How To Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

It’s that time of year again when we stock up on flowers for our containers. And the plants always start out looking great. But in no time, the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a landscape designer, this is the most common question I get: How do I keep my potted plants in shape all summer?

The Three-Step Rule

There are three key steps to remember when caring for potted plants. In order to grow successfully in containers, they require:

Would you go a day without water or a month without food? Your flowers depend on you to provide them with all they need. Follow these steps and you’ll have blooms all summer.

Water, Water and then Water Again

Annuals are called annuals for a reason. They have no permanent root system. In order to survive, they need a regular supply of water. In fact, shallow roots, which have limited capacity to store water, require water daily. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! As soon as the top of the soil dries out, potted flowers do, too.

Annuals have shallow roots that require water daily

When watering your potted plants, water at the soil level to avoid wetting the leaves. Wet foliage can encourage fungus to develop. A good rule of thumb is to water at the soil level until excess water seeps out of the pot. That way, you’ll know you’ve completely moistened all of the potting mix. 

Feed For More Blooms

Even though potting mixes come packed with ingredients, containers quickly lose nutrients to hungry plants and frequent watering. As a result, potted plants need to be fed so they can keep on growing. I feed my flowers twice a month, from spring to fall, with a water soluble fertilizer.

That said, it’s important not to overdo things. Too much fertilizer will produce lots of lush foliage, but fewer blooms.

Groom To Keep The Shape

A great haircut can be transformative. And after just a few weeks in a container, flowers can start looking shaggy. You can control for this with proper grooming. 

Groom your plants by regularly deadheading faded flowers and pruning leggy stems. Make sure to pinch or snip back stems to an intersecting branch at a 45 degree angle. This key task will help maintain the form of your plants and stimulate them to keep on blooming.

Below are three popular potted plants and how to keep them in shape all summer.

Geraniums

Though grown as an annual in most areas, the common geranium is actually a ‘tender perennial’, meaning it won’t survive cold temperatures outdoors. While it’s tempting to buy this beautiful plant in early spring, it’s usually best to hold off until around Mother’s Day when there’s less risk of it getting zapped by frost.

A healthy geranium has a few central stems and lots of side shoots (which is the optimum structure for a strong plant that will produce lots of flowers.) To keep your geranium looking good, prune back the central stems by about a third a week or two after potting it. This will encourage more side shoots to develop and maintain the plant’s fullness.

As the season progresses, regularly pinch the side branches of your geranium down to the angle where the branches fork. This will prevent the plant from becoming leggy. And deadhead (pinch at the base) all flower stems as soon as they have faded. This will encourage new flowering.

Petunias

Petunias quickly become leggy without some prudent intervention. They can also quit blooming almost entirely after an initial colorful flush. No worries, though. With proper watering, feeding and grooming, you can keep your petunias looking good all summer.

Like all flowers, petunias must be regularly deadheaded to encourage new blooms. However, unlike most flowers, removing the dead blooms accomplishes only part of the job. That’s because at the base of the petunia flower there is a small, nugget-sized pod that produces seeds. If you leave the pod on the plant, the petunia will stop blooming.

So in order to get your petunia to produce more flowers, remove the entire flower stem.

Deadheading the flowers (with stems) on a regular basis will keep your petunias blooming: however, it won’t solve the leggy problem. To control legginess, prune your plant every week, cutting back about a third of the petunia. You can do this by pinching branches selectively or grabbing clumps and shearing them off. Each week, cut the plant back by another third. Rejuvenating petunias in this way will encourage new stems and blooms to sprout from the interior branches.

Begonias

These bright-colored flowers require less care than geraniums or petunias, but still need regular pruning to maintain their compact shape. The same goes for the indoor varieties, by the way.

To keep your begonias looking their best, prune the outer branches (called canes) harder than the interior ones, pinching back the growing tips of new shoots to encourage new stems to develop. Prune the interior canes at varied heights and prune the outer canes at the lowest. This will encourage new growth at the base of the plant and prevent it from looking bare at the bottom.

If your begonia has lost all of its lower leaves, you can cut it back all the way to the soil. This will force the plant to send up new shoots. You can then continue pinching new stems as they grow until you achieve the desired shape and fullness.

A note on begonias, both indoors and out. They don’t like to be overwatered.

 

How To Build A Perfect Lawn: A Turf Expert Speaks Out

When it comes to experts on lawns, University of Maryland’s Chuck Schuster is a cut above. Not only is he an educator in commercial horticulture, but he also consults on grass with many nursery, greenhouse, turf and garden center industries. And in his spare time, he provides guidance on turf protection to some of the largest stadiums and sports complexes in the Washington, DC area.

I was lucky to have Schuster educate me recently on the differences between cool and warm season grasses and how to build the perfect lawn.

COOL SEASON GRASSES

Most lawns grown in the mid Atlantic region consist of cool season grasses. These include fescue, bluegrass and ryegrass, all of which go dormant in January and February. But in early March, when temperatures climb above 32°F, these grasses become active. And from March to June, they are actively growing, with 60 percent of their top growth occurring in the first six weeks they break dormancy.

Cool season grasses put on 60% of their top growth from March to June.

In late June and July, however, when temperatures reach 85° F and above, cool season grasses undergo what Schuster terms the ‘Summer Slump.’ During this period, they don’t actively grow.  As a result, they often turn brown. 

Cool season grasses often turn brown during the ‘Summer Slump’.

Cool season grasses turn green again (resuming growth), once temperatures cool and soil moisture is replenished. This usually occurs in September, when they also begin developing roots for the winter. In fact, cool season grasses will continue growing underground all the way through December until the soil freezes.

Cool season grasses will continue growing until the soil freezes.

WARM SEASON GRASSES

Warm season grasses, on the other hand, prefer drier soils and have a high tolerance for drought. The most common of these are zoysia and Bermuda grass. These varieties tend to handle heavy traffic better and can tolerate closer mowing. In fact, Bermuda grass’s high resiliency and ability to heal itself quickly make it one of the top choices for many sports complexes.

“Warm season grasses are so resilient they’ll even creep over asphalt,” says Schuster.

Bermuda grass lawn

The downside for homeowners is that Bermuda grass and zoysia lawns turn brown when they go dormant, which usually occurs once temperatures dip below 50° F. On the East Coast, this isn’t the best look for a perfect lawn. Growth begins again when temperatures rise in the spring, with warm season grasses experiencing active growth from April through September. 

Warm season grasses go dormant in the winter.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Why care what type of grass you have? Because, according to Schuster, understanding what type of turf you have determines its care. Building a perfect lawn involves controlling for mowing height, water needs and perhaps most importantly, fertilization requirements.

Before doing anything to your lawn (especially fertilization) determine whether you are working with cool or warm season grass!

THINGS THAT BUILD A PERFECT LAWN

According to Schuster, these are the five building blocks that go into making a great lawn.

  1. Good soil 
  2. Adequate moisture
  3. Proper mowing height
  4. Yearly aeration
  5. Proper fertilization

GOOD SOIL

Maintaining soil pH in an optimum range helps lawns absorb nutrients properly. Moreover, it reduces the threat from diseases and weeds. Generally a soil pH of 5.8 to 6.4 is considered ideal. Depending on your grass species, turf problems may start to occur when your soil pH is either above 7.8 or below 5.6,

To mitigate this problem, Schuster recommends doing a soil test to determine your soil pH before applying nutrients.

Determine your soil pH first before applying nutrients.

ADEQUATE MOISTURE 

According to the Lawn Institute, most lawns grow best with a maximum total of one inch (2.5 cm) of water a week. This amount can come from rain or irrigation, or a combination of both. This will saturate the underlying soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm), allowing the roots to create a ‘soil-water bank’ to draw moisture from during periods of hot weather and drought.

Proper irrigation helps your lawn develop deep, strong roots. 

PROPER LAWN MOWING HEIGHTS (Hint: Mow High)

Longer grass helps shade out weeds and keeps the soil cooler. Schuster recommends mowing cool season grasses a little higher, at 3- 3 ½ inches. This keeps grass greener in the summer and reduces thatch. Mow when the lawn is dry, removing no more than 1/3 of the height.

Warm season grasses, on the other hand, can be mown close to the ground due to their high resiliency and preference for drier soil.

Mow cool season grasses high to shade out weeds and diseases.

Either way, don’t forget to sharpen your blades once a year. Dull mower blades tear the grass blades, increasing the chances of disease and leaving a brown tint on the lawn.

YEARLY AERATION

Aeration helps a lawn maintain its health and vigor. It also reduces maintenance requirements by improving air exchange between soil and atmosphere while facilitating water and fertilizer uptake. Perhaps most importantly, it improves root development by reducing soil compaction. This in turn helps a lawn battle heat and drought better.

It also accelerates thatch break down.

Aeration graphic before and after

According to Schuster, every good lawn benefits from a good aeration. It can be done in spring or fall. However, never aerate when the lawn is dried out or too wet, it will tear up the ground.

PROPER FERTILIZATION

Spring fertilization encourages top growth (and mowing) at the expense of root growth. It produces lush turf, but it also makes a lawn more susceptible to insects and disease. Depriving the roots of proper development increases risk during dry times in the late summer.

Fertilize cool season grasses in the fall for optimum root growth.

On the other hand, when you fertilize a lawn in the fall, the nutrients go mainly towards root growth. And healthy roots mean healthy plants. Grasses build a reserve to help survive the winter and start out strong in the spring.

“It’s the best bang for your nutrient dollar,” says Schuster.

BONUS: LEAVE THE CLIPPINGS ON YOUR LAWN

Who doesn’t like free fertilizer? Leave the clippings on the lawn to put nitrogen back into the turf. It bears noting that soil amendments like LeafGro are simply products made from our own discarded leaves and grass (and sold back to us by nurseries.)

Glass clippings return nutrients to the soil and contribute to healthy turf.

Grass clippings contribute to healthy turf by returning nutrients to the soil in a slow-release form. In fact, returning grass clippings to the lawn ‘credits’ it with as much as one pound of nitrogen per year, says Schuster.

TO RECAP

To build a perfect lawn, make sure to do the following:

Figure out what type of turf you have.

Do a soil test to determine pH needs.

Fertilize at the optimum time. 

Mow at a height to benefit the lawn, not the weeds.

Aerate once a year to build strong and healthy roots. 

And enjoy your lawn!

Our family dog, Winston, enjoying our cool-season lawn. 

Photos/shutterstock.com

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

Last week, it snowed overnight. The heavy flakes quickly blanketed the landscape, transforming my garden into a field of glistening white. But the next morning, I woke to discover my boxwood splayed open under the weight of it, a pile of broken stems at their base. Snow is beautiful, but it can be tough on evergreens.

In fact, without proper preparation, cold weather can spell disaster for plants; especially broad leaved species like boxwood, rhododendrons and hollies. Here are five steps you can take now to your protect your evergreens from winter damage. Continue reading

How To Grow Herbs Indoors

Who doesn’t love the taste of herbs cut fresh from the garden? Cold weather doesn’t have to spell the end of that enjoyment. In fact, you can grow bundles of savory herbs throughout all the seasons. All you need are some plants, a sunny window and a little TLC in the form of good soil, attentive watering and a regular supply of food. Continue reading

Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked. 

“Never,” she replied with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood. Continue reading

Top Annuals for the All-Season Cutting Garden

Annuals for the cutting garden/Photo: Julie Hove Anderson Photography

As a landscape designer, I’m well versed in perennials and the kind of annuals you buy from a nursery. But when it comes to growing annuals from seeds, my experience lies mainly with zinnias. So recently, I was delighted to attend a webinar hosted by ButterBee Farm owner Laura Beth Resnick on the top annuals she grows for her cutting gardens. Continue reading

Identify Plants In A Snap With These 6 Top Apps

 What's That Flower app

Now that we’re all spending more time at home, it can’t hurt to know what’s blooming. And finding the answer is easier than ever with one the many plant identification apps available. But which ones work best and provide the fastest, most reliable data? To find out, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison. Continue reading

Daffodil Bulb Care: The Top 5 Things You Need To Know

Recently my inbox has been overflowing with questions from readers worried about the abnormally warm winter we’ve been experiencing. Many of the questions center on daffodils; in particular, what to do about unruly bulbs. Before replying, I first spoke with a few local nursery experts to gain their advice. Here are five of my readers’ top concerns about daffodil bulbs and what to do about them. Continue reading