Planters Are Overrated But Functional

Some plants should always be confined.

Container gardening is overrated. The endemic soil here is not so bad that nothing will grow in it. What is now suburban gardens was formerly famously productive farmland! Soil amendments make the soil more comfortable to plants with more discriminating taste. Plants that are too discriminating are probably not worth accommodating. With few exceptions, planters are unnecessary.

Plants naturally want to disperse their roots into the soil. Drought tolerant plants disperse their roots even more extensively. That is how they find enough moisture to be drought tolerant. If deprived of such root dispersion, they are always reliant on watering. Plants prefer the insulation of soil too. Many types of planters can get uncomfortably cool in winter, and uncomfortably warm in summer.

Besides, planters clutter landscapes, and occupy space on hardscapes. Decks rot. Patios stain.

The main advantage of planters is their portability. Plants that are sensitive to frost can move to shelter before the weather gets too cool. Plants that are spectacular only while blooming can move for more prominent display during bloom. For those who have not settled into a permanent home, plants in planters are able to relocate. Planters on patios or decks can move about like furniture.

Houseplants obviously grow in planters because not many houses contain enough soil for them to live in. Houseplants can move about just like planters in the garden. That is helpful for those that need a better exposure for winter than they enjoy for the summer. Some might like to go into the garden during mild weather, or for a rinse in light rain. Cascading plants can hang from the ceiling.

Planters can effectively confine invasive plants as well. Montbretia is so invasive that some people will not grow it without containment. (Deadheading to prevent seed dispersion is important too.) Horseradish often grows in tubs for confinement, as well as to facilitate harvest. It is easier to dump the potting media from a planter, and separate the roots out, than to dig roots from the ground.

Potted Plants Need Work Too

Potted plants do not have much soil volume to work with.

Potted plants can be a problem any time of the year. Some want more water than get. Most get too much water or do not drain adequately. Large plants get constricted roots if pots are too small. The roots of some plants get cooked in exposed pots that collect too much heat from sunlight. Besides, too many pots just seem to be in the way in otherwise useful spaces on decks, patios and anywhere else trendsetting landscape designers want to put them.

Now that the weather is getting cool and rainy, potted plants are not as active as they were during warm weather. Many are dormant. Although few demand the attention that they got during warmer weather, plants still need to be tended to appropriately through autumn and winter.

Cool season annuals, which are also known as ‘winter’ annuals, should get groomed as long as they are performing in the garden, just like warm season annuals get groomed through summer. Deteriorating flowers should be plucked from pansy, viola, primrose, Iceland poppy, calendula, dianthus, stock, chrysanthemum and cyclamen because they can mildew and spread mildew to developing flowers and foliage. Unplucked cyclamen and calendula can develop seed which diverts resources from bloom.

Pots that are out in exposed areas will not need to be watered while they get enough water from rain. The problem is that many that do not drain adequately can get too much water from rain and stay saturated. Dormant and defoliated plants do not need much moisture at all. Even evergreen plants do not need as much as they do while active during warm weather, because cool and humid weather inhibits evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliar surfaces).

Potted plants under eaves also need less water while the weather is cool and humid, but need to be watered nonetheless because they are sheltered from rain. Plants in hanging pots typically drain and dry more efficiently, so probably want a bit more water. Even a few sheltered small plants in the ground may occasionally want to be watered during rainy weather if they do not extend enough roots where they can get moisture from rain beyond the sheltered area. Sheltered plants are actually the most likely to be neglected because watering does not seem so important when it is raining.

Pots Make More Out Of Less

Half barrels are a bit elevated, and seem to show off their flowers better.

With conservation of water being so important right now, annuals are not a priority. Many of us are trying to use as little water as possible, and only to keep the more significant trees, shrubbery and perennials alive until winter. Lawn and annuals are usually the first to succumb, mainly because they use more water than anything else.

They are also somewhat expendable. Lawn is certainly expensive, but realistically, can be replaced as soon as water becomes available. Hopefully, new lawns will be more conservative with water, like they should have been since the last “drought” (and the one before that). Annuals are planted annually (duh), so they get replaced anyway.

Annuals as bedding plants over large areas were already somewhat passé before the last few dry winters. Even the more indulgent landscapes used annuals merely as relatively modest borders around or in front of more substantial, but less consumptive, perennials and shrubbery. Pots and planters are already more appropriate.

Some of the trendiest big pots are so ornate that they do not need flowers to provide more color. Besides, with a few striking perennials for colorful foliage or form, there is not much space left for annuals. What matters with annuals is that fewer in a pot can be flashier than more in the ground. Fewer annuals mean less water is required.

Elevated planters may not be as ornate, but display flashy annuals just as effectively. Petunia, million bells, lobelia and alyssum can cascade over the edges, to be colorful both on top and on the sides. Marigold, zinnia, celosia and any interesting foliar or sculptural perennials get a bit more height. It all helps to get a bit more out of less.

Pots and planters are not necessarily less work. They just need less water than larger beds, because they are smaller. Relative to their area, they actually need more water, and must be watered very regularly to sustain the confined roots within. Hanging pots need the most water. All confined plants benefit from fertilizer.

Succulents Know Recycling and DIY

Scraps of succulents can mix nicely.

There are all sorts of succulent plants, ranging from finely textured small stonecrops to huge suguaro cactus. Because aloes and agaves are succulents, the closely related yuccas, such as Joshua tree and Spanish bayonet, are commonly considered to be succulents as well. Even begonias and impatiens could be considered to be succulents.

Succulent plants are some of the most distinctive plants available. Foliage can be various shades of green, as well as yellow, red, blue, orange, purplish, gray, bronze, nearly black or variegated. Leaves may be thick and fleshy like those of jade plants, or thin and neatly arranged in tight rosettes like those of aeoniums. Cacti have no real foliage, but some have flashy flowers.

Except for the larger sorts of cacti and some yucca, most succulents are very easy to propagate. Jade plants and iceplants grow very easily from stems simply stuck wherever new plants are desired. Aloes and hen-and-chicks grow just as easily from pups (sideshoots) separated from parent plants. Technically, even leaves can be rooted, and will eventually grow into new plants.

Because scraps from pruning can be used as cuttings, there is rarely any need to actually take cuttings from desirable growth. Where more Hottentot fig (freeway iceplant) is needed on a freeway, it simply gets ‘plugged’ (as cuttings) from scraps of debris from where established growth needs to be cut back to an edge. There is much more debris than can be used!

Pots of mixed succulents are ridiculously easy to grow simply be filling pots with potting soil, and then plugging bits of various succulents. All sorts of contrasting colors and forms can be mixed. As plants grow, those that dominate can either be pruned back, or given more space by removing slower plants. The removed plants need not be wasted, but can be plugged somewhere else.

Small succulents are just as easy to plug into informal walls of stacked stone or broken concrete. Some small succulents actually stabilize loose stone. Their docile and finely textured roots are not likely to do any damage.

Horridculture – Slim Waists

If I put a spider plant in the pot on the right, I may never get it out.

Clay pots have been around for a very long time. It is impossible to know for how long exactly. It is logical to say that they have been around long enough to evolve into the perfect shape for their function. Although the dimensions and proportions are variable, the basic design characteristics of the simplest and best engineered clay pots can not be improved on.

Clay pots are circular from above and below for a few reasons. Such a shape is easily formed on a potters’ wheel. It is more structurally sound than a form with flat sides and more corners. The space within is evenly distributed around the vertical center, without more remote corners. Although roots will circle within, there are not so many corners for them to congregate in.

Drainage holes are at the bottoms because that is where water drains to.

Thick rims around the top edges of common clay pots enhance durability where it is most necessary, and also prevent pots of the same size from becoming wedged into each other when stacked. The weight of stacked pots rests firmly and vertically on such rims, rather than being diverted laterally to break wedged pots to pieces.

It would not be possible to stack clay pots if they were not tapered to be wider on top. Of course, they are tapered for a few reasons, just like they are circular and outfitted with rims for a few reasons. Tapered form fits the natural dispersion of the roots of most plants better. More importantly, tapered form facilitates the removal of firm root systems with minimal disruption.

So, after perhaps thousands of years of evolution to achieve the perfect form, who thought it was a good idea to taper pots inward at the top? The lack of a rim is not so important if pots are not so numerous that efficient stacking is a concern. Such pots can not be staked anyway. They do not get reused as much as common clay pots either, so do not need to be so durable.

However, that upper inward taper is a serious problem for plants that mature and develop firm root systems within. Such mature plants can only be removed from such pots only by tearing their root systems apart, or by breaking the pots apart. Such form is only practical for big pots that contain multiple small plants that, individually, do not get big enough to fill the pots.

For example, big urns of bedding plants or mixed perennials function more as planters than as pots. Bedding plants get removed and replaced seasonally, and even if the don’t, they can not get big enough to develop a solid root system that is wider than the inwardly tapered top of a big urn. Likewise, most perennials get removed from such big pots before they get stuck within.

Palms, agaves, yuccas and other more substantial perennials must not be allowed to live within an inwardly tapered urn long enough to develop a firm root system that can not be removed.

Horridculture – Going To Pot

Would these hanging potted plants even be noticeable if they were not circled?

Container gardening is overrated. Perhaps not so much now as it had been while it was more of a fad a decade or so ago, but it is still overrated nonetheless. Most plants are happier in the ground than they are in confinement. They want to disperse their roots freely to where the goodies are, and not contend with the unnatural temperature fluctuations of contained medium.

There are only a few exceptions for which containment of potted plants is an advantage. Houseplants are the most obvious exceptions. Also, plants that are sensitive to frost can be relocated to sheltered situations for winter if contained. Potted orchids and other flashy bloomers can be prominently displayed while blooming, and then returned to utilitarian locations as they finish.

The justification for the hanging potted plants in the picture above escapes me. Does anyone besides me even notice that they are there? They are hung too high for anyone on the sidewalk to appreciate them, or actually see the flowers that are visible from above. Those on the opposite sidewalk can see them, but only at a great distance across all those lanes of El Camino Real.

Those in cars on the road see less of them than pedestrians. Even those who happen to look up while riding past in convertibles with the tops down will see only the undersides, and only at significant speed. These potted plants would be in the way of the sidewalks if they were lowered to be more visible. No matter where they are, they are not proportionate to the broad road.

Maintenance of the flowers in these many hanging pots was quite a bit of work. The annual flowers needed to be replaced a few times a year, or more if ruined by the weather. Without automated irrigation, someone needed to manually water them, which left puddles on the sidewalks that were more noticeable than the highly hung pots above.

As if all these hanging pots were not already tacky enough, the flowers within were eventually replaced with . . . fake flowers, as seen in the picture below.

Just when it could not get any tackier; they are fake!

Horridculture – Fake Media

P90911This is no way to get the dirt on someone. There is no dirt involved. If there were, it would be referred to as ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ is a term used by those who do not know any better.

Anyway, this is about the media that plants are grown in. It might be called growing media, potting media, potting mix or simply potting soil. Some in the horticultural industries might say that, because it is assembled from a variety of components that do not naturally occur together, growing media is synthetic. Because it lacks real soil, most of us refer to it simply as soilless.

Now, I am aware that not all media are created equal. The medium that we grew citrus in was much sandier than what we grew rhododendrons in. It was purchased already mixed specifically for citrus, and ready for use. The medium for the rhododendrons was mixed on site, with more coarsely shredded fir bark (from local mills), less sand and a little bit of perlite.

What I was not aware of, was just how perishable potting media purchased from retail garden centers are. Rather than drive out to the farm for a bin or two of medium, I purchased a bail of common ‘potting soil’ from a garden center about two years ago. I just happened to be there to pick up something else. The cost seemed worth avoiding an extra trip to the farm.

It actually was worth the cost. It did what I needed it to do for a time. The problem I am noticing now is that plants that were not planted or canned up (into larger cans) soon enough are now lacking the volume of medium they need. They need to be stuffed, which involves sliding them out of their cans to add a bit more medium to set them on top of, back in their cans.

The potting soil decomposed too readily. It is as if it rotted into muck that was rinsed through the drainage holes with watering. I suspect that there was more to the medium that the typical simple components. It probably contained significant volumes of compost derived from recycled greenwaste. I certainly have no problem with that. I just would have liked to know about it.

This little American persimmon seedling can stay in this half empty can until winter dormancy. Once dormant, it can be canned into a #5 (5 gallon) can, to resume growth next spring, before it even realizes that it is lacking medium. It will get a happy ending.


60413Bright pink bloom that can be profuse enough to obscure the succulent foliage below is nothing new for iceplant. Some bloom bright purplish pink. Others are reddish pink. A few are softer pink or white. What is unexpected is iceplant that blooms bright yellow, orange or gold, like Lampranthus aureus does. (Freeway or beach iceplant that blooms soft yellow or pink is not a true iceplant.)

Lampranthus arueus neither spreads as far nor cascades quite as well as other types of iceplant, but if planted a bit closer together, it can cover quite a bit of ground. It gets about a foot deep, or a bit deeper if crowded by other plants. It is very easy to grow from cuttings stuck wherever new plants are wanted. The inch and a half wide flowers are slightly wider than those of other iceplant.

All iceplant are quite undemanding. Although they bloom better and stay greener with occasional watering, they do not need much water. They should only be fertilized if they get wimpy. After the spectacular primary bloom phase early in spring, too much fertilizer might inhibit sporadic bloom later in summer. Unfortunately, the healthiest iceplant may not bloom again after spring bloom.

Do Not Forget Potted Plants

30918thumbAside from all the seasonal raking and dormant pruning, there is not as much to do in the garden as there was earlier in the year. Lawns do not need much mowing. Hedges do not need much shearing. Untimely mowing and shearing can actually damage lawns and hedges. Watering, which was so important while the weather was warm, is now rare in the cool weather between rain.

Watering is now so infrequent that the few plants that still need it sometimes do without. Plants that are merely sheltered by eaves probably do not mind so much because their roots are dispersed beyond the eaves. However, potted plants that are sheltered by eaves do not have that option. It may take a while in the cool and damp air, but they can slowly get uncomfortably dry.

Watering sheltered potted plants is too easy to forget about while everything that is not sheltered is getting soaked by rain. It is even more easy to forget because it is so infrequent. Things just do not dry out like they do in summer. Also, plants are less active, and many are dormant and defoliated, so really do not lose much moisture to evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliar surfaces.)

In fact, overzealous watering can be just as detrimental as neglect. Soil saturation may not be as immediately dangerous as it would be during warmer weather, but eventually kills roots. Even with adequate drainage, soil moisture can linger if plants do not consume it. Determining how much water is needed for sheltered potted plants may not be as simple as it should be.

Larger plants in smaller pots want more water than smaller plants in larger pots. Those that are exposed to wind will get dry faster than those that are protected. Hanging pots dry out the fastest. Ironically, drought tolerant plants that need the least water in the ground often want the most in pots. They are the most reliant on extensive root dispersion, which is not possible in confinement.

Some potted (frost tolerant) plants might get slightly relocated out into the weather so that they get the rain that keeps the rest of the garden well watered through winter.

Potted Plants Have Their Place

30918thumbPavement serves a purpose in a landscape. So does decking. They are the flooring of the outdoor spaces that are used for outdoor living. Patios and decks are where we barbecue and dine. Walkways and porches are how we get around the exteriors of our homes. Driveways are where we park cars. For what they get used for, they are better than turf grass, ground cover or bare soil.

So why is it so trendy to clutter pavement and decking with potted plants that would really prefer to be in the ground? It would be more practical to pave less area, and leave more space to plant things in the ground. There would be no damp pots staining concrete or rotting decking. There would be less area to rake or blow, with fewer obstacles in the way. Watering would be much easier.

Well, as it turns out, there are a few plants that should be potted. Houseplants are the most obvious. After all, not many homes have exposed soil where houseplants can be grown on the inside. Even if they did, it is still easier to keep houseplants potted for portability. Plants such as orchids and Christmas cactus, can live in the garden most of the time, and then come in while blooming. Portability is also important for tropical plants that need protection from even mild frost. It might be easier to move them than to cover them.

There are also a few plants that are contained because they are invasive. Mint and horseradish are culinary plants that are so famously invasive that not many of us would bother growing them if they were not so much better fresh from the garden than purchased from elsewhere. Rather than allow them to escape, mint is popularly potted, and horseradish is commonly grown in deep tubs.

Container gardening and growing plants in pots is something that we do for out own convenience, or just because it looks good cluttering otherwise useful parts of the landscape. With only a few exceptions, plants prefer to be in the ground, where they can disperse their roots as extensively as they like. They are healthier, and need less attention. To them, container gardening is unnatural.