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Hope for Hanging Baskets

How to care for your hanging basket and keep it looking good all summer.

I've been thinking a lot about hanging baskets lately.  Hanging baskets are a Mother's Day gift staple and for good reason.  They're beautiful, they last longer than cut flowers, and for much of the country the timing is perfect to start gardening.  The thing I've been thinking about is that hanging baskets are one of the hardest things to keep looking good all summer.  The reason is simple, there's a whole lot of plant material to a relatively small amount of soil.  This is true of almost any hanging basket, but is especially true of the huge baskets you buy at garden centers.  The small soil volume means the basket will dry out quickly and keeping up with watering can become challenging.  It is possible to keep a hanging basket looking good all summer, but it will take constant attention from the gardener.

I love hanging baskets!  I have seven of them around my wrap-around porch and each year I try something new in them.  What's going in the hanging baskets is often the first decision I make for my garden.  In fact, I'm usually thinking about them the summer before I'll be planting them.  So what goes into having a great hanging basket all season?  It starts with choosing your basket and your plants.

Getting Started

Basket Selection

Your first decision will be to decide if you are going to buy an already planted hanging basket or if you are going to plant it yourself.  The next step is to consider the size of the hanging basket.  I am a big believer that the bigger the planter, the better off you are.  Small pots will dry-out faster than larger pots because they have less soil.  Watering will be your biggest challenge in maintaining your hanging baskets.  Choosing a larger pot now, can make maintaining your basket much easier.  I use 14-inch diameter, deep hanging baskets, so I have a reasonably good soil volume to plant material (photo, right.)

Once you decide on pot size, pay attention to the material from which your pot is made.  Most hanging baskets are either plastic or coco-fiber/moss.  There are a few wood, ceramic, and terra cotta hanging baskets, but they are few and far between.  The pros of plastic are they retain moisture well, are inexpensive and are easy to find.  The con is they are plastic and you may or may not like the way plastic looks.  The pro of coco-fiber/moss baskets is they are decorative.  The negatives are they dry-out faster, can be harder to find, and the coco-fiber/moss liner will need to be replaced periodically.  You can get around the dry-out factor by lining the basket with plastic prior to planting (this is what I do).  Ceramic pots are similar to plastic as far as the pros go and they are decorative.  Wood and terra cotta will both dry-out faster than plastic, but not as fast as a coco-fiber/moss basket.

Plant Selection

You can make life a lot easier if you choose plants for your baskets that suit your environment.  This is true, whether you are buying a pre-planted basket or planting your own.  First, decide if your basket will be hanging in sun or shade conditions.  Choosing plants that are adapted to the amount of sun your area will get is key to having happy plants.  Once you know sun/shade conditions, it is time to start choosing plants for your basket.  What traits are most important will vary for each gardener.  Some questions to consider are does a plant needs deadheading, is it drought tolerant, does it wilt quickly, is it heat tolerant, does it need a lot of fertilizer, and what color do I want (that's the fun part!)?

I personally tend to be a bit time-starved, I travel a fair amount for work and my husband has limited patience for watering.  However, I don't mind fertilizing and my color preferences seem to change every year.  It also tends to be very hot in the summer here.  Keeping these things in mind, I try to choose plants that can tolerate dry soil, don't need deadheading and are heat tolerant.  I don't mind fertilizing, so either light or heavy feeders work for me.  Your tendencies might be different than mine and could include things other than those listed here.

Soil

If you are buying a pre-planted basket, skip ahead to the maintenance section, below.  If you are planting your own basket, there is one more decision to make and that is the soil for your basket.  It is best to use a good, light potting soil and to fully replace the soil in your baskets every year.  There are good commercial mixes available, for more on choosing potting soil, click here.  Now that you have planted your basket, it is time to think about maintenance. 

Maintaining Your Hanging Basket

The keys to maintaining your hanging basket really fall into three categories: water, fertilizer, and other maintenance.

Water

Watering is the hardest part of maintaining a hanging basket, or any container plant.  You can't keep the soil too wet because it will result in root rot problems, you can't keep it too dry or the plant wilts and dies.  You want to hit the happy medium.  Here are the rules of thumb for watering hanging baskets:

1. Be sure your pot has drainage holes
2. Water only when the top of the soil is dry to the touch
3. Water until water comes out of the drainage holes
4. Don’t allow your pot to sit in standing water

Here are a few more tips on watering hanging baskets. Early in spring when your plants are smaller and the temperatures are lower, you may only have to water every 3 or 4 days. As the plants get larger and the mercury creeps higher be prepared to water every day.  With small pots or water “pigs” you might even have to water twice a day. You will also need to water more quickly if it is a windy day. Wind will cause pots to dry out more quickly, especially hanging baskets.  As I said above, larger pots will dry-out less quickly than small pots.  For more in-depth watering information, click here.  If you have had problems with your hanging basket in the past, I really encourage you to read the watering article.

Another option to consider with watering is a drip irrigation system. Proven Winners® is marketing a very adaptable low volume irrigational system that works as well for flower bed as it does for hanging baskets and upright patio containers.  This system called WaterWise is designed with the gardener and the environment in mind; it uses very low volumes of water with a system of ‘drip irrigators’ which deliver the water directly to the plants. The drip emitters limit wasted water from splashing on sidewalks and driveways.   They also deliver the water directly to the soil by the plant eliminating water evaporation and lots of water on the leaves. Resulting in less disease and less water waste.  The kit has everything you need to set up the system except the timer.  The only tool you will need is a pair of scissors.

There are other drip irrigation systems out there also. They all work on similar principles. These systems generally apply ½ to 1 gallon of water per hour. Drip irrigation systems can be turned into automatic systems by adding a timer to your hose. This timer can be set to turn on your water at specified times and on specified days. Many variations of timers are available. Be sure to select a timer that allows you to set both time and day, you don’t want to be locked into watering every day.

Fertilizer

Your container plants are only getting nutrition if you provide it to them.  After watering, fertilizer is the most important thing to keep your plants thriving.  I usually recommend adding a slow or controlled-release fertilizer to your hanging basket right after you buy or plant it.  This will provide your basket with a good constant dose of fertilizer.  Be sure to follow the directions on your fertilizer package to make sure you don't damage your plants. 

By midsummer, I usually start using a water-soluble fertilizer once every one to two weeks.  Again, follow the directions on your fertilizer package.  I do this for two reasons -- by this time the plants are very large and to keep them going takes more fertilizer plus some of the controlled-release fertilizer has already been used by the plant.  I sometimes also use a dose of water-soluble fertilizer after a heavy rain.  A lot of water going through your basket, like you get with a big rain storm, can wash out fertilizer.  A dose of water-soluble fertilizer the next time you water is a good, quick way to give your plant some food.  For more in-depth information on fertilizing, click here.

Other Maintenance

There are two other things you may want to do to help maintain your basket for the long-haul.  First, some plants may need deadheading.  Most Proven Winners® plants have been selected to not need deadheading for continuous bloom, but some plants may benefit from it.  On our website "Deadheading Not Necessary" is listed under features for those plants which do not need deadheading.

The second thing you may want to do is a midsummer trim.  Hanging baskets can become a bit stretched or open looking over time, even when you are doing everything right.  If this happens, I give my baskets a "haircut" in mid to late summer.  This simply means I take a sharp pair of scissors or shears and trim a few inches off the entire basket, like when you get your hair trimmed.  How much you cut off is up to you, a light trim of an inch or two is usually plenty, but there are times when a bigger trim might be good.  If you have long trailing pieces that you don't like, feel free to cut them off.

Giving the basket a haircut will rob you of some flowers, but it will increase branching, tighten the habit, and help keep the basket looking good long-term.  Your flowers should come back with in a few days to a week or so and your plant, given enough fertilizer, is likely to start growing more strongly again.

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