone to a gallon of potting mix. Agricultural limestone is not effective in containers because it releases lime too slowly. The dolomite contains calcium and magnesium, two important secondary nutrients that take the edge off the natural acidity of the potting soil. This is particularly important if you are growing tomatoes or some other type of fruiting vegetable in a container where a deficiency of calcium shows up as blossom end rot.

Container plantings require more frequent watering than do ground plants. But absorbents are now on the market that can prolong the intervals between watering. Some come pre-mixed into potting soil. They look like little granules of gelatin that have the capacity to hold many times their weight in water. Soil with these added can go several days without water, but not for an indefinite period.

Drip irrigation is also an option, and there are numerous styles available. Mulch or moss can be placed around plantings to help hold moisture in the soil. Most plants benefit from shade or semi-shade during part of the day, so consider placing containers under a tree or patio covering.  Each time you water, it is important to do so until water runs out from the bottom of the container. This removes excess salts that damage plant roots, as well as provides moisture.

Joan Franson, container gardening chairman for the National Garden Clubs — the largest volunteer gardening group in the world — commented in the spring 2009 issue of National Gardener magazine that she has experimented with a soil mixture of one-third expandable shale to two-thirds good potting soil. Expanded shale is available in a number of states and via the Internet, says Franson. It is mined and milled by putting it into a kiln at 2,000 degrees Celsius, a process that causes the clay to become porous and capable of holding and releasing water over a longer period. It looks like earth-colored gravel, but is much lighter in weight. The addition of expanded shale improved drainage, aeration and water-retention of the containers she planted.

One nice thing about containers is they can be planted at just about any time during the year. But, many of the early spring and summer plantings don’t look too well by late summer. Some can be salvaged by trimming the plants back and feeding them every two to three weeks with a foliar fertilizer. Others just need to be thrown out and the container replanted. Wilson recommends discarding used potting soil after each growing season. Spent soil makes a good mulch or soil conditioner for flower beds, he says. Used potting soil may be out of balance physically and chemically and fail to perform well with new plantings.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.