In my summer travels, I compulsively check out all windowboxes, hanging baskets, ornamental planters and pots, mentally applauding those with blossoms and foliage that spill lushly over their sides and consigning those naked plastic hanging pots with a few stunted begonias to the nearest compost heap. This is a good time to take stock of your containers and perhaps spruce them up a bit if they’re languishing.

I’ve been lucky this year. Last summer my containers were leggy and scraggly; nothing I did — cutting plants back, deadheading, adding new plants ­midway through the season — seemed to help. This year, I seem to have hit it right: even after five or six days of vacation travel they were only slightly wilted and bounced back with a good watering. The difference, I believe, is more attention to the potting mix and starting with large healthy plants from a greenhouse where they were well-attended all their young life. I also used a watering trick that I’ll explain further on.

With container gardening, the two most important soil requirements are ample nutrients and water retention. Even if you purchase a pre-mixed bag of soil that says it contains fertilizer for three months, by now the available nutrients have either been used by the plants or washed out with repeated watering. Continuing to fertilize your container gardens regularly is key to their success for the remainder of the season. This year, I started out with a good mix of organic potting soil to which I added extra slow-release fertilizer, some compost for the micronutrients and some extra peat moss (my bad: I try not to buy peat anymore, as it’s basically a non-renewable resource, while coir is a renewable substitute, but I found the remains of a bag of peat in the Stygian depth of the shed and decided to use it up). This mix took me through an insanely hot and dry June, but by now, I’m adding a diluted fish emulsion every couple of weeks to keep the containers healthy and full.

Also important to your container garden appearance is constant deadheading. I’m that person who will actually pinch off dead petunia or marigold blossoms from restaurant planters as I wait by the door for a dinner table to be cleared. My 5-year-old granddaughter asked me why I did this, and I explained to her that the plant’s job is to make flowers, which then turn into seeds. If allowed to make seeds, the plant will then consider its job done for the season and start to die. It’s my job to pinch off the flowers before they make seeds, thus tricking the plant into producing more flowers, as they still want to make seeds. If your container flowers have started looking leggy or ragged, from a lack of deadheading or poor nutrition, don’t be afraid to cut them back. You may want to put them in an out-of-the-way spot, say under a shrub or bush or in a corner of the porch, until they rebound, but there’s a good chance they’ll come back healthier with a good haircut.







If you travel at all during the summer, your container plants will still need daily watering. Even if it rains, those pots cannot get enough moisture to keep them from drying out. While your vegetable garden will be fine, with its roots able to reach deep into the soil for moisture, your container gardens need watering at least once a day in the heat of the summer. Many, especially hanging planters or small containers, need watering even more often because there is less soil to hold moisture. When you water, make sure to really soak your plants — if you just give them a splash, the water will only wet the top layer of soil. Water until you see it coming out of the bottom of your pot. Some gardeners like to use water-absorbing crystals in their potting mixes but I’ve never found them particularly useful.

If your plants do dry out, don’t despair; even the most pathetic, limp plant can revive with a good drink, although you may have to trim it back a bit. For a large container that’s dried out, take a skewer or stick and gently poke holes deep into the soil to allow water to reach the roots, then water generously.

If you can’t find someone to water for you and plan to leave your lovely planters for a few days, you can try this DIY watering device. Take a large plastic soda bottle and make three tiny holes in its cap. I use a needle heated up on the stove to neatly pierce the cap. Then fill the bottle with water, screw the cap on tightly and upend the bottle in your container, burying the cap in the soil. You’ll notice some of the water will bubble out immediately, but then a vacuum forms and the bubbling stops. The rest of the water will seep out slowly over the next few days, while you’re away. It can be enough water to make the difference between total droop and a bouncy, happy planting. When I tried this technique earlier in the summer, one of the bottles tipped over and that container had wilted, so I went further the second time around and duct-taped skewers to the bottles, leaving the pointed end to extend about four inches beyond the bottle’s cap, so it could be pushed into the soil and support the bottle, and this worked well. Just be careful not to break off stems when inserting these waterers and get them firmly set in the soil. Again, this is only a fix for four or five days’ absence, but it’s better than no water at all.