By Joe Lampl Scripps Howard News Service
Container gardens allow you to add instant color to your garden wherever you want it.
If you don’t have much space and want to grow your own food, containers provide an instant solution. Maybe you enjoy containers, but find the constant watering to be a real hassle. Would you plant more annuals and vegetables in containers if there were an easier way to maintain them?
Thanks to modern ingenuity, you can enjoy colorful containers of all shapes and sizes without daily watering during the summer. There are several solutions to ease your watering chores, such as self-watering containers and moisture-retentive gels.
Self-watering pots feature a water-holding reservoir, generally concealed in the base of the container. Through a wicking action, water is absorbed into the soil to hydrate your plants. Most reservoirs are large enough to supply water for several days or more, depending on the location of the container (sun or shade) and the weather. Before going on vacation, I recommend setting up the self-watering planters a week or two ahead of time to gauge their water usage.
These containers come in many shapes and colors, and include hanging baskets and window boxes. You can also turn your favorite containers into self-watering planters yourself or can purchase a self-watering conversion kit that contains a plastic reservoir and a fill-tube with a water-level indicator. The soil hydrates through evaporative action from the reservoir below.
Before converting the containers and adding the soil, create drainage holes. For outdoor containers, you may need to drill holes in the bottom to let the water drain out during heavy rains; otherwise, your plants may drown. Most containers have marked areas on the bottom that show you where to drill the drainage holes.
Fill your containers with a lightweight soilless mix that typically contains sphagnum peat, perlite and vermiculite. This coarse texture helps carry water through the wicking action that comes from the water reservoir to the plant’s roots for optimum growth.
Instead of purchasing self-watering containers or converting your pots, you can also buy a soilless mix that contains water-absorbing gel or you can purchase the gels separately and add them to your potting mix. Also, hydrogels can be added directly to garden soil to help hold in moisture for new plants such as trees, shrubs and flowers. These “soil polymers” can absorb up to 200 times their weight in water, then slowly release the moisture to plant roots. These magic crystals will cut your watering frequency by 1/3 to 1/2.
The hydrogel can be blended with the soil mix in either dry or wet form. It may be easier for you to hydrate the crystals first (begin with a teaspoonful in a cup of water, or a tablespoon in a pint) and then let them sit for an hour or two to see how big the crystals grow. Then mix the gel with soil. Once hydrated, the crystals look like jellied ice cubes.
In general, mix 1 part hydrated gel to 4 parts soil. If you add too much gel, your plants will be pushed from the soil as the crystals swell. You can also mix the dry crystals into the potting mix, but allow this to hydrate before planting. Carefully follow the label for usage rates. Generally, add 1 tablespoon per gallon of soil for containers.
If your plants are already potted up for the season, consider injecting the gel directly into the pot. A Rain Gel injector lets you add the gel where it’s needed, up to 4 inches below the surface. Simply attach a gel-filled cylinder to a standard caulk gun and insert the gel into the container.
Another solution for gardening containers is to add water-absorbing mats to the bottom of your containers. These mats are able to hold moisture, which is wicked up into the soil. Cut the mat to fit your container or hanging basket.
Don’t delay getting these water- and labor-saving items. They can help reduce your watering chores and provide vacation-watering solutions. Check your local garden center for supplies or order directly from several sources, including: Gardener’s Supply Company and The Gardener’s Workshop.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, go to www.joegardener.com.