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Drought survival: what about watering your plants in containers?

Drought survival: What about watering your plants in containers? Nothing dresses up patios and decks more readily than a few flower-filled pots. But since plants in pots dry out faster than their counterparts in garden beds, they also use much more water. Whether you plant one or two pots to perk up the garden, or just want to keep alive any valuable container plants you already have, here are things you can do to reduce the amount of water you must give them.

If you plant new pots

Make sure that the water needs of your existing landscape plants can be taken care of before planting a new pot. Clear water gathered in buckets from shower heads while waiting for it to warm up can be enough to keep a few large pots going.

Choose the pot with care. Some container materials are more water retentive than others. The best choices for dry climates are plastic, concrete, or glazed ceramic. Wood is more moisture retentive than clay. Containers of paper pulp and pressed peat and sphagnum moss-lined wire baskets dry out fastest.

Shape and size can also affect how fast a pot dries out: ones with deeply tapered sides and shallow outer edges lose water much faster than ones with straight sides and deep root areas, and small pots dry out more quickly than big ones. When water is rationed, avoid using pots smaller than 12 inches in diameter.

Use a moisture-retentive potting mix. Many packaged potting soils sold in nurseries and garden centers are fine in years of adequate rainfall, but inadequate when water supplies are restricted. They contain so little clayey material (and so much fibrous material) that water runs through them too fast and evaporates too quickly.

Look for packaged potting soils with moisture-holding polymers mixed in. Or increase the water-retentiveness of more fibrous packaged potting mixes by mixing in 1/3 to 1/2 pulverized clay or clay loam soil or fired calcine clay (sold as some kinds of cat litter; check the label).

If you can make your own potting soil, start with 1/3 to 1/2 clay soil or clay loam soil. Break up the clay soil into dust or crumbs, and mix it with other ingredients, such as leaf mold or nitrogen-stabilized ground bark. You could also add polymers (follow package directions).

Choose unthirsty plants. Perennials that deliver lots of showy blooms in spring and summer without copious amounts of water include bougainvillea 'Crimson Jewel', gaillardia (pictured at left), erysimum (also sold as Cheiranthus 'Mauve clusters'), lavender, garden penstemon, salvia superba 'East Friesland', and yarrow. All do well in deep, straight-sided pots. One plant per pot, one or two pots per patio, can deliver lots of color for the small amount of water you spend on them.

To reduce water needs of

existing container plants

Repot if necessary. If you have plants in wire baskets or pulp pots, you should immediately move them into the ground or into more moisture-retentive containers of the same shape and size as the old one (or slightly larger). But if, in order to transplant, you'd have to shave off much of the existing rootball or fracture it, postpone the move until late fall.

Bury pots of especially thirsty plants. Hydrangeas, for example, quickly wilt if they don't get great amounts of water. To keep big old potted hydrangeas when you're short of water, you should get the plants' roots underground one way or another. Remove the hydrangea from the container and plant it in good garden soil in a shady place. Or dig a pit big enough to hold the pot, put the pot into it, and cover with dampened leaves.

Double-pot plants. Warm rootballs can slow growth of some plants. To keep roots cool, nest pots inside larger ones with enough clearance to add an insulating ring of gravel or bark chips. Plants in plastic pots, which absorb more heat than others, particularly benefit.

Correct shrinking rootballs. On plants that have lived for years in the same pot, rootballs can dry out so much that they shrink away from pot sides, causing water to run around them--without soaking them--and out the pot bottoms. Scrape soil from rootball into gaps with a trowel, or add fresh soil.

Tips for all container plants

Use saucers to reclaim water. Put them under every container where it's practical. You can use the excess water gathered in them to water other pots or garden beds.

Mulch the surface. To reduce water loss from the surface of a pot, use shredded bark, small stones, pebbles, gravel, or pieces of broken clay pot. (In some cases, though, this kind of mulch makes it difficult to feel the dryness of the soil.) For a container that must stay in the sun, make sure the material is deep enough to diffuse the heat instead of transmitting it to the potting soil.

Water carefully. When hose-watering, apply water slowly until soil is soaked. Avoid using strong jets of water, which can expose roots, or squirting at the foliage, which deflects water away from the pot. Drip irrigation is well suited for container plants.

Cluster pots together. Containers in tight clusters lose less water than they do if set apart. Put them where they're sheltered from wind.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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