Then and Now
I have always enjoyed growing plants but haven’t had the best of luck with most plants. Many years ago I got very involved with Bonsai and had great success, at least for a few years. I won a few blue ribbons at the Florida State Fair, donated bonsai to charity auctions, sold bonsai to friends, and even wholesaled bonsai to a few local nurseries. Then “life” took over and I didn’t have the time or motivation to care for bonsai.
In February of 2013, I decided to make the time to try to grow a variety of plants in containers on my screened patio. Those plants included blueberries, bananas, and others that appealed to me.
I started off with Geopots for containers as I like the “air root pruning” concept of fabric grow pots. And, since I hadn’t had too much luck with other containers it seemed to be time to try something new
As I began documenting my plant growing progress, I expected to only have successes to write about but I’ve had failures, too. My hope has always been that I might be able to pass along tips that might benefit other container gardeners.
Geopots are a popular brand of fabric grow bags for container gardening and hydroponics. Other brands include Gro Pro, Island Grow Pots, Hydrofarm Dirt Bag, Gardman Resuable Growbag, HID Hut Grow Bags, Bosmere Grow Plant Bags, Viagrow Grow Bags, Sunleaves Grow Bags, Hydroponic Prune Pots, and Smart Pots. No doubt I missed a few brands but that should give anyone a good starting point when looking for fabric grow bags. Amazon has many different grow bags for sale; reading the reviews should help with choosing the right bag.
Burlap bags and feed sacks can also be used when available. DIY gardeners with modest sewing skills may decide to construct their own grow bags from landscape cloth, old clothing, and even cloth shopping bags.
Fabric grow bags probably won’t last indefinitely in comparison to clay pots but their benefits to plants I think outweigh a shorter lifespan. The fabric bags allow air into the root zone and provide excellent drainage. But, perhaps their best feature is that they also air prune the roots when the roots have filled the bag. As the roots try to grow out through the fabric, they are air dried. This air pruning forces the roots to branch out inside the bag with more fibrous feeder roots and keeps the plant from becoming root bound and produces a much healthier plant.
Fabric grow pots are a favorite with hydroponic gardeners as well as gardeners who are “growing their own” in greenhouses and growhouses.
When I decided to use grow bags, I bought several one-gallon Geopots from Amazon.com. I then purchased several 10-gallon Geopots with handles from an eBay seller. I chose Geopots due to their high ratings although I’m sure some of the other brands might work just as well. I particularly like the handles on the larger Geopots.
When the one-gallon Geopots arrived, I repotted two Jalapeno seedlings into two of the bags and moved a Peace Lily from its ceramic pot into a third bag. The three plants I then moved to the window sill outside my kitchen.
I had already ordered two dwarf banana trees and filled the remaining two bags with potting soil so I could quickly pot the plants when they were delivered. Those bags also went onto the window sill. Because I don’t expect the banana trees to stay in the one-gallon grow bags for long (at least that’s my hope), I ordered two 10-gallon Geopots from eBay.
I also started gathering up my various partial bags of Miracle-Gro potting soil and then visited the local Walmart to buy a couple more bags. Each 10-gallon Geopot will hold about 32 quarts of soil or a little over one cubic foot.
Once the first 10-gallon Geopot was delivered, I decided to repot three of my current plants which meant I would need several more. I went back to eBay and purchased five more 10-gallon Geopots from the original seller. Since my initial purchases, I have also purchased two 5-gallon Smart Pots (just to compare with Geopots) and five 5-gallon Geopots.
The Smart Pots are not as sturdy as the Geopots nor as well made. I planted my blackberries in the Smart Pots but didn’t fill soil all the way to the top so the sides collapse inward whenever I am watering and I have to keep readjusting the material as I water.
I’ve used the following for planting and/or repotting my various container plants:
Miracle-Gro Potting Soil: this seems to be a decent all-purpose potting soil.
Ferti-lome Start-n-grow Premium Plant Food Granules: I usually sprinkle a little of this prior to placing the root ball into the pot.
Jobe’s 09526 Organic All Purpose Granular Fertilizer: this is my regular fertilizer “as needed” for most of the plants. If other plants need a different mix to do well I’ll search for the best option for those.
Kempf Coco Fiber Growing Medium: while this makes an excellent all-nature and eco-friendly potting mix, I have used it as a mulch. Plants could be put into this instead of other potting soil but at close to $8 for a brick that expands to less than a gallon size pot, it’s too expensive for my needs.
The following are “necessary accessories” for my patio garden:
Suncast Storage Seat: Holds all the small gardening ncessities such as fertilizer, plant labels, fertilizer, etc.
TubTrug: this medium-sized 26 liter green flex tub has multiple uses from watering plants to carrying tools. These come in several sizes and I doubt this will be my last purchase.
Flexzilla 5/8×50 green garden hose; this lightweight hose replaces an older hose that is ready for the trash. It’s very good quality.
Dramm heavy-duty brass adjustable hose nozzle. Not much to say except it works.
Several different plant caddies to keep the plants off the concrete floor of the patio and to make them easier to move around.
In case of freeze warnings, the Educational Insights Greenthumb Greenhouse. This little tabletop greenhouse has two shelves and protects several small plants.
For larger plants, Frost Protek Plant Covers and Easy Gardener Plant Protector Bags. These bags are advertised as just as effective as greenhouse protection during freezing weather. I’ll put them to the test.
We had an unexpected freeze warning for last weekend. When I saw the weather report mid-week I immediately ordered a tabletop greenhouse from Amazon. It’s meant for classrooms but it works well as a small patio greenhouse also. The greenhouse took just a few minutes to assemble and it fit perfectly on the patio table.
Because the blueberry plants are so tall, I replaced the full top rack with a wire baking rack to modify it into a half shelf. I put the tomato plant on the half shelf and put both banana trees, the jalapeno seedlings, and both blueberry plants on the bottom shelf.
Friday evening, as the weather began to cool down, I zipped up the greenhouse, feeling confident that all the plants would be safe from the colder weather.
Unfortunately, Sunday night the weather went down into the high 20s for several hours. I still assumed all was well within the little greenhouse and all the plants appeared to be doing fine when I checked on them Monday morning. The Sharpblue blueberry even had several flowers!
By the afternoon, however, several plants were wilting. The worse was the tomato plant. The jalapenos looked limp also as did the Abundant blueberry. By Tuesday morning the tomato plant’s leaves had all wilted, the Abundant blueberry was dropping leaves and others were wilted, and some leaves on the Sharpblue blueberry were dropping. The jalapenos weren’t looking well and it appeared the Little Prince banana had some damage from the cold.
My enthusiasm may have been the death of my tomato plant and perhaps a couple other more fragile plants. A Google search confirmed my fears: tomatoes don’t do well at temperatures lower than 40 degrees. According to Gardeners’ World, ideal tomato growing temperatures are between 64 and 75 degrees F, and no lower than 55 degrees F. Even in Central Florida it’s still below 55 degrees F at night.
Commercial growers have proper facilities to keep temperatures at the correct levels year round. My little greenhouse didn’t provide enough cold protection and the plant may not survive. The tomato plant should have been inside for the weekend.
We haven’t had snow, sleet, ice or any of the major winter activity that is a normal winter occurrence in most parts of the country. What my particular part of Florida does get (northern Zone 9) is erratic forecasts of mild weather which turns into the reality of temperatures in the 30’s. My patio garden has at least 50% tropical plants that need protection when temperatures dip to 40 or below.
I had small flags in the pots of the plants that needed to be covered or otherwise protected so it was easy to identify which ones were at risk. When the weather report indicated colder temperatures I loaded up my Strong Camel Greenhouse with hibiscus and other taller plants such as the Neem and Avocado.
Some of my smallest plants, including the two citrus trees, I put into the tabletop Educational Insights Greenhouse. I knew from last winter that the greenhouse worked best if it was covered by a second protection and I used one of the Frost Protek Plant Covers to cover it.
It was a continual in-out process as the weather fluctuated for several months and the local “weather guessers” really didn’t get it right too much of the time. More than once, after a forecast of “low 50’s,” actual temperatures, at least on my patio, were in the high 30’s and I rushed to move/cover plants before they were harmed.
I lost the small Jalapeno to the cold. It had bloomed and produced three peppers and apparently dropped some seeds before it died. One small seedling came up late February and seems to be growing well.
All four Japanese Maples lost their leaves late Fall and, since they need cold weather in their growth cycle, I didn’t worry when our temperatures dropped.
The Cranberry Crush Hibiscus died back and I don’t know if it is dormant or dead.
While I was able to put most of the tropical hibiscus into the larger greenhouse, I made sure that the Fiji hibiscus was not included due to the mildew problem earlier in the year. It was the only hibiscus that bloomed in the winter.
The first greenhouse I bought was this one which is actually sold for school classrooms. It’s super cute and very easy to assemble. However, it did not protect my plants from an unexpected plunge to the high 20s one night.
Because I was adding quite a few larger plants, I searched for something more substantial for my patio. When I saw this small greenhouse and read the description I was sold and even happier when I found it at double the price at Sears. The problem came at assembly when two parts didn’t fit together. And, the dimensions shown are overstated by six inches in height, width, and length. It does make a difference in how much this greenhouse is able to hold.
Despite the negatives, I was able to do a workaround for the assembly and my plants did very well when the temperatures went into the low 30s because the greenhouse material is very good quality. The thermometer inside the greenhouse shows a temperature 5 to 10 degrees higher than outside temperatures when the door is not zipped. I’m pleased and hopefully this will solve the problem of growing tropicals in Zone 9.
For now, I am keeping the smaller greenhouse inside the larger one. I removed the second shelf from the smaller greenhouse and it easily holds 8 to 10 plants in gallon pots.
Plant Nanny Watering Stakes
Keeping container plants adequately watered can be a problem. I considered a drip irrigation system but putting one together can get a little complicated and I haven’t decided on a somewhat permanent arrangement for my plants yet. Then I came across the Wine Bottle Plant Nanny Stake.
This terra cotta stake goes into the ground near the roots of a plant. Fill a long neck wine bottle with water, invert it into the stake, and as the soil dries out the water wicks out of the bottle and into the soil. Ingenious!
I immediately ran into a snag with this idea as we don’t have a ready supply of wine bottles or other glass long neck bottles in our home. Then I found the Plastic Bottle Plant Nanny Stake with Adaptor. I ordered a set of eight and hunted up some plastic bottles.
The Plant Nanny stake can hold up to a two liter bottle which can overpower a smaller pot. Looking for design as well as function, I bought a six-pack of bottled water in 750ml tall plastic bottles, drank the water, and set out the Plant Nanny stakes with bottles in some of the gallon pots. I first chose plants that needed to be kept moist such as the banana plants.
I found an eBay seller with the ID of thegardenemporium who offered the Plant Nanny stakes at a discounted price and free shipping. They also have excellent customer service which I discovered when they shipped me a supply of Wine Bottle stakes instead of the Plastic Bottle stakes which I ordered. Not only did they immediately ship out the correct item, they told me to keep the others.
Since I didn’t want to let the wine bottle Plant Nanny stakes go to waste, I put a couple in the five-gallon hibiscus pots, using some almost empty wine bottles from our pantry. I had to admit, they looked nicer than the plastic bottles. After putting out a call to a friend to save her empty wine bottles, I turned to Amazon to look for more.
Both types of stakes can hold up to two liter bottles but the most widely available are 750ml such as these 750 ml Emerald Green Claret/Bordeaux Bottles for the wine bottle nanny or a wide choice of plastic water/juice/food bottles from the grocery store for the plastic bottle nanny as long as the nanny adapter will fit the plastic bottle’s screw top. I have also found that most champagne bottles will not work in the wine nanny as they have a wider/thicker neck.
Someone might find so many bottles an objectionable distraction in their container garden but I don’t. The bottles can also be painted or have decals affixed.