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Several types of hanging basket. Photo: <a href="">K. Yasahura</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Several types of hanging basket. Photo: K. Yasahura, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

How to keep flower boxes and baskets looking their best

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It's hard for a gardener to complain about this stone-summer weather. Heat, sun, plus a little rain here and there are a great combination to kick plants into high gear for growth.

But what can be all good for young tomato plants can be overdrive for hanging baskets and planters that were in full bloom when they went on sale for Mother's Day. They need constant care: water, food, and the occasional trimming. Amy Ivy has what to do, and why.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Martha Foley: So the weather has been great, really great, for growing things—hot temperatures, chance of showers. It’s really summer. This weather can be overwhelming for that beautifully blooming hanging basket that you got on Mother’s day, which is now over a month ago, and lots of growing in between then. Good morning Amy.

Amy Ivy: Good morning Martha.

MF: So those hanging baskets and those beautiful planters, those boxes of flowers are looking a little ratty by now.

AI: Yeah it’s hard to keep them because they’re in a small space, crammed in there, looking so gorgeous—it’s hard to keep those good looks all summer long.

MF: So you have some advice for doing just that, though.

AI: Yes, in fact. One important thing is—try to take some steps before they get really bad looking.

MF: OK, now is the time, then.

AI: Exactly, especially with the heat coming up this week. One day of neglect could really set them back.

MF: Here’s the thing—it’s always this chance of showers that gets me. Do you really water them as if there’s going to be no rain or do you kind of hold back? It’s hard to judge, but as you say, one really dry hot day can really do some damage.

AI: As long as they’ve got drainage and if they’re not sitting out where they’re going to get all the rain—which I wouldn’t recommend for most of these containers anyway, because they get beat up if they get all the rain—often they're on a porch where some of the sideways rain will get on them. They’re not going to get drenched, I hope, because that won’t be good.

So as long as the drainage is good, you can go ahead and give them a really good soaking and just let that extra water drain out and you’ll be OK. I think what happens more often is people give a little drink and maybe some water drains out the bottom and they think they’ve really soaked it through, but maybe they really haven’t really gotten it soaked through. So that’s more important for keeping them looking so good.

MF: Well it begins to be kind of a chore to do the slow, thorough watering of a couple hanging baskets or maybe six. You've got some herbs in big pots somewhere. It does take time.

AI: Yeah it’s a real commitment. I have big pots you know, 16 inches across and maybe 20 inches tall, on the front porch and they hold water for a while. But it is a pain in the neck by the middle of July when they’re really full, I have to water those at least every other day. If I go away, I have to make plans; I can’t just let them go. Because they’re on the porch and they are protected from the rain, that’s a good thing for not getting beat up, but also then they only get what I give them.

MF: Or someone else gives them.

AI: Exactly.

MF: I have a question about the potting mix that is suppose to retain water. Does it work; is that a good idea?

AI: It does help. There is a polymer that they put in there and it’s what they use in diapers, too now, those water absorbent crystals. So they will hang onto water. There is some discussion as to whether they hold onto it tighter than the roots can, they’re kind of competing. But in theory it’s supposed to be helpful. I think that would be okay, but that still doesn’t mean you don’t need to water. So, it’s not a solution, but it may be an aid.

You’ve still got to focus on the water, but also the fertility, because you would never plant your garden that crowded (I hope not). Even me; I wouldn’t do that So they’re competing like crazy—not only for the water, but also for nutrients. They’ve been chosen because they have gorgeous flowers or these really big showy leaves. So they need it, because they’re not getting fertility from the ground or any other place, they’re only getting again what you give them.

So I use a liquid fertilizer. You can either use a regular dose every two weeks, or you can do a very low dose—like an eighth of a normal dose—and you do that almost every time. But read the label of the product of what you’re using because it will vary with what the formulation is.

MF: Okay, so, what about trimming back. Some things are kind of gone, really.

AI: Yeah, I love mixed baskets. They’re so much fun, and mixed planters. But often, there’s one type that just doesn’t hold up. It gets stressful, it gets crowded and all that kind of thing. It’s not unusual to have one type, whatever it might be that year, that just poops out on you. So go ahead and cut that; if you can lift that out without disturbing the other roots around it. Dig it out and just get it out of there, or just cut it back to the soil line and other plants will quickly fill in. Just kind of cut your losses, don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t try to keep something like that going, you know it’s just not as compatible as the other ones are and just let it go and forget about that one.

Giving a haircut to what is remaining is really important. And that's one of the things you want to do before it looks bad. It may look full and gorgeous, and you think "Oh my goodness, the last thing I want to do is to cut it back," but if you can do it while it's still vigorous, the plants will respond to that haircut, and grow even more; it will invigorate them. Rather than waiting until they’re all straggly and half dead and then you give it a haircut to revive it—and by then it is really hard to turn it around. Especially things that trail like petunias, and some of those vines that trail, like potato vines and all those different things that trail—giving them a little haircut, kind of keep them tidy, really does help.

And you can often root some of the vining things. I've got coleus in a couple of my planters and they are so easy to root. I've got them rooted all over the place. So you can stick them in water, you can stick them in a thing with moist potting mix. Inside, I root them inside, then once they're rooted I bring them back outside.

MF: I actually have a fair amount of coleus this year. I am a real lover of impatiens, and I haven't been able to find it. I have a shady porch and that was always my sort of go-to plant.

AI: Coleus are great substitute. And the nice thing about them is the leaves are the show so they always look great. Yeah, impatiens have this disease, this downy mildew that is really serious and it spreads really fast. So they’re hard to find, for a good reason, and the people who have been able to find them—we’ve already gotten reports—about ten days ago we got the first report and it's moving right through the industry. So, I would not be buying any of the regular bedding impatiens. The New Guinea impatiens are resistant. The ones with the real showy leaves—those are resistant. They don't get this impatiens downy mildew. Also, only impatiens get it; other plants like coleus don't get this particular strain of downy mildew.

MF: Okay, I’m sticking with coleus then for my shady area. There are so many colors and patterns!

AI: You could do a whole garden of just coleus. I've actually seen them and they are so beautiful. There are so many different shapes and sizes of stuff.

MF: Alright, we’ll have more to talk about next time. Thanks very much.

Amy Ivy is a horticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service of Clinton and Essex Counties.

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