Long live the hanging basket

Insider tips for getting summer-long blooms out of your hanging baskets.

Fourth of July has passed and so have all the fireworks. For some people, this also means the color provided by those beautiful hanging baskets purchased earlier this spring blasted off somewhere else, too. Baskets showing poor vigor, lack of re-bloom and off-colored leaves are the bane of many a gardener.

When you purchased your hanging basket, it was robust and literally dripping with colorful blooms and foliage – at the “peak” of its game so-to-speak. The plant’s roots had already fully explored the media and are now competing for moisture and nutrients just to survive. Because of reduced rooting space, hanging baskets can be quite a challenge to keep them looking good through the whole season. In a local garden center recently, one customer returned her wilted plants wanting a refund. The business owner asked her if she had watered the plant and she responded “Oh, does this plant need water?”

Long live the hanging basket

Baskets really need extra care once they have become full and lush. Daily watering is often necessary and fertilizer should be routinely applied to keep the plants blooming well. If the container gets “bone dry,” the water may just pass right through the media and drip out of the bottom of the container. I suggest that you actually take the basket down and let it soak in a dish pan or wheelbarrow to re-hydrate it. This may take a couple of hours, depending on the media in the container. Baskets that were planted with a slow release fertilizer may be doing better than those that were not, but supplemental liquid feed will also benefit the plants and keep them flowering until fall. Don’t forget that pruning the plants in the basket (such as petunia) will cause them to flush out new growth that will result in fresh blooms.

Super-size me

One way I extend the life of my containers is to “up-size” them. With the purchase of a 10- or 12-inch basket, I also buy a lined fiber, wire basket that is several inches in diameter larger. Halfway through summer, I lift the root mass from the original basket and plunge it into the new container using fresh potting soil and new fertilizer. This will keep the plants in a growing mode, which will produce new flowers the rest of the season.

Some folks really need a “no-brainer container” for places like the cottage or that hot deck out back. Beginning with plants that are naturally drought-tolerant will certainly benefit this cause. Begonias tend to be very drought tolerant and ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia doesn’t get any more “no-brainer.” This gracefully arching begonia has wing-shaped, bright green foliage. It will do well in sun or shade and once established, can go a full week or so in between watering. Plants that I had last year bloomed prolifically until early November and with cooler temperatures beginning in September, the foliage takes on a bronzy-red that is almost as beautiful as the blooms.

'Dragon Wing' Begonia
‘Dragon Wing’ Begonia makes a “no-brainer” container plant with superior drought- tolerance and abundant blooms.

Another sun-loving favorite is the succulent Portulaca. Thick, waxy leaves make it a wise choice for a full sun hanging basket. The brilliant array of colors makes them cheerful and bright all season.

Portulaca 'Hot Spot'
Another succulent that is great in hanging baskets and will bloom all summer is Portulaca ‘Hot Spot’ (shown with yellow Lantana).

Gel products have come on the market in recent years that hold one hundred times their weight in water and are said to extend the length between watering. My research has reinforced my opinion that additives like this can be less beneficial than good. One university specialist noted that they are great at taking up water, but not good at releasing it. According to another researcher, when hydro-gels degrade, one of the byproducts is acrylamide, a deadly neurotoxin and potential carcinogen.

I guess the moral of the story is that nothing beats good old fashioned TLC!

Find out about other educational resources and classes at www.migarden.msu.edu and at Finneran’s blog. You can contact the MSU Master Gardener Lawn and Garden Hotline at 888-678-3464 with your questions.

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