Basic Guide to Indoor Container Gardening

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A real estate salesman will tell you that in buying and selling property "location, location, location"� is everything. The same thing is true for indoor container gardening. Your success or failure will depend entirely on how well your containers are built, where they are placed, and how much light they receive -- especially if you plan to attempt herbs or vegetables. (Remember, the deeper rooted the vegetable the deeper pot it will need. If you're unsure, ask at your local nursery.) Of course the good thing is that because you are gardening in containers, you can move them. Be prepared for that if things start wilting.

Although your indoor garden plants may require more of you in terms of planning and care, the reward of welcoming living plants into your home will far outweigh the challenges. A special word of caution, however. Many plants are toxic to household pets, cats in particular. If you have animals, you may want to place your containers in an area where the pets are not allowed or plan to carefully select only those plants that will not harm your furry friends.

Selecting the Right Containers

We're all comfortable with the concept of having a fern in the house, the stray begonia, or maybe a cactus in the window sill. Ditch that idea if you really want to have an indoor garden.� Start thinking in terms of attractive containers (remember, they're going to be part of your home) that are large enough (15 to 120 quarts) to play host to a community of complimentary plants. By selecting the right plants, you can even achieve natural pest control. Some plants have chemicals in their leaves or roots, which drive bugs away. For instance, planting basil near fennel will keep hover flies off the fennel. (Like the caution about your pets, this kind of planned planting requires careful research. Again, make a friend at your local plant nursery.)

You can use just about anything that will hold soil and provide adequate drainage as a container. (Drain holes should be about 1/2 inch across and don't forget to line the pot with a thin mesh at the bottom to prevent soil loss through the holes. Also, plan to set the pots up on something like bricks or decorative stands to further enhance drainage.) If necessary, you can always put holes in the bottom of whatever you've selected yourself. If you pick something like an interesting old washtub that will rust, get something of the approximate size and shape to serve as a liner and limit or eliminate the container's contact with moisture. Some other things to remember:

  1. Containers with narrow openings limit what you can plant.
  2. Plastic pots deteriorate when exposed to sunlight.
  3. Wooden containers that are not lined rot. (Redwood and cedar do better than other woods.)
  4. Terracotta pots dray out rapidly, so the plants require watering more often.
  5. In hot climates, pick light-colored pots to decrease the absorption of heat.
  6. Glazed ceramic pots work well from a watering standpoint and are attractive.

    Selecting Your Soil

    You want a planting medium that holds enough moisture to keep the roots of your plants from drying out, but one that also drains fairly rapidly. (Standing water in a container makes the plants themselves rot.) Every plant has individual soil requirements, although most will do well in a high-grade potting mixture. (Just as a word of caution, most commercial mixes run a little on the acidic side and may require the addition of lime.) Most container gardeners choose a lightweight, 'soil-less'� potting mixture to lessen the chances of plant disease and to discourage weed growth. When you fill the pots, you'll want to leave about two inches at the top so you'll have room to add mulch or something like sphagnum moss later on that assists with water retention.

    Location, Location, Location

    As a general rule, your plants will need a minimum of five hours of direct sun daily. If you're going to be planting something like tomatoes, you'll need more; cabbage or lettuce can do with less. You'll want to check the individual requirements for flowers as they vary widely. Do not put plants with widely divergent light requirements in the same pot. It's a recipe for disaster! Ditto with watering requirements. Container gardening is very much the science of pairing like plants with like plants to get the best results.

    When you work out the variables of container, potting soil, light, and moisture, you are well on the road to establishing a workable container garden. Start simple and work up toward more complex combinations. In the beginning you may find that some of the following annuals are your best choices: alyssum, begonia, coleus, geranium, impatiens, marigolds, periwinkle, nasturtiums, pansies, salvia, snapdragons, and zinnias. Over time, as you become more experienced with your containers, you can branch out and successfully grow an even wider variety of plants, adding natural life and color to your home environment.

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    Author: Rana Williamson

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