Most of us who grow flowers in pots during the summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer?
The most important thing to remember when caring for flowering potted plants is that they require:
Annuals and tender perennials, which are the flowers most commonly planted in pots, are shallow-rooted. This means they require a regular supply of water in order to survive. In fact, small root systems, which have limited capacity to store water, require water daily. Water your plants at the soil level so that liquid doesn’t accumulate on the leaves (which can lead to leaf scorch or cause fungus to develop.) And wait until the water seeps out of the drainage holes in the bottom to make sure the potting soil has been thoroughly moistened.
In addition to lots of water, potted flowers need regular feeding to keep on blooming. This is because as the potting mix breaks down, it naturally loses its nutrients as the plants absorb them. I feed my plants three times during the summer with a water soluble fertilizer. (Miracle Gro All Purpose Plant Food works great.) Be careful not to overdo it though, because over-fertilization can lead to lots of lush foliage, but fewer flowers.
Deadheading, pinching and pruning are ways of grooming your potted flowers. Depending on the size of the stem, you can pinch off spent flowers and leggy branches using your thumb and forefinger, or snip them with scissors or pruning shears. These tasks help you maintain the form of your plants and stimulate them to keep on flowering.
Here are three popular annuals/tender perennials often grown in pots and how to groom them.
Though grown as an annual in most areas, the common geranium, or Pelargonium x hortorum, is actually a tender perennial, meaning it won’t survive the winter outdoors (though you can overwinter it indoors.) While it’s tempting to buy this beautiful flowering plant as soon as it hits the garden centers in early spring, it’s usually best to hold off until around Mother’s Day, when there’s less risk of an overnight frost.
A healthy geranium is commonly comprised of 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, using a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears. This will encourage more side shoots to form 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 too leggy. And deadhead (pinch at the base) all flower stems as soon as they have faded, which will encourage new flowering.
Petunias can become leggy fast 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 season long.
Petunias need to be regularly deadheaded to encourage new flowering, but unlike geraniums, removing the dead flowers from the plant accomplishes only part of the job. At the base of the petunia flower stem is a small, nugget-sized pod that produces seeds. If you leave the pod on the plant, the petunia will stop flowering. In order to stimulate the plant to produce more flowers, you’ll need to remove the entire flower stem.
Deadheading the flowers (with stems) on a regular basis will keep your petunias looking neat; however, it won’t solve the leggy problem. To control legginess, prune the 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 blossoms to sprout from the interior branches.
For a great tutorial on how to keep your petunias looking full and flowering, click here.
These brightly-colored specimens require less care than geraniums or petunias, but still need regular pruning (though little deadheading) to help them 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 form. Prune the interior canes at varied heights and prune the outer canes at the lowest. This will encourage new growth at the base and prevent the plant from looking bare at the bottom.
If your begonia has lost all 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 (as houseplants) and out: They don’t like to be overwatered.
A final note: sterilize your garden shears between uses to prevent diseases from spreading among plants. Then, sit back and enjoy your potted flowers for the remainder of the season.