Ask a Master Gardener: How to care for hanging flower baskets

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With the right amount of attention, flowers in hanging baskets can thrive.

(Posted April 29, 2021)

By Jane Kutzley, Madison County Master Gardener

Question: Every year for Mother’s Day, I receive a gorgeous hanging basket of flowering plants, and every year it is dead by the Fourth of July. Help, please!

Goodness, I feel your pain! This is not all your fault. Generally, when you purchase a flowering basket, it is big and lush and full of gorgeous blooms. That means that the plant(s) are fully mature and growing at their most vigorous rate. It has also been growing in ideal conditions in a greenhouse with constant care and attention. It has been stimulated with fertilizers and other chemicals so that would come into bloom at the exact right time for a holiday. Now, it has been taken from that environment, shoved into a plastic sleeve, trucked to a store and finally brought to your home. Needless to say, the poor thing is in a bit of shock, and you are now committed to daily care for a very needy plant.

Bring it home and water it well, making sure the water drains out the bottom of the pot. Put it in a protected area with some nice light but no direct sun for a few days, continuing to water it daily. After it has had a bit of rest, you can decide what your next step will be.

Without a doubt, the next best step would be to remove the plants from their basket, tease them apart gently, and resettle them with fresh new potting soil into a pot or basket that is two or three inches bigger in diameter. You will almost hear those roots breathe a sigh of relief. Water it well every single day and, over the next several days, move it gradually into the spot you have planned for it. Be certain that the plants are appropriate for the spot. Put full-sun plants in a full-sun location, part-sun plants in a morning-sun location, etc. Shade-loving plants in a full-sun location will burn up and die, no matter how well you care for them. Sun-loving plants in a shade location will struggle and decline despite excellent care.

If you cannot or choose not to repot your basket, there are still ways to keep it going for the season. It is safe to assume that the plant is root-bound, so all the food or water it needs will have to come from you. It also means that it will dry out very quickly. Daily watering is imperative. When the summer really heats up, the basket may need an afternoon drink, as well.

Fertilizer is also absolutely necessary as the nutrients in the soil have been rapidly depleted by the rapid growth in the greenhouse. Choose a fertilizer that is specifically intended for flowering plants, and read and follow label directions if those directions are written for potted plants. If you are in doubt, mix the fertilizer at 25 percent of the recommended rate and use it once per week. Granular slow-release fertilizers that are just sprinkled on the soil are another option, as are fertilizer spikes. Whatever you choose, go easy, keeping in mind the small container you are working with. Too much fertilizer will burn the plant and kill it even faster than the slow death of poor nutrition.

Every day when you water it, pick off spent blooms. After a week or two, if your plant is starting to look “leggy” or straggly, use sharp scissors to trim the longest stems back to one or two set of leaves. Do about one-third of the plant. In a couple more weeks, do the next third, and then do the remainder a week or two after. Repeat as necessary throughout the season. If your plant is a “spiller,” like a petunia or calibrachoa, prune more gently and only a few stems at a time. You’ll be able to discern which ones need a clip.

Most importantly, keep up the watering every single day, excepting those few rainy days when nature takes care of it. If you need to be gone, make arrangements for someone else to do the watering. Be certain the water still drains from the bottom as roots may try to plug up the drain holes. The plant will drown if water sits in the pot for very long. With all this attention, your basket should be beautiful all summer and into autumn. It truly is a labor of love.

If, after all this, your basket still does not thrive, then it is time to reconsider the type of plants you are growing. Fuchsias are gorgeous, and many people grow them with ease. I find them frustrating and difficult. The one year I did have a really nice one, a wren chose to build her house in the pot and I gave up so as not to disturb her. Wave petunias and calibrachoa are beautiful but they love water and are heavy feeders, so no skimping there. Lantana, my personal favorite, is cheerful and colorful, tough as nails and has the added benefit of attracting bees and butterflies. It can take the full afternoon sun in stride. Daily watering and regular feeding are still the rules though, and it loves a good trim occasionally.

Jane Kutzley is a member of the Madison County Master Gardeners. Watch for upcoming details about the program’s new Ask A Master Gardener Help Line, coming soon.

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