Caring for Your Plants

Spend just a little bit of time choosing the right potting mix and meeting the watering, feeding, and care requirements of your plants, and you will reap the rewards: healthy growth and a good, productive yield of flowers or crops.

Potting mix

Most plants will grow well in general multipurpose potting mix, but some have special requirements or are more suited to free-draining soil or acidic mix. You should always read plant labels for a guide to soil requirements, but it’s also a good idea to do a bit of your own research before you plant anything, so that you can buy the correct potting mix.

Home composting

Add fruit and vegetable peelings to an outside compost bin where you can also put prunings.

Mix plant matter with plenty of shredded paper and cardboard, and turn everything regularly to keep the air circulating and to aid decay. Don’t add woody stems, weeds, diseased plants, or meat, fish, or cooked food. Keep the bin covered, but be sure it isn’t too dry, and add water if necessary.

It should take six to nine months to rot down.

A covered pot in the kitchen is handy for storing fruit and vegetable peelings before transferring them to an outside compost bin.

Free-draining soil Generally, anything that likes a lot of sun, such as succulents and cacti, prefers a free-draining, gritty soil mix, so choose one with horticultural sand already mixed in, or add perlite, granules of volcanic minerals, or horticultural grit.

Acidic soil Blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, and heathers need acidic or ericaceous soil and will die if planted in multipurpose potting mix.

Seed potting mix This has no soil or nutrients and is also perfect for adult plants that require minimal nutrients, such as wildflowers.

Healthy additives

Incorporate well-rotted manure and/or homemade compost into your soil to help retain moisture, improve soil texture, and add plenty of healthy minerals. Mix into your soil or apply as mulch in spring. Not all plants need it, but edibles, shrubs, and trees will appreciate the boost. Whatever you use, make sure it is well-rotted because fresh compost produces too much heat as it decays; leave garden compost to rot for at least six months.


Containers tend to dry out more quickly than plants in the ground; those on balconies or exposed above ground level need particular attention. Make sure all your containers have drainage holes; if not, make them yourself using a drill or similar. If plants sit in too much water their roots will rot—unless they are bog or water plants, of course. Roots also need air

circulation, so add crocks (broken terra-cotta pots) or gravel to the bottom of containers before adding soil mix. A drip tray underneath will protect surfaces from water and allow plants to soak up moisture via their roots. Plants that prefer moisture-retentive soil, such as ferns, still require drainage, but conserve moisture by mulching with organic material or sphagnum moss.

How and when to water

Water plants regularly and frequently. Plants will need more watering while they are establishing, and vegetables and fruit need plenty as flowers and crops form. In hot, dry conditions water containers twice a day. Fill the container to the rim, then let it drain and water again. Watering just a little doesn’t get moisture to the roots. Check containers each day from mid­spring to early fall for moisture content. Some plants, like succulents or air plants, will not require watering daily, so check the plant’s watering needs when you buy. You can give plants extra moisture by misting in hot weather. Make sure you water at the right time of day, too. Early morning or evening are best so that leaves aren’t scorched by the sun and the water

Watering requirements can vary dramatically depending on the plant. Some, such as air plants, are not watered at the roots at al they are only watered by misting.

doesn’t evaporate as quickly. Water plants only during the growing season, as most plants don’t need watering when dormant in winter and prefer slightly dry soil mix so their roots don’t get wet or frozen.

Watering help

Mix water-storing crystals into potting mix at planting time. These expand to hold moisture and release it as the soil mix dries. Irrigation systems are also useful for larger areas or if you don’t want to worry about watering every day. Many systems work on a timer and are great if you go away.

DIY Weekend Waterer Making your own simple irrigation system is easy. Drill a hole for a plastic tap near the bottom of a bucket. Attach a length of hose to the tap. Prick tiny holes in the hose and stop up the end. Place the bucket on a raised platform, then fill with water. Feed the hose over your plant pots and open the tap to let a small amount of water flow.

A simple weekend watering system is easy to make yourself and provides a gentle supply of water to your plants for several days.

General care

Protect young plants and fruit blossoms from frost in early spring by covering with garden fabric.

Close to harvest time, fruit plants can be protected from birds by netting. Protect plants in higher locations from wind damage by adding screening or choosing plants that can survive in exposed sites.

Keep plants looking healthy by removing any dead, diseased, or dying foliage regularly during the growing season. Don’t compost diseased plant material since this could spread diseases to other plants. Some plants, such as succulents, need a good clean up of spent flower stalks and old leaves before they go dormant, otherwise this dead material may rot the plant. Others, like echinacea, have lovely seedheads that add winter interest and provide food for beneficial creatures, so don’t cut these back until late winter or early spring.

Protect fruit bushes from birds using netting.


Some fruit and vegetables need to mature fully before harvesting; others can be eaten while they are young and tasty. Apples, pears, strawberries, cauliflower, and broccoli, for example, need time to develop and don’t taste good when unripe, but peas, zucchini, radishes, and beans are sweet and tasty when picked young and fresh. Many crops are best eaten right away, but if you need to store produce, choose a cool, dry, dark place; don’t store bruised or damaged crops since they could encourage good crops to rot. Fruit such as apples and pears can be individually wrapped for storage, but check each one regularly for signs of decay and remove affected fruit. Many vegetables, herbs, and some soft fruit can be frozen, dried, or pickled—a lovely way to share your homegrown edibles with friends and family.

Homegrown seeds

Harvest seeds from flowers and vegetables at the end of their growing season. You may not get a pure

offspring from the parent plant, depending on the variety and what was grown nearby, but it is fun to raise your own plants from homegrown seeds. Allow edible crops to fully ripen and flowers to set ripe seed before harvesting, and collect when the seed pod is dry. Use a paper or plastic bag to collect the seed, then store in an airtight container or paper bag until ready to sow. Depending on the plant, you can sow some seed right away. The germination rate will deteriorate over time, so try to use your gathered seed within a year for best results.

Garden Year Planner Spring Summer


■ Tidy up containers and planting areas, replacing or topping off soil if required.

■ Sweep up leaves and debris. Wash down areas as needed.


■ Sow seeds from early spring. Some need to be sown indoors for frost protection.

■ Buy young plants. Those for summer bedding displays are not frost hardy so will need protection until the danger of frost is over.

■ Begin to water and feed plants in containers, increasing frequency as the weather gets warmer.


■ Cut back old and dead foliage from plants in early spring before new growth begins to emerge.


■ Consider any new planting areas or ideas, and source plants.


■ Clean outdoor furniture.


■ Continue sowing seeds of summer vegetables at regular intervals for successional crops.

■ Tie in climbing plants to frames and check if other plants need support with sticks or a trellis.

■ Water plants often in hot weather, when soil will dry out quickly.


■ Deadhead flowers regularly on ornamental plants to encourage repeat flowering.

■ Harvest crops when ripe.


■ Consider watering requirements if you are going away on vacation.


■ Give containers a clean and check soil levels, topping with potting mix if required.

■ Make sure all structures and climbing and larger plants are secure.


■ Remove summer bedding plants and plant fall and winter plants as well as spring bulbs.

■ Harvest edible crops and store excess produce. Remove plants after harvesting is finished.

■ Start to reduce watering and feeding.


■ Continue to deadhead flowers on ornamental plants to enjoy any late flowering displays.


■ Keep walkways and terraces clear of leaves, twigs, and other debris.

Garden Doctor

Maintaining a healthy, ecological balance and having a proactive approach helps with pest and disease control. Here are some simple and practical tips:

Look after your soil Add organic matter in spring; replace or renew potting mix in containers regularly. Follow crop rotation Rotate edible crops to help reduce buildup of soilborne diseases.

Choose resistance Use certified virus-free or disease – resistant seeds and plants, especially for edible crops. Be vigilant Examine plants regularly and treat any pests or diseases as soon as signs of damage appear. Encourage nature’s little helpers Grow plants that attract beneficial insects (see pages 210-15).

Companion planting

By growing certain plants near others you can help reduce pests and diseases. For example, the scent of French marigolds discourages whiteflies; basil can be planted with tomatoes to improve growth and flavor; and garlic planted near roses discourages greenflies.

Updated: October 20, 2015 — 10:37 am