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Urban Gardening: How to Maintain Your Container Garden

Container gardens are perfect for small urban gardesn. Maintaining container-grown plants means keeping them well watered, fertilized, and pruned; and keeping pests at bay.

Containers in the city can heat up fast and furious in full sun. Even plants that are labeled as heat-loving can overheat on a hot summer day. Watering regularly helps keep them cool, but you also should consider the plant placement. Even a plant that needs full sun may benefit from some shade during the hottest part of the day.

If you’re planting container vegetables and annual flowers, situate them where they’ll get morning sun but have some protection from intense afternoon sun or set them in the filtered light of a high tree canopy.

How to fertilize in a container garden

Most potting soils don’t contain enough nutrients to keep your plants growing to perfection all summer long. However, some potting soils have time-release fertilizers added to them that slowly release their nutrients in response to watering. These are probably the easiest potting soils for the urban gardener to use, as long as you’re okay with using the chemical fertilizer product included in the soil.

These slow-release granules last at least three months, with some hanging on up to nine months. Their effectiveness may be reduced by frequent watering in summer, so monitor your plants for signs of nutrient deficiency, such as yellowing leaves and stunted growth. You can also buy these slow release fertilizers and add them to potting soil yourself at planting time. Apply them again later in the season, according to instructions.

You can also use organic fertilizer products such as compost, fish emulsion, and cottonseed meal in your containers. The key to adding these fertilizers is to stick with it. Since the nutrients are lost through leaching due to frequent watering, and there’s a limited amount of soil mass to hold nutrients, you’ll need to apply these fertilizers as often as every few weeks to keep your plants growing strong.

How to prune your container plants

The beauty of most annual flowers is that they never stop flowering. However, if individual plants in a container become tired-looking, cut them back. They'll regrow and begin flowering again.

If the plants are beyond rejuvenation, spruce up the planters with replacement annuals, choosing similar plants and colors to complement the remaining flowers. Or remove the whole planting and start over with a different theme. For an immediate full effect in your container, place plants close together.

Another way to keep annual flowers blooming is to deadhead the flowers after they finish blooming. Simply pinch off the dead flower. It not only cleans up the plant, it encourages it to form more flowers.

Some newer varieties of annual flowers are self-cleaning. This means they drop their dead flowers to the ground when blooming is done.

How to inspect container plants for pests

Since your pots are elevated and in the city, you’d think you wouldn’t have to contend with pests. Amazingly enough, pests will find your plants, even in urban areas. Certainly, problems with deer or woodchucks may be minimal, but squirrels, raccoons, and mice all may find your plants.

Insect pests with winged adult stages such as cabbageworms, Japanese beetles, and whiteflies all can find your plants. Diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot are ubiquitous in the environment and likely to occur when the weather conditions are right.

Here are some tips to keep the pests away:

  • Keep your plants healthy. This almost goes without saying, but a healthy plant is less likely to suffer from insect and disease attacks than a stressed one. Keep your plants well watered and fertilized all summer long.

  • Keep watch. Check leaves, stems, and flowers regularly. You’ll be admiring your beautiful plantings daily anyway, so just take an extra minute to look under the leaves and peer closely at the stems. Often you’ll see the first signs of damage or young insects lurking there. Simply squish them to prevent any problems from taking hold.

  • Cover them up. Create barriers to keep squirrels away or use floating row covers to prevent insects from laying eggs on your prized plants. If you can prevent problems from occurring, rather than trying to cure them once they happen, you’ll get the best from your container gardens.

  • Be realistic. If your plants have been attacked and aren’t recovering or have disease or insect infestations that are spreading to other plants, be realistic. Consider ripping out those damaged plants. The beauty of containers is you can easily start over and over again. Why live through a rotten summer of ugly plants when it’s simpler to just start over?

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