How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

Most of us who grow flowers in containers in 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 become 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?

Water, water, water then water again

The most important thing to remember when caring for flowering potted plants is that they require:

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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.

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Feed for more blooms

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.

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Groom to keep the shape

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

How Carnations Became the Official Mother’s Day Flower

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Northern Pacific Railway Mother’s Day Greeting Card circa 1915

They say there are no words to describe a mother’s love for her child. But the case may be different when it comes to a child’s love for her mom. One woman went so far as to dedicate her entire life to honoring her mother’s legacy. She was the founder of Mother’s Day and her name was Anna Jarvis. Continue reading

Lily of the Valley: The Official May Day Flower

The bells of lily of the valley

It was the beginning of May and I can still recall the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. This was Paris in the 1980s, and I had just received my first brin de muguet. The sweet-smelling blooms were none other than lily of the valley; a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May. Continue reading

Valentines Day Begins at the Dutch Flower Auctions

Flower staging at Aalsmeer FloraHolland in Amsterdam

Today is Valentines Day, the annual festival of romantic love when many of us will be sending flowers. And even though we’ll be buying them locally, most of the blooms will have only just arrived from abroad. Ever wonder how flowers cut fresh in Europe, Africa and Israel can wind up for sale in America the very next day? The answer lies in the wonders of the Dutch Flower Auction.

A TRADING PLATFORM BUILT FOR SPEED

Over the past century, the Dutch have perfected a trading platform that can rapidly move millions of cut flowers around the world, making what until recently seemed impossible – delivery to North America within 24-hours from overseas.
How have they done this? By creating supply chains built for speed (to accommodate flowers’ perishability) and by establishing central distribution points for trade. The Dutch flower auction eliminates the middleman so buyers and sellers can deal directly.

shutterstock_240912793The story begins with the arrival each day of millions of flowers to FloraHolland, a superpower in the floricultural world. The company runs six auction houses throughout the Netherlands and accounts for 90 percent of the Dutch floral trade. According to the latest statistics, in 2015 the Netherlands ranked first in the world in total flower bouquet exports by country, accounting for roughly 40 % of total flower bouquet exports worldwide.

With daily sales of well over 20 million plants and flowers, FloraHolland’s auction houses together comprise the largest flower auction in the world. In addition to the Netherlands (which is itself a major producer of cut flowers), more than 10 countries, including Europe, Ecuador, Colombia, Israel, Ethiopia and Kenya all use the Dutch auction as a gateway to distributing their plants and flowers to other parts of the world.

HOW THEY DO IT

When your business is moving millions of cut flowers daily, keeping the product fresh is the primary concern. To meet the challenge, the Dutch have created lightening-fast logistics. The whole process begins with a collaborative effort undertaken by Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, ground shipping companies and the Dutch government.

Workers moving flowers on trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction

Workers loading trolleys at Aalsmeer Auction House

Nicknamed Hub Ways, the approach works to improve traffic flow both to and from the airport and between the six FloraHolland auction sites. It’s a serious business. When deemed necessary, Hub Ways has even gone so far as to widen country roads just to make the flowers’ delivery more efficient.

The largest and most famous of the six Dutch flower auctions is the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Often referred to as ‘the New York Stock Exchange for Flowers’ it occupies a massive building measuring an astonishing 10.6 million square feet (243 acres, or roughly two football fields). It is the largest flower trade center in the world.

Photo credit: www.hollandfoto.net / Shutterstock, Inc.

On a busy day, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction Hall sells millions of cut flowers to around 2,800 wholesalers and exporters. The buyers arrive at 6 am (midnight EDT) in the morning to bid.

RACING AGAINST THE CLOCK

While the supply chain makes sure the flowers arrive quickly, the Dutch Auction Method speeds the transactions at the points of sale. To accommodate their products’ perishability, Dutch flower auctions run on a system that is the flip side of traditional auctions (in which bidders push prices up from below.)  Also known as clock auctions, the unusual format is designed to ensure the highest transaction speed.

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

FloraHolland auction room, FloraHolland.com

These days there is no longer an actual clock, but instead a digital circle operated individually by an auctioneer.  Buyers connect to the clock of their choice by means of a headset. All bidding is done electronically.

Dutch auction clock/ Click here to see how it works

The auction begins with the auctioneer setting a high price on the ‘clock.’ The price is then rapidly lowered by increments as indicated by a moving red dot on the circle. The first buyer to press the button and stop the clock is the highest bidder. The whole process can take under five seconds.

Flowers ready for auction

Adrienne Lansbergen, spokeswoman for Bloemenveiling Aalsmeeran, describes the process this way:

“It is really stressful. If you wait too long, as the flowers are passing by, they may be bought by your competitor. If you push the button too quickly, you may pay too high a price.”

Clearly speed is the king of the auction.

Once the transactions are made, the flowers are electronically labeled and placed in buckets, then hurried away on electric carts to the distribution center. Here, employees in mini electric trucks pull the buckets of flowers from the rail and redistribute them to new trolleys. Then the flowers proceed onwards to their new owners’ processing areas.

Flowers heading to the distribution hall at Aalsmeer

Depending on the species and where they are going, the flowers are assigned different packaging to keep them fresh as they travel.  This may include insulated cardboard boxes (designed for durability), ice packs to provide cooling, and/or flower mats, which absorb humidity and prevent mildew growth. Finally, the flowers are sped by truck back to Schiphol airport, where they are quickly loaded back onto planes for delivery overnight.

FloraHolland estimates that around Valentines Day, they trade over 300 million flowers. Of these, roses, tulips and chrysanthemums are the three top selling blooms. Nowadays, most of the roses come from Kenya. Such a long race to get here — something  to think about when placing your Valentine’s Day blooms in the vase this year.

 

Ten Really Great (Almost) Black Flowers To Plant In Your Garden

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Black bat flower

In painting, black is the darkest hue, achieved by bringing any color to its darkest value. Black gives structure to a composition, creating the illusion of depth by drawing the eye. And in the garden, black (or almost black) flowers perform the same function, placing other colors in dramatic contrast while adding volume to the composition. I’m already planning gardens for my clients for next spring. And, included in many are a whole host of these elegant, almost-black plants and flowers. Continue reading

NYC’s Flower District: Green Oasis In A Concrete Jungle

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It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a jungle. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a certain stretch of New York City’s West 28th street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the city’s teeming sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle. Continue reading

In the Gardens of Chenonceau, A Floral Legacy Lives On

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Floral arrangement in grand foyer at Chenonceau

In my view, a visit to Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley is never complete without a tour of its gardens, and as an extension, the many beautiful floral arrangements that brighten the rooms of this magnificent castle. The two go hand-in-hand, since the one produces tens of thousands of flowers for the other. It’s all part of a time-worn tradition that began centuries ago with the rivalry between two ladies. Continue reading

7 Edible Flowers You Can Grow In Your Garden

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Edible flowers have been used for centuries in cooking and as garnishes and not so long ago, a handful of violets tossed into a salad was not an unheard-of occurrence. My first experience with eating flowers was in California in the 80’s when I sampled said violets, tentatively rolling the petals around my tongue to try to isolate the delicate floral flavor. Continue reading

The Upside Down Flower World of Artist Rebecca Louise Law

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St. Christopher’s installation by Rebecca Louise Law/Photo: stchristophersplace.com

Last week in London, British artist Rebecca Louise Law literally turned the flower industry on its head. She suspended 1,200 fresh flowers upside down over the West End’s St. Christopher’s Place. The pop-up display, which was designed to celebrate the arrival of warmer weather, immersed winter-weary shoppers in a colorful oasis as they drifted head first through the suspended garden. Continue reading

Ancient Flower Trapped In Amber Unveils New Species

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Photo: George O. Poinar, Jr.

They say time really does stand still; at least when it comes to fossils. And last week, scientists announced that two tropical flowers, possibly as old as 45 million years, have been found in two separate pieces of amber. The ancient flowers, which were discovered in a cave in the Dominican Republic, offer fascinating clues about the evolution of life on the planet. Considering our own brief time here on earth, the discovery certainly puts things into perspective. Continue reading