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Potting, Watering and Feeding

[Introduction]  [Planning Your Garden]  [Air, Light, And Temperature For Plants]  [Soil For Plants]  [Flowerpots]  [Potting, Watering and Feeding]  [Insects And Ailments]  [Why Some Plants Die]  [Hydroponics or Checmical Gardening]  [Kids And Gardening] 

"The greatest wealth is contentment with a little." JOHN RAY, "English Proverbs."

You have owned a geranium or fern for some months-any plant, in fact, that is planted in a pot except short-term bulbs like narcissus, daffodil or hyacinth. Your plant is thriving, it grows large, and the pot holding it seems small in proportion. Do not hurry, for within reason a plant does better in a fairly small pot than in one too large for it; but hold the pot up and look underneath; you may find roots struggling through the drainage hole.

Wait until the soil has become moderately dry; take the pot in the left hand, place two fingers over the dirt and reverse the pot. Gently tap the rim downwards on the edge of a table; a few taps will loosen the truncated cone of soil. Now remove the pot.

If the cone of soil is covered with a thick web of roots on its surface against the side of the pot, a change of pots is necessary. If the roots are few and not a felted mass, replace the pot, for a change is not needed at this time. Should you decide to repot, lay the plant on a sheet of newspaper; with a kitchen fork gently push away any of the soil that contains no roots, possibly the top inch or so. Pick out the crocks and stand the plant in a new pot.

Over the crocks in the bottom of the new pot you will put some sphagnum moss or peat moss, then an inch or more of new, almost dry potting soil. Stand your plant in the new pot; lift it out and add more soil if it is too low; take away some of the soil if it stands too high. Holding it upright, spoon in small amounts of new potting soil all around it; pack the soil down gently with a piece of wood; add more soil which you pack fairly firm. Place additional soil to make the surface level; tap the pot with the hand; and give a final pressing all around with the thumbs. Potting soil should be V2 inch below the rim when you have finished. Stand the newly potted plant in water, which should not be deep enough to spill over the top, and allow it to soak for 20 minutes; let it drain and return it to the room garden. Give it a light position, but out of direct sun for a week.

Repotting should always be by small stages, from one pot to the next size larger. Whenever you divide the roots of a plant into two or three pieces, put rooted cuttings into pots, or grow some young plants from seed, the procedure is the same: use the smallest practical size pot, place divisions at the same depth as the original plant, put seedlings and cuttings no deeper than before, pack gently but firmly the nearly dry potting soil, and soak for 20 minutes afterwards.

The same rules apply when planting bulbs. Place the crock, put peat moss or sphagnum on top, then put in as much soil as will bring the top of the bulb slightly above the rim-3 inches above it in the case of a large bulb like amaryllis. One half, or slightly more, of each bulb should be beneath the surface. The soil should be pressed around the bulbs, but the bulbs themselves should not be pressed down. If you do push the bulbs down, when their new roots develop the bulbs may be pushed out of the soil. They will grow and produce flowers just the same, but the pot will not look so good with the plants out of the vertical. If the garden-earth ingredient in your potting soil is a clay or clay loam, this may happen even if you do not push on the bulb; to prevent this, put 1/2 inch of sand or Vermiculite under the bulb when planting it.

To get the proper planting depth when potting or repotting, be prepared to dump the contents of the pot and start over again. Take your time.


Some plants need a large amount of water; often their original home is a swamp, perhaps the tropical rain forest. Again, a few, like cacti, require very little water. Most newly potted plants or new plantings of bulbs like a moist rather than a wet soil at first.

Plants are watered as often as is necessary to maintain the soil in the moist condition that they require. How often they should be watered depends upon the humidity of the room, the size of the pot, the kind of plant, the temperature and the nature of the soil. The dealer is often asked "How often shall I water it?" But this is a question he cannot answer except to tell you "Never let it become dry." Signs that water is needed are

1. The soil surface looks dry.

2. The peculiar sound when you lightly strike a pot with a piece of wood. Tap a recently watered pot and one that has been allowed to become dry. You will soon detect the difference in sound; until you do, err on the side of watering too often.

3. The leaves droop. This is bad, for you probably have delayed too long and you may have given your plant a check from which it may never recover fully. A check in growth is to be avoided with all plants, through dryness, a drop in temperature with a tropical plant, an excessive rise in temperature for a cool-loving plant, or sudden bright light for a shade-tolerant plant.

Too much water and too little water often produce a similar result: yellowing and eventual dropping of the leaves. Avoid water that is very cold; make it near the temperature of the room by drawing from both hot and cold faucets or by keeping the filled can in the room for several hours before using it.

Although a few plants prefer that water should stand in the saucer, not many do. If it collects there, pour it onto the surface of a near-by pot. Water may run through the pot very quickly, indicating that your potting soil drains a little too perfectly; but this will not affect the plant adversely, provided you are careful to see that it never lacks moisture.

Rain water is often better for plants than the tap water of many localities where chemicals have been added; it will pay to collect and store rain in these areas. Or you may boil a supply of tap water and let it cool to room temperature, when some chemicals will be removed. Sterile water is important when you attempt to grow orchids or to raise ferns from spores.

In mild weather plants may stand in the rain to advantage, and most plants should be sprayed or syringed with plain water once a week, laid on their sides in the bathtub to avoid overwetting the soil. Large smooth-leaved subjects like rubber plants, monstera, crotons or palms may have their leaves carefully swabbed with wet cotton batting every seven to ten days.

Flowering plants benefit from an application of liquid manure every week or two, beginning when the flower buds are first seen. Many foliage plants may be given this also. Use a small water can with a long spout; take it in one hand and with the other lift the leaves. Do not splash the foliage with liquid manure; if you do, immediately syringe with plain water.

You may shake up some pulverized sheep manure in a container of water; let it soak for half a day, stirring occasionally, and then allow it to settle for the rest of the day. Apply it in the evening up to just below the rim of the pot-don't let it spill over. It should have the color of weak tea. Add water if it is darker; if it is too light, use more sheep manure. Allow the used sediment to dry, break it up, and add small amounts of it to your stock of potting soil.

Or dissolve some Trace-L, Instant Vigoro, Hyponex, Hy-Gro, Kapco or other soluble plant food in water, following the directions on the container, and feed it to the plants. Alternate your applications of sheep-manure water and the soluble chemical.

If it is determined that certain of your plants need calcium or lime, apply similarly: shake up half a teacup of hydrated lime in a quart of water; allow to settle and become clear; give the liquid to the plant, followed by some plain water in a few hours.

Do not apply liquid manure and lime to a plant at the same time; allow a week to elapse between them. Allocate one day a week for liquid feeding. Instead of giving plants plain water on this day use the liquid manure or dissolved chemical.