Selecting the right pot and placing it in the right spot may be the first stage of success to gardening in pots (read Part 1 of this blog), but selecting the right plants and looking after them really is a make or break situation
The fact is, most plants will adapt well if grown in pots. Even large trees can be trained to suit the confinements of a small pot. After all, every plant we purchase from a nursery starts its life in a pot! What we truly need to understand is the plant's requirements for living in a pot are often very different from those living in the ground. It's about knowing how a plant will react when living in the confined spaces of a pot. How quickly will it grow and when it may need to be re-potted? How should it best be pruned & shaped? How much time will I need to put in to keep it happy? Bonsai growing techniques are an extreme example of how large forest giant trees can be manipulated into smaller specimens with the right level of care and maintenance. Another factor that needs careful consideration when selecting plants, is knowing which aspect your pot will be exposed to and ensuring you pick suitable plants to match. You can read more about the aspect plants need in our blog "Chasing the sun: Choosing plants for the right aspect" Be sure to ask lots of questions about your plant choice prior to purchasing, so you know exactly how it will behave in a pot and what you might need to maintain its ideal conditions. Watering Requirements
By far the most time-consuming maintenance exercise of keeping plants in pots, watering is the make or break moment for your plant's survival. It's important to know what level of moisture a plant needs in order to thrive and be sure to match this requirement with your pot, time, and aspect. Pots that are placed under shelters like apartment balconies, will need regular supplementary watering. The smaller the pot, the quicker it will lose water, so be sure to consider this when making your pot choice. Moisture-loving plants will need a consistent watering regime and may even require watering twice a day in the heat of summer. If you are concerned that your watering habits may let you down, be sure to select plant varieties that can handle dry conditions such as drought-tolerant plants. Succulents, dry grasses, plants from the Mediterranean, and some NZ natives, are all great options.
Consistency is a big factor in watering. If you allow your pot to dry out too much, it will be difficult to re-hydrate and in fact, may become "hydrophobic". This is when water is repelled off the surface of the soil and runs down the side of your pot before it can be absorbed. Once this has happened, you may need to stand your pot in water overnight or put it out in the heavy rain for a few days. Adding water-saving crystals to your potting mix at the time of planting will help with water retention and will minimise hydro-phobic potting mix, but this needs to be reapplied every couple of months. As a very general guide, be prepared to water your pots on average every 2-3 days for medium-sized pots that are placed under cover of with little exposure to rain. Less often in winter, more in summer. More often for small pots, less for large. If you are lucky enough to have your pots exposed to rainfall, it is possible to select plants that can live off the rain but at the very least they should be given a good soak once a month. If you have access to a tap and can afford a little extra, install a watering system. It will save your plants the risk of dying from lack of moisture and it will reward you with peace of mind, especially when you go away on holidays. Feeding
As pot plants have less access to natural nutrients found in garden soil, they will require feeding more often. The amount and frequency will depend on the type of plants you have selected, but as a general guide, I would suggest feeding with an organic pelleted fertiliser such as Dynamic Lifter every 8 weeks over the warm months. Organic pellets have the benefit of adding organic material to the potting mix as they break down, which will keep the potting mix healthy and will also improve its water retention. While pelleted fertiliser will release nutrients slowly, liquid fertilisers will give your plants a quick fix and will aid in their health and growth. I recommend liquid feeding at least once a month for most plants, fortnightly for hungry plants like veggies, citrus, and flowering annuals, and less for succulents and ferns. Make sure you either select a combination liquid feed which has added seaweed or be sure to add one in. Seaweed tonics are great for strengthening the immune systems of pot plants and can also help your plants cope better during hot dry spells. Re-Potting
While I have seen Buxus plants still surviving in pots after 15 years without being re-potted, it is inevitable that your plants will need to be re-potted and it is actually far better for their health. Some plants may require this as they outgrow their existing pots or simply to replenish their potting mix by replacing it. Larger trees and shrubs would benefit greatly from a re-pot every 2 years,
whereas some smaller plants may require re-potting every year. Plants like grasses can look good in smaller pots for a year or so, but after which they may outgrow their space and can easily be pulled up, divided, and re-planted.
Again, it really comes down to your plant choice and pot size, so be sure to ask plenty of questions prior to purchasing, or hire a professional to design and install your plants for you.
Planting in the garden should be a fun and stress-free experience. Chances are you may get something wrong along the way, or you may underestimate the work required to keep a particular plant alive. At the end of the day, it is just a plant and a suitable alternative is waiting to be discovered. The important thing is to enjoy the experience, learn from any failures, and accept that successful gardening is sometimes a life long journey!