The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 14, 2006


The Country Gardener:
Caring for pots of mixed annuals

I have been invited to contribute a column to the Mosquito about gardening in Carlisle. Although I have no formal credentials in horticulture, I have been gardening in Carlisle since I moved here in 1980. As a long-time member of the Carlisle Garden Club and one-time owner of Trade Secret Gardens, I am a self-taught hands-on gardener of vegetables, herbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. I like to do most of the work on my landscape myself, although tree and masonry work I leave to the professionals. I'll write about what interests me, or try to answer reader questions if asked ( Although I am almost exclusively organic in my practices, there are a few times when I resort to chemicals. If an organic poison ivy control exists, I would buy it in an instant. Using chemical fertilizers for potted annuals is my other non-organic exception (see below).

Cheerful colorful annuals in a pot are wonderful near the private or public entrance to your home. They say, "Welcome!" They say, "It is summer!" They say, "This is the door!"

This year I have far too many planters requiring almost daily watering because my daughter Carly was married at home on June 24. Normally I content myself with a planter or two near the front door and a large one at the end of our driveway. This year they are scattered along the driveway, near the garage, alongside the chicken house and under the maple tree. They served their purpose during the wedding celebrations by keeping guests from parking in our driveway (so much more elegant than orange traffic cones!) and highlighting the entrances to the two large tents that kept our guests dry during all that rain. Now they seem to be rather a burden — pretty reminders of our happy wedding festivities, but somewhat annoying in their demands for pinching off shriveled flower heads, and their constant need for fertilizer and water.

It is useful to have a plant in a mixed planter that faints dramatically to indicate its thirst. In my case my self-seeded Perilla, a burgundy frilly annual that looks rather like a coleus, flops over in a very theatrical way to let me know that all the other plants are suffering from severe drought too, but are too macho to let me know it. I'll continue to care for these mixed pots of annuals, but anyone who stops by to drink some cool lemonade and walk around my gardens is welcome to go home with one.

For window boxes, whiskey barrels and planters of any size to really flourish, frequent pinching-off of spent flowers and the seed pod forming below the withered petals (to give a chemical signal to the plant that says, "Yikes, you didn't make any seed — try again!") plus daily watering with a diluted water-soluble fertilizer is very helpful. I use Schulz Bloom Plus ($2.69 at Market Basket). I add 1/4 teaspoon for each gallon every time I water. Others may prefer to use a stronger dose once or twice a month. If using slow-release fertilizer pellets, which I often do, some purists think that Nutricote is better than Osmocote. I learned that Home Depot sells Nutricote under the brand name, Dynamite.

To fertilize or not to fertilize

Perhaps this is arbitrary, but I tend to use fast-acting water-soluble fertilizer for my flowery annuals in pots, and slow release fertilizer for perennials and shrubs that might need a boost for their first years. Ninety-nine percent of my ornamental gardens receive no fertilizer at all.

Of course a dedicated organic gardener could probably heap a pot with organic fertilizer and get good results too. There is a famous story in our family of my grandmother visiting Germany, admiring the lush flowers in a window box, bending over to get a whiff of the anticipated sweet be greeted by the strong smell of fresh pig manure!

If you plan to go away for a week or two and cannot find a kind neighbor to water your plants you might try hauling them under the shade of a tree, cutting them back by half and hoping for some thundershowers to keep them alive while you're gone. If that does not work, you can always plunk some fake silk flowers in the pot and wait for the Philippos on East Street to be ready with their fabulous collection of mums for the fall.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito