By Amanda Sessel Legare
Whether you buy finished hanging baskets or put together your own, it’s not easy to keep them looking good all summer. The plants are crowded together and typically exposed to the drying wind and the sun. Baskets have a tiny amount of soil compared to what would normally be required, like being planted in little outdoor ovens.
Three “tricks” help with success. The larger the basket the better. Choose the flower varieties that can stand up to those growing conditions and fertilize more.
Probably the biggest challenge to growing baskets is to prevent them from drying out. A larger basket will hold more water. I lift the basket and decide by the weight if it needs water. A light, easy-to-pick-up basket needs a good soak.
If water runs right out the bottom soon after you start to water, it’s a sign that the soil has dried out, creating a gap between the soil and the sides of the container. Water flows down through that gap and out of the pot instead of reaching the plant roots and the owner thinks the duty is done. If this happens, I recommend a thorough watering and then pushing the soil on top back to the edge of the container. You may need to soak your basket once or even twice a day.
Some flowers tolerate drought and direct sun much better than others. Among the most forgiving plants for baskets are the interspecific geraniums (such as “Caliente” and “Calliope”) and some of the new sun-tolerant begonias (such as “Solenia” or “Santa Cruz”).
If you are making your own baskets the choice of soil is important. Avoid soils with a high proportion of perlite. Some folks add polymers, which are small crystal gels with the capacity to absorb 150 times their weight in water. In this case be careful not to add too much, as the crystals can swell and pop the plant right out of the container!
Because hanging baskets need constant watering, the nutrients are quickly leached from the planting medium. Organic fertilizers have little or no processing and nutrients are released slowly and in relatively low concentration. Slow-release fertilizer in a pelleted form is also readily available at stores.
As the plants grow in a basket they need two things — more nutrients to encourage steady growth, and the occasional hair cut. Giving the basket a haircut will rob you of some flowers, but it will increase branching, tighten the habit, and help keep the basket looking good long-term. Your flowers should come back within a week or two and your plants, given enough fertilizer, should grow full again. I typically do this the middle of July.
I also start fertilizing more often in mid-summer, generally watering with a light liquid fertilizer at least once a week. There are so many choices of organic or chemical fertilizers.
Considering the cost of a bouquet of flowers and how long they last, a hanging basket is well worth the price and the extra care needed.
Amanda Sessel Legare operates Amanda’s Greenhouses and Perennials in Cabot, where she has field-dug perennials and four greenhouses. www.amandasgreenhouse.com
•This column previously appeared in Danville’s North Star Monthly.