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Help Me! I Want a Green Thumb

by on April 01, 2020 5:33 PM

We have lots of flowers around my house and, honestly, I don’t really understand them.

Every spring, my partner, Becky, spends a lot of time planting pot after pot of flowers that she places all around our front and back porches and yard. This is on top of the multiple flower beds and vegetable garden she plants each year. 

And then I spend the rest of the warm months watering all of the pots. (In reality, Becky does most of the watering, too. I just do the most complaining about it).

And while I think the flowers look nice, I never really understood all the effort that Becky puts into them. Going to the greenhouses, buying the flowers, pots, soil, and fertilizer, planting and maintaining them, and then watering all the time: it is all a lot of work.

But I have always wondered what the magic was all about. I wanted to understand why Becky and many others spend hours planting flowers and taking care of them. 

Plus, faced with the reality of having to spend more time at home this spring because of social distancing, I figured helping Becky make our home beautiful would be a nice thing we could do to keep us from going crazy.

So I asked The Centre County Gazette’s Avid Gardener columnist, Lora Gauss, to show me some pot-planting basics. Lora’s column in The Gazette shares gardening and plant info and history, and is always a good read. And while she is well-versed in many gardening practices, she especially enjoys planting in containers because they provide versatility and style.

I met Lora and her gardening friend Karen Soble, and they were excited to talk container-planting with me. Before we met, they had picked up a nice selection of flowers to plant in a nice 2-gallon pot. 

“The first thing is, you have to decide what pot you want to use and where you want to put it, because pots really make a design statement,” Lora said. “You can group them together, you can put them on a patio; they can help the appearance of the front of your house. You can even throw them in beds if you have spaces. So, they really are a design element.

“A lot of times we would put the cart before the horse, and say, ‘We have these plants; what pot do we want?’ But it almost seems like it is better to do it the other way around.”

It is fashionable these days to plant in all sorts of containers, from antiques to buckets. And it doesn’t just have to be flowers; vegetables are perfectly suited for container-planting as well. 

“A container doesn’t have to be a pot; as long as it has good drainage, you can plant in anything,” said Karen. “It is really vogue now to plant in antique things, buckets of all sorts of different venues. Wooden tool containers, wheelbarrow, just about everything is used these days.

“The most important thing is that it has drainage, because if you don’t, the roots will rot, because the water will stay in the pot.”

To keep the soil from flowing through the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot, use a coffee filter. Karen said some people also use broken pieces of terracotta pots, or gauze to keep the dirt from falling through the draining holes.

They also emphasized how important it is to clean old pots before you put new plants into them.

“You can take a … brush and clean them out the best you can, because the debris can have organisms or any sort of disease in them that can affect the plants,” said Karen. She added that salt or calcium deposits can build up on old plants in the form of white rings.

“If your root or stem is up against that, it can dehydrate your plant because salt draws water out,” Karen said.

After scrubbing off the debris, she said, the plants should get scrubbed in some water. Then soak the pots in a bleach solution, nine parts water to one part bleach, for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the pots need to be rinsed. 

Next we prepared our soil for the pot. Karen said a trick with really big pots, which can get heavy to move when filled with dirt, is to put crushed-up bottles in the bottom of the pot to keep the weight down. Lucky our pot wasn’t too big, so we didn't need to worry about that. 

When it comes to soil, Lora and Karen said they usually use a pro mix, because it already has a perlite, vermiculite, a wetting agent, and calcium, all of which can help the plant grow.

Then we mixed some water into the soil before we put it in the pot. It was easy to break the soil while mixing it with our hands. While we got the soil moist, we didn’t want it mud-like. 

After the soil was mixed, we filled the pot with the soil up to a few inches from the top. Then we mixed a cap full of slow-release fertilizer into the soil to make sure the plants had all the nutrients needed. It is easy to follow the directions on the fertilizer container.

Then came the difficult part for me: We had to pick out the plants we were going to use, and decide where to place them in the pot. This meant I had to make some decisions; luckily, Lora and Karen made it easy for me.

They had gone to the greenhouse and picked out plants for me to choose from. Lora and Karen made sure the plants had similar light, water, and fertilization needs. Because we were planting pretty early in the season, they picked plants that were hardy enough to handle some cold weather. But of course, I would need to be mindful of frosts and bring the plants inside if necessary.

Next, we had to arrange the plants in the pot, and we went with the age-old standard of having a thriller, a spiller, and the filler.

The thriller is typically the plant in the pot that first draws people's attention or is the focal point of the pot. It usually is bigger than the other plants, so if the pot is going to be against a wall you put in the back of the pot; if the pot is going to be in the open, the thriller usually is placed in the middle. For my pot, we used a spider plant.

The spiller is a plant that goes in the front of the pot, hanging over the edge. We chose ivy, Karen’s favorite.

And the filler is the other plants that fill out the pot. We used tulips, petunias, and a few other plants to fill in the rest of the pot. 

We arranged everything in the pot before planting, to make sure it looked the way we wanted and to see if everything fit.

Then, we took the plants out of their containers and loosened up the dirt and roots that had formed to the small containers they were in, really working them and loosening them up.

After that, we placed soil all around the new plants with our hands, but not covering the roots. Lora said it was OK to move the plants around and that they didn’t need to be handled with kid gloves. After all, plants manage to survive in nature; they are tougher than you might think.

“Don’t be afraid to manipulate them; a lot of people are afraid to move them or handle them,” she said. 

It was starting to look pretty good.

Then we stuck three branches of pussy willow in at various places in the pot, and it gave the pot a real professional look. Lora said that three was an important number when it came to plants.

“They tell you when you plant, because of where your eye is drawn, it is important to have an odd number, three, five, seven,” said Lora.

Next, we placed a straw-like filler over the dirt that further added to the professional look of my pot.

Karen said I should give my pot a good soaking as soon as I brought it home. 

I was pretty impressed with our work, and honestly, I had fun doing it. Lora and Karen know more about plants than I can imagine, and said the Master Gardeners program through Penn State Extension is a great way to learn more. There are also numerous books and verified websites to check out that can help a gardener along the way.

The best part was spending time outside with nice people.

I sent a picture of my pot to Becky, who said she loved it; I felt pretty good about that.

I brought my pot home and watered it. Later, I brought it inside because it was going to be a cold night with a frost and I didn’t want my plant to get hurt. 

Somehow, Lora and Karen got me to care about some plants. Who knows what else I might grow this spring?


Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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