Garden Musings: Tending the Pots

Somehow I’ve become a pot watcher.

Though fortunate to have a yard to experiment in, my EMG propensity seems to be container gardening. This interest did not come about willingly. Never thinking that pot tending would be my ultimate garden passion, over the last three years as an EMG I have researched and shared four public presentations on the topic. Throughout, I learned how much I do not know about plant health. And, how those tried and true “home remedies” can truly create a plant hospital on one’s back steps.

Terra cotta pot with white salvia, red begonias, and lime green potato vine. Photo © 2020 Anne Reed

Recently, I experienced an epiphany (happens usually when I’m weeding or watering). Often gardeners become infatuated with pots, their sheer design and color tempting every sense. I imagine that tall ceramic blue urn at my front door cascading a bounty of verbena or geranium with perhaps a tall Panicum virgatum centered so that its panicles climb toward the sky. Or, an earthy terra cotta pot, brimming with white salvia, red begonias, and lime green potato vine finding its way on that stone bench where the container rests. Carried away by the images mirrored in Fine Gardening magazine, I am no exception. Certainly, I could have built a small, but beautiful patio, surrounded by native landscape plants, with the investments made on the perfect “right pot.”

And there’s the rub. I myself have committed many a gardening faux pas (and sadly watched the container demise) against plants that did not thrive in that so-called “right pot.” While training to become a certified master gardener, I learned a Truth: “Right plant, right place.” To that abiding phrase, I would like to add another to guide all the pot gardening geeks out there: “Right plant, right pot.”

So much I could share about this second Truth. However, there are so many type pots and so much to learn about the plants that thrive in each type. Therefore, I am choosing one of the most common and versatile containers, clay or terra cotta, my favorite. There is something about touching “baked earth” pots, for that is what the term translates into in English. Smooth and warm, the redness of baked clay, such pots please the eye as well. However, these “old world” vessels are tricky, so one must beware their cleverness.

Terra cotta pot in need of cleaning – with clay feet inside. Photo © Anne Reed

Unglazed terra cotta is very porous. Why is this important to know? First, as the pot overwinters, the pores can harbor last year’s troubles, like insect or plant debris that is detrimental to soil health and ultimately root growth. In addition, those tiny pores are powerful absorbents of water, thereby drying out the soil quicker than other type pots. Using this information, one can practice sanitation prior to filling the pot with soil by scrubbing (and I mean scrubbing) the container with hot, soapy water and rinsing well. Another trick to providing one’s plant with a good start in a terra cotta pot is to dampen or soak the inside of the pot with water prior to filling it with soil. This inhibits initial concerns with the soil drying out. And, then there is the issue with plant choice. Since terra cotta pots do not retain moisture as well as other containers, select plants that enjoy a dryer soil environment, like rosemary, lavender, or lantana. How do you determine plant choice? Know the plant. Own it. Research its optimum growing conditions so that you don’t commit too many container faux paus. Generally speaking, one will need to water terra cotta pots more often to ensure root health in a well-draining soil.

Pot watching can be full of surprises. Remember the terra cotta pot with the salvia, begonia, and potato vine? Last week, I was eyeballing a strange plant popping up amidst the salvia. It wasn’t a weed, so I let it grow. This week I realized it was a cucumber plant, so I staked it and am watching it meander all over the pot and the garden bench. What the heck! You know plants always have the last say!

Anne Reed – July 2020

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