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Thursday, May 6, 2004 11:09 am

Successful container gardening

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Many gardeners do not have the space, energy, or time to devote to a flower or vegetable garden, but a container garden can add color to a patio, deck, balcony, or walkway. Some gardeners even incorporate containers into an existing garden as a way to add variety.

Anything that will hold soil and plants and will drain makes a good container -- even an old boot. Select a container that will blend with the surroundings, be in visual proportion to the setting, and match the style of your house or the structure where it will be placed.

Make sure the container has adequate drainage holes and is large enough to support fully grown plants. Use of a container without drainage holes will result in waterlogged soil, which will cause root rot. Pots in such nonporous materials as glazed clay, metal, glass, and plastic retain soil moisture the longest.

Larger containers allow the use of more plants, but they also require require a lot of potting mix. To decrease the amount of potting mix needed to fill the container, put down a layer of Styrofoam peanuts or sweet-gum balls in the bottom of the container before adding the potting mix.

When selecting a potting mix, look for a sterile, lightweight, soilless medium. It should be fast-draining but should also retain moisture.

The possibilities of plant combinations are endless. Select plants that will complement one another in size, texture, and bloom color. Be sure to group plants with the same light and moisture needs. Avoid overcrowding, which will stress the plants. Also avoid mixing slow-growing and vigorous plants. Provide visual interest by using combinations of tall, upright plants; rounded plants; and trailing plants. A container garden can comprise a mixture of flowers, tropical plants, vegetables, and herbs.

Proper watering is another key to the success of a container garden. Especially during the hot summer months, check containers daily. Do not put your plants on a watering schedule; water by inspection. Use your finger to gauge watering needs. Plants given too much or too little water will die. Keep watering until water comes out the drainage holes. If you use a saucer beneath the pot, be sure to drain any excess water.

Water-holding polymers can be used to extend the interval between waterings; however, these products must be used in accordance with the label directions.

Frequent watering causes depletion of nutrients from the soil mix. Liquid and time-release fertilizers are good choices for providing additional nutrients to plants. Generally, time-release (also called slow-release) fertilizers are incorporated into the growing medium at planting time; some growing media include time-release fertilizers. Time-release fertilizers do not have to be reapplied very frequently. Liquid fertilizers are mixed into water and applied with a watering can.

Every package of fertilizer carries three numbers on the label, representing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in that order.For flowering plants, select a fertilizer higher in phosphorus, the second number. For foliage plants, choose a balanced fertilizer or one slightly higher in nitrogen, the first number.

Most flowering plants will benefit from deadheading (removal of old flowers), and pinching will keep plants compact. Don't forget to inspect your plants on a weekly basis for insects.


West Nile program

The University of Illinois Extension is offering a telenet, "West Nile Virus and Mosquito Management," at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 11, and 7 p.m. Thursday, May 13.

This informative program will teach you more about the West Nile problem and what you can do to protect yourself and your family from West Nile disease.

Are you interested in learning why the West Nile virus has become such a problem? Where it came from? How it spreads and what impact it has on domestic animals, birds, and other wildlife? Whether future outbreaks are likely? Answers to these questions, as well as information on proper management of the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus and ways to reduce the transmission of West Nile disease and other mosquito-borne illnesses, will be addressed by extension entomologist Phil Nixon.

There is $2 charge for the program, which is being held at the University of Illinois Extension Building, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, with the use of the University of Illinois Extension telenet system.

Call 217-782-4617 to reserve a seat and an information packet.

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