Soilless mix in potted plants takes special watering

By Joyce Karsnak

OSU Ext. master gardener volunteer

The beautiful hanging baskets that flew off the racks in May have been on your porches for some weeks now. How’s yours looking? Mine started to look not so great. It’s a beautiful fuchsia that came with instructions on watering and feeding and sunlight. It said to water when the top 1 inch of soil was dry.

Oops, the plant is not in soil. It’s planted in a soilless mix of sphagnum peat moss, white particles of volcanic material called perlite and probably some other lightweight ingredients, but no soil. Peat moss holds water when wet, keeps air around the roots (yes, roots need air) and holds nutrients. Perlite promotes good drainage.

But my plant foliage was dull and the flowers were dropping. I watered it every day like the instructions said and lifted it to see if it felt heavy. I decided to plant it in the ground where I have more success. I pulled the container from the plant and found the top inch was wet but below it was bone dry. No wonder it was looking poor.

Once peat moss dries out, you must water, wait a short while, water again, wait, and repeat until the container is moist. The same goes for dried out container plantings. Once a soilless mix dries out, water will run through it and out the bottom so repeat watering is needed to get the pot moistened.

Another thing I saw when I pulled the plant out of the basket were lots of roots. By now they are hungry after competing in that little container and pushing out so many flowers. Frequent watering results in the leaching of nutrients. You might even be seeing some yellowing leaves.

Many water soluble or slow release granular fertilizers are available at the garden center. A complete fertilizer is fine where three numbers on the package such as a 20:20:20 ratio represents the equal relative strength of the top three nutrients contained in the product in this order: nitrogen – phosphorus – potassium (N-P-K). Try not to pick one with a high ratio of nitrogen because that will promote more foliage than flowers. Phosphorus helps with roots and flowering so you might look for a 1:2:1 ratio. Follow label directions. It’s very important to remember to apply it all summer long.

Hanging baskets are totally dependent on you and need more care than plants growing in the ground. The trade-off is you see their beauty up close. My transplanted fuchsia is looking great. It likes its new location, I can still enjoy its beauty and I love not having to water it so much.

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