No land? No problem if you plant in pots Space: You can have a garden even if you have no yard

properly placed flowers and vegetables will also grow in containers on your doorstep, porch, balcony or patio.

March 29, 1998|By Norma Martin | Norma Martin,COX NEWS SERVICE

Gardening is for mortgage holders.

Gardening is for mortgage holders with rich topsoil.

Gardening is for mortgage holders with rich topsoil and green thumbs.

Question: Which, if any, of these statements is false?

Answer: All of them, because container gardens can deliver on green-thumbers' dreams. The solution to their poor-dirt/no-dirt circumstances is only terra-cotta pots away. Yards and fields can be replaced by peat-based soil in pots.

So, all you renters and other soil-deprived homeowners, a garden can be yours if you contain it.

And we're not talking just about those pedestrian indoor plants.

You want brilliant flowering color on those porches, balconies, decks, terraces and courtyards? You got it. You desire fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, like those your grandmother grew? They're yours. You want a water garden with plants and fish? Ditto.

Here are some guidelines to get you on the right potting track:

Where is the sun?

Container gardening has one major limitation: sun exposure. Unlike fields and lawns, where plants can be positioned to take advantage of the right light conditions, there is a limited ability to move pots around on balconies, terraces and porches to take advantage of the sunlight.

You shouldn't even think about buying a plant until you figure out which way your container garden spot faces in relation to the sun.

You may love some delicate, sun-needy plant, but if you have a north balcony that's drafty and shady, you're only committing plant destruction by bringing it home. You'd be better off with a hardy, shade-loving specimen.

Here are tips for the directionally challenged:

At sunrise -- the local weather forecast will provide the time -- the sun comes up in the east. At sunset, the sun goes down in the west. Are the sunbeams blinding you at either of these times? If so, that's your sun-facing exposure. Now, take note of how long those direct rays stay.

Even if you know the direction, there are a couple of other sun-spot things. The Earth rotates during the day and changes each season, affecting the intensity of the light and heat. Strong, direct, afternoon sun isn't ideal for some plants, such as begonias.

Novice gardeners need to write down which way their gardens face. They also should take note of where the sun is positioned in relation to the garden during various times of the day, such as sunrise, midmorning, afternoon, late afternoon and sunset, said garden-store owner John Dromgoole.

"They should bring the list with them when they go shopping for plants. An experienced nursery staff can help the gardeners select the right type of plants for the sun conditions," he said.

Soil, water and food

Gardening experts agree that the most important factor in how well a container garden thrives is the soil the plants live in.

"You get what you pay for," said Dromgoole, who is a expert on soil. "The top will reflect it if the bottom isn't any good."

Forget about buying fancy pots and expensive plants; money should be spent on what will benefit the plant the most -- the soil.

"A loose, well-draining soil mixture is required," said Elizabeth McVeety, a master gardener. "Don't buy anything so cheap that it doesn't have any nutrients in it."

When watering, "I fill up the pot to the top and let it percolate down. When all the water goes down, water the plant again," said McVeety. "This way you're making sure it's really good and wet. Now don't leave your plant sitting in water, it will rot."

McVeety said plants should not be watered unless the soil is dry to the touch, although there is an exception to that rule: If you're repotting a plant, you must water it. While there's no sense in drowning a plant, in summer months outdoor containers probably need watering every day.

Since pot-bound plants cannot hunt on their own for nutrients in the earth, the gardener must provide them through fertilizer.

Usually fertilizers are needed regularly through the summer months, and a reduced schedule can be followed in the winter.

"Don't overdo it," said McVeety. "If it says one tablespoon per gallon of water, don't put in three tablespoons. You'll just burn your plant."

While experienced gardeners can handle a range of gardening clusters, the beginner would do better to start small, with maybe three or four plants. The investment isn't so great that an initial failure becomes a costly one.

When selecting pots, consider what will be planted in them. It's harder to move a heavy clay pot than a lightweight plastic one.

The pots and the plants

"These days, the plastic containers look like the real terra cotta, so who will know?" said Steve Issacs, owner of a plantscaping company.

But terra cotta isn't the only choice. Plants can be placed in galvanized pails, copper pots, recycled washing machines and bathtubs, wooden crates and barrels. The container gardener is only limited by imagination. Just make sure the container has good drainage holes -- one for about every 6 inches of pot.

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