Connecting with nature is healing on so many levels. I hope you’ve been spending time in your garden – big or small. The past few weeks I’ve been busy filming for a project and helping clients set up new gardens on balconies, rooftops, front and backyards, Zooming all over the world! I love every minute of this work. Growing food and medicinal plants is one of the most empowering things we can do to take care of our physical and mental health, especially in uncertain times. Food security has never been more important. I’ve also been designing my urban garden to maximise space vertically and growing lots of food in containers, attracting beneficial insects and improving the soil. In this newsletter, I’m sharing practical resources to help you learn more about container gardening and how to manage a common pest insect – the fungus gnat + gardening tips for this month. So let’s dig right in!
Why do potted plants die?
As container gardeners, our plants are dependent on us for survival. Their roots can’t just reach out and find the moisture and nutrients they need outside their pot ‘home’! The most common reasons for killing potted plants are:
- Overwatering them. They drown due to waterlogged roots and lack of air spaces in poorly drained mix.
- Underwatering them. They don’t have sufficient moisture to rehydrate and take up soluble nutrients.
- Not feeding them by meeting their nutritional needs, so they ‘starve’ due to an empty ‘soil pantry’.
- Using a poor quality potting mix or garden soil. Potting mixes tend to dry out, become hydrophobic and repel moisture quickly. Garden soil often compacts, doesn’t drain well and may contain plant pathogens.
- Not repotting them when they outgrow their home. Roots become ‘pot bound’ if not upgraded to a bigger pot.
- Putting them in the wrong spot – too hot, cold, frosty, windy, shady or sunny for their particular needs.
- Neglecting them altogether. Bad plant ‘parenting’!
So how do you avoid these problems and save your plants?
7 Tips to Avoid Killing your Container Plants
If you’ve accidentally murdered one of your plants or turned it into a ‘dried arrangement’, don’t feel too guilty! Compost it and reuse your potting mix to start again. These are some simple tips to avoid future potted plant casualties.
- Start with a good quality potting mix that has excellent structure, holds moisture and nutrients and drains well. Even better, make your own potting mix for more control than a commercial mix or amend a bagged mix. This is my recipe.
- Choose your pot wisely. If you live in a hot climate, terracotta pots may not be the best choice as they dry out quickly. Do your homework and compare different materials and options.
- Water consistently and appropriately. It can be tricky to know how often to water. Some plants need more moisture than others. Large-leafed plants, fruiting and flowering crops, and thirsty herbs like mint typically have greater water needs than small-leafed herbs, succulents and perennials. Large pots in the shade won’t need watering as often as small containers in a sunny or windy position. Avoid waterlogging by leaving the plant sitting in water.
- Treat houseplants differently. Indoor plants have lower light levels so they use water comparatively slowly. They need to dry out a little between waterings (but not bone dry). Learn to ‘read’ your plant’s clues before the whole plant turns brown and crispy! I only water my houseplants every 10 days or so when a particular Spathiphyllum, Mr Droopy lets me know it’s seaweed spa day! They all go into a deep bucket for a refreshing deep drink, drain and hose down.
- Keep a garden journal if you’re busy or forgetful. I’ve found this really helpful for keeping a record of which plants need more or less moisture and general observations. A watering routine before/after work or a set time may help.
- Repot when needed. If you notice roots extending out the base of the pot, it’s time to transplant into a bigger one.
- Maintain plant nutrition. If you’re initially potting up a plant, add the nutrients to your potting mix. Liquid feeds are really useful to apply trace elements. A seasonal application of compost, worm castings, slow-release minerals and mulch will keep your plants healthy and happy.
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Growing Food in Container Gardens
If you’re short on space, consider growing at least some foods on vertical structures. I’ve got grapes in two large pots and as they are springing into new growth I am training them up an arbour. More sunshine = improved photosynthesis, more leaves and fruit. Likewise, climbing peas, beans, raspberries and many other edibles grow best with support even in pots. Bamboo tepees are an ideal low-cost sustainable solution. I’m even growing dwarf bananas in large planter bags. Citrus and other fruit trees grafted onto dwarf root stock grow exceptionally well in pots.
Interested in edible gardening in pots? These tutorials and resources may help:
- Container Gardening Tips Guide – discover tips, techniques and inspirational ideas on growing gorgeous edible container gardens.
- The Benefits of Container Gardening
- 6 Tips for Abundant Edible Container Gardens
- Choose Safe Containers for Growing Food
- 6 Easy DIY Container Garden Projects
- Three Key Factors to Consider When Choosing Plant Pots
- 17 Water Saving Tips for Container Gardens
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Quick Tips for Growing in Pots
- What should I do before planting in clay pots? Unfired terracotta is porous so before you plant into a clay pot, pre-soak it thoroughly in water first. The colour will darken when fully wet. This stops your initial watering from being soaked up by the pot instead of your plant!
- How can I keep my wooden planter looking good? A coat of linseed oil is a natural preservative that maintains the colour and moisture in timber containers and planter boxes. No need for nasty chemical alternatives.
- How do I stop soil escaping from the drainage holes? Some pots have large holes so potting mix may end up making a mess. Line the base of your pot with a thin layer of cotton fabric cut to shape or old fly wire or similar material before adding potting mix. The minimises loss of potting mix but allows water to drain away.
- Why is my potting mix dry even though it’s been watered? Older potting mix can start to repel moisture so you may need to reinvigorate it with fresh ingredients every year or so. Always mulch on top to retain water and give your pot a deep soak to rehydrate it fully.
Gardening Tips for October
Gardening is incredibly relaxing, improves mental health and is the perfect antidote for stress, so make some time to sow seeds or a new plant!
Subtropical SE Queensland – What to Plant Now
READ Gardening Tips for October for what to do now in SE Queensland, pests to watch for and more. (Download PDF)
Subtropical Planting Guide – a laminated perpetual guide to the 5 seasons in SE QLD
For other locations, read my article on what to plant and when.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein
What are those little flies in my potting mix?
They are most likely Fungus gnats (Sciaroidea family Bradysia sp.). These annoying little black to dark grey mosquito-like flies are commonly found in groups hanging around our indoor plants, seedling punnets, cuttings in pots, greenhouses and potting mix. They are 3-5mm long and thrive in moist potting mixes or soils, where they feed on fungus. Adults can transmit diseases like pythium and fusarium. However, the larvae do the most damage by feeding on roots and soft stem material of a plant, seriously weakening its ability to survive. Adult gnats lay 100-150 eggs at a time in the soil and their eggs hatch into white to translucent worm-like larvae with black heads. They’re not pretty, but they can’t help it!
How to Control Fungus Gnats
Preventing them is better than a cure. The fungus gnat’s life cycle from egg to adult flies is 15-30 days. So, your pot plant or potting mix may play host to overlapping generations of fungus gnats at any given time. You need to get them under control quickly to prevent serious infestations.
Organic control methods include:
1. Avoid overwatering. They need continuously moist conditions to survive.
2. Either use a neem-based soil drench or gnat-loving nematodes (e.g. Steinernema feltiae), but not both. Neem can kill beneficial nematodes.
3. Install yellow sticky traps near your problem plants to attract adult flies.
4. Fight nature with nature by growing a carnivorous plant like Butterworts (Pinguicula sp.) or Sundews (Drosera sp.) nearby. They act like fly paper and use their sticky leaves to lure, trap and digest insects, including fungus gnats. Pretty cool hey?
5. Use inorganic mulch like stones, small pebbles or gravel on top of potting mix to discourage infestation and break the lifecycle of existing fungus gnats. This mulch layer prevents females from laying eggs in the soil and adults from emerging once mature. Make it hard for them to reproduce by changing the habitat!
6. Visually inspect numbers. Adult gnats fly in random patterns around plants and scurry quickly across the mulch or growing media if disturbed. Vacuum adult flies up.
7. Interrupt their lifecycle by allowing the top 10-15cm (4-6″) of potting mix to dry out between waterings so fungi is less likely to grow as a food source.
Mondays on ABC Radio
On Mondays, I invite you to listen to ABC Radio Sunshine Coast (90.3 FM) and tune in from 5.50pm for a bite-sized ‘Plant of the Week’ segment. I chat with radio host, Sheridan Stewart to share quick tips on growing a different plant each week plus other skills like propagating, using herbs in the kitchen and pruning. You can listen in live. I also post tips on the plant of the week on my Facebook page, so if you’ve missed these, check out recent posts. Many subscribers are tuning in each week – thanks for your support.
Got a Problem?
Too much shade? Ants, aphids or fruit flies? Too hot or dry? Challenges raising your seeds or seedlings?
Read all past problem-solving articles here. They’re packed with useful tips.
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I look forward to sharing more news and ways to grow good health next month.
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2020. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
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