This is a transient society we live in. People
are changing jobs, moving from one town to the next, and many
times, leaving those they love the most--their plants. The
loss of one's loved ones--their plants--can be a traumatic
experience, and it's a loss that is really unnecessary. If
you are a mobile person, why not keep your plants portable
too? Porta-growing is the answer! Grow your plants in containers.
Even if you're not the rambling kind, keeping plants moveable
can offer certain advantages. The mobility of porta-plants
allows you to move them to protected areas during periods
of adverse weather. Such protection enables production during
your area's normal "off-season" and allows you to
grow plants that without protection would be damaged by the
cold winter temperatures.
Porta-growing in containers is actually easier
than perma-growing in soil. Much of the Texas soil that people
try to culture plants in lacks some of the basic necessities
for healthy, productive plant growth. These basic necessities
include drainage, organic matter, optimum soil pH and freedom
from pathogenic organisms as well as the common problems of
insufficient and imbalance and/or unavailability of nutrient
elements. Porta-growing in containers eliminates most of the
common problems involved with perma-growing in soil. Why?
Because the needed cultures, such as growing medium, location
and fertilization, can easily be controlled and managed.
Porta-growing requires a container. Suitable
containers vary from wire mesh hanging baskets to bushel baskets,
gallon cans, wooden boxes or even such oddities as old hats,
styrofoam coolers, and discarded toilets. The best containers
are the ones that fulfill your requirements of size, portability,
endurance and cost. Optimum container size will vary according
to the plant to be grown.
Obviously, a lettuce plant can be grown more
successfully in a very small container than can a dwarf peach
tree. The ultimate size of the plant at maturity should be
directly correlated with the size of the container used. The
size of the container, plant size, container location and
the choice of soil-less mix will determine the frequency of
watering and intensity of cultural management. Obviously,
a larger container with a greater quantity of potting mix
will retain more water, fertilizer elements, etc. than a smaller
container. However, the larger the container, the less portable.
Regardless of the container you choose, adequate
drainage is a key to success. A soilless mix which drains
rapidly should be used. Ideally, when you pour water around
the base of a porta-plant, water should soon be coming out
of the bottom of the container. This not only indicates proper
drainage, but also enables the leaching of fertilizer salts
that, if accumulated, can damage a plant's roots. Soilless
mixes should be just that--soilless. Absolutely no soil! Regardless
of how wonderful you think your soil is, when soil is put
in a container it loses many of its beneficial qualities.
Soil in a container becomes compacted, causing poor drainage
and insufficient aeration. Micro-organisms such as nematodes
and pathogenic fungi may also contaminate the root system
of the porta-plant if non-pasteurized soil is used.
Many suitable types of soil-less mixes are
commercially available. A soilless mix should be disease and
weed-free, retain adequate moisture after watering, yet is
lightweight and drains well. You can mix a soil-less growing
medium by using 50 % organic materials ( ½ peat moss
and ½ shredded bark), 25 % perlite or vermiculite for
drainage and aeration, and 25 % washed builder's sand.
Once you have formulated or purchased a well-draining
soilless mix in which to grow the porta-plant, be sure that
the container has adequate drainage capabilities. If you are
using a water-tight container, drainage holes will have to
be drilled. A 3 to 5-gallon container should have at least
4 drainage holes. When considering drainage holes, the old
saying, "the more, the merrier" definitely applies.
Also, don't worry about lining the bottom of the container
with course gravel or charcoal to expedite drainage. Recent
research indicates that such a gradient in materials actually
impedes drainage. If a loose soilless mix is used, water drainage
through drain holes will not be a problem.
The taller the container, the more difficult
it is to obtain even water distribution. Some people use whiskey
barrels as containers. The half-barrels are the easiest since
plants in the bottom section of full-size barrels either don't
get enough water or drown from too much water from the top.
To insure an even distribution of water throughout the container,
as well as reducing the amount of soil-less mix needed, construct
a center core of a rapid draining material. I have had success
using a cylinder of concrete reinforcing wire filled with
coarse bark. Soilless mix is added around the cylinder from
the bottom of the barrel as transplants are placed through
drilled holes in the side. Watering is always done in the
center core so that plants at the top as well as the bottom
have equal access to moisture.
Porta-plants require adequate fertility for
vigorous growth and, if you are growing fruit and vegetables,
high yields. Soilless mixes are lacking in sufficient nutrient
elements for optimum plant growth. Fertility can be provided
in two ways. The most common technique is to periodically
water with a fertilizer solution. Commercially prepared, water-soluble
formulations are available in local nurseries. Follow label
directions when mixing solutions.
A home-made nutrient solution can be made by
dissolving 2 cups of a complete garden fertilizer (no weed-and-feed
formulations, please!) such as 10-20-10, 12-24-12 or 8-16-8
in one gallon of warm water. This solution will be your base
solution. From this base solution, you will prepare the porta-plant
nutrient solution. To make the actual nutrient solution, mix
2 tablespoons of the base solution into one gallon of water.
Never sprinkle granular fertilizer in porta-plant containers
as plant damage can occur.
Fertilization requirements differ according
to the type of plant, soilless medium used and growing location.
For instance, most people do not want houseplants and foliage
plants to produce excessive growth, so low maintenance levels
of fertility should be used. Conversely, successful production
of fruit trees and vegetable crops depends on rapid, continuous
growth and plant vigor. So high levels of fertility must be
maintained if quality production is expected. Lettuce is a
good example. If lettuce is not grown with high levels of
fertility, the leaves will be extremely bitter. For this latter
group of high-maintenance-fertility plants, I recommend the
use of slow-release fertilizer pellets mixed into the soilless
medium at planting time, or applied around an established
plant. This is in addition to the use of water-soluble fertilizer
several times weekly. Use the longer release (3 month) formulations
of the slow-release fertilizer pellets such as Osmocote and
follow label instructions for application or mixing.
Research indicates that constant feeding (using
water-soluble fertilizer) plus the addition of slow-release
fertilizer produces a better plant. It seems that slow-release
formulations insure that optimum nutrient elements are available
during periods of potential deficiency when soilless mixes
have dried after being watered with the standard nutrient
solution. Slow-release fertilizer is also good, inexpensive
insurance against memory loss--we might forget to fertilize
often enough! Also remember, porta-plants are like children.
As they grow larger, they require more feeding. A full-grown,
heavily loaded tomato plant in a container needs a water-soluble
fertilization treatment daily.
Porta-plants have a mobile advantage, but also
the disadvantage of a limited, confined root system. Because
culturing plants in containers severely limits their root
spread, frequent watering and fertilization are essential.
As emphasized earlier, the well-drained soil-less mixes--necessary
for good aeration--need frequent watering. As plants grow
larger, more watering is required because water is being absorbed
and transpired. As temperatures increase, more water is evaporated
from the mix and transpired from the plant. Young porta-plants
growing in cool weather may require watering only once every
2 or 3 days. Check the moisture level of the mix with your
finger before watering. That is, water the mix, not the plant.
If you feel moisture with your finger DO NOT WATER! More plants
are killed by over watering than by being too dry. Larger
producing plants may require watering 2 or 3 times a day.
Remember, container size and the soilless mix you use will
have a lot to do with the watering regime that you'll follow.
The same principles of success which govern
perma-growing in soil apply to porta-growing in containers.
If the plant's requirement is a full-sun condition (8 to 10
hours daily), a porta-plant of this type will not perform
optimumly if grown in the shade--regardless of the love and
care provided. Also, remember that a porta-plant can shade
itself and should be rotated periodically to insure exposure
of the entire plant to full sun so that uniform foliage and
fruit formation will occur. If a foliage plant or flowering
plant such as begonia requires a partial shade growing condition,
putting such a porta-planted plant in full sun dooms it to
failure. Follow plant tag recommendations for light requirements.
Generally, those plants which produce an edible fruit such
as tomato, pepper, eggplant, blackberry, peach, apple, etc.,
require the full-sun condition. Those plants which are grown
for foliage such as herbs, leafy crops (lettuce, cabbage,
greens, spinach and parsley), caladiums, coleus, etc. tolerate
or even require shading.
Flowers have different requirements depending
on the variety. Placement of porta-plant containers is also
very important. Even if a plant requires a full-sun condition,
afternoon shading of the intense western sun may be beneficial.
Also remember the wind. Wind can be devastating. I have found
that a northeastern exposure, if available, is the best because
of the protection it allows from prevailing strong southern
winds and hot evening sun. Protection should be provided when
weather cold fronts cause northern wind gusts.
As I mentioned earlier, the same principles
of success which govern perma-growing in soil apply to porta-growing
in containers. If you don't plant the best varieties of plants
for your area, you are doomed before you begin. The names
of best-adapted plants can be obtained from experienced growers,
the county Agricultural Extension agent or trustworthy nurserymen.
Smaller growing or determinate varieties are best suited for
porta-planting because of the limitations of container size.
Many times the best plant varieties are expensive hybrids.
Since fewer plants are needed for a porta-planting anyway,
purchase transplants instead of seeding directly into the
container. The use of transplants insures proper spacing and
early production. The dwarf fruit trees, or regular varieties
grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, are excellent choices for
porta-planting. Be sure to determine the maximum size of the
mature plant you are considering before you make your purchase.
You should also consider only those plants that will offer
maximum benefits from a limited growing space. For instance,
the porta-plant grower of vegetables should consider the fact
that crops such as broccoli, celery, collards, green onions,
herbs, Japanese eggplant, kale, mustard, parsley, pepper,
spinach, swiss chard and tomato offer multi-harvests over
a long period of time. Conversely, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic,
lettuce and radishes are a one-time harvest. However, the
aesthetic value of certain plants must also be recognized
as well as their production potential. For instance, carrots
are a one-time harvest crop but the beauty of the fern-like
carrot tops make them a super ornamental porta-plant for several
months during their growing season--even for interplanting.
Likewise, the genetic dwarf fruit trees produce only one crop
per year, but their large green, dense foliage will rival
any ornamental during the non-fruitful period. Flowering plants
should also be evaluated for foliage as well as bloom potential
After selecting the best variety, you must
carefully avoid over planting. Remember to consider how large
the plant will be at maturity. Balance and the number of plants
you use is especially critical in a hanging basket or a container
which is to be moved regularly. Excessive weight on one side
of a porta-plant caused by an increasing fruit load could
also be disastrous.
Pruning helps. Hanging baskets pruned into
a ball-shape are more attractive than baskets with vines hanging
long and unrestrained. Periodic pruning encourages more side
shoot growth and promotes a thicker, more attractive plant.
Tall growing plants in wooden baskets, boxes or cans should
also be supported. Tie the stems to stakes or enclose them
in small cages of concrete reinforcing wire. The size and
height of cages are determined by the size and height of the
container and the mature size of the plant. Such support makes
the porta-plant more compact, more attractive and, most importantly,
easier to move.
Other common sense cultural practices must
also be exercised with porta-plants, just as with perma-plants,
if you expect success. The timing of plantings can mean the
difference between success or failure. Plant tomatoes after
the temperatures of summer have become excessive and you are
guaranteed failure. Plant caladiums too early in the spring
and the bulbs will rot in the pot. Plant lettuce late in the
spring and it will produce a flower spike surrounded by leaves
as bitter as quinine.
Porta-plants will be attacked by the same insects
and disease organisms that attack perma-plants. Most egg-laying
insects have wings and most disease organisms are wind-blown.
So just because your porta-plant is hanging or mobile doesn't
mean that it can escape. Inspect plants periodically for disease
and the presence of insects feeding on foliage and fruit.
Extension Service recommendations for fruit and vegetable
pest control should be followed or, consult a reliable nurseryman.
Follow label recommendations exactly as to control techniques
including rates and timing of sprays.
Porta-plants are completely dependent on the
grower for correct amounts of water and nutrients. A perma-plant
in the soil can be neglected for several weeks and Mother
Nature's water and nutrients will probably carry the plant
through. The porta-plant is a different story--neglect the
plant for even a day and you can kiss it goodbye. It will
die! But because of this life-or-death bondage between grower
and plant, because of this daily interaction, the porta-plant
becomes the most precious, loved plant of all. All of the
work and worry culminates as you harvest that first juicy
peach, crunch that first red apple or bite into the first,
red-ripe tomato of the season. When you do, you know, without
a doubt, that you grew this--it would not exist without your
love and determination. Porta-plants forever!!
For more information about container gardening,
FOURTH WEEK OF SEPTEMBER 2002
QUESTION: Every year I grow cayenne to string for the holidays.
What's the best way to keep them nice and shiny red until
I get enough to make a string. They're in the crisper now
but mom says they're going to mildew.
ANSWER: Let the cayenne dry as much as they will on the plant.
With the dry summer we've had that should not be much of a
problem. After harvest, remove them from the plant by cutting
them so that a short portion of stem remains on the fruit.
Wipe them with cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol, or dip the
peppers into a bath of 1 part Chlorox and 9 parts of water.
Lay the peppers so they don't touch each other. Dry for 3
to 4 weeks inspecting and discarding any that start to spoil.
QUESTION: What will take bermuda grass out of zoysia grass?
Since both bermuda and zoysia are grasses, I
fear there is nothing which will kill bermuda and not fatally
damage zoysia. You may have to spot treat the bermuda with
a glyphosate herbicide such as Roundup, Otho Kleanup or Finale
and have a kill-zone in which you control the invading bermuda.
You might want to try a product called Vantage, Poast or Ortho
Grass-B-Gon which has been used to control Bahia in Centipedegrass
lawns -- even though these are both grasses and should be
killed by this product which kills only grasses and not broadleaf
plants, it may be more active on bermuda than zoysia. Spot
treat an invaded area with half-strength (lowest dose recommended
by the label) Poast and wait 30 days to see what happens.
It may kill both grasses just as using a glyphosate product
would BUT it might not completely kill zoysia either. You
should do this SOON since both grasses will be going dormant
QUESTION: This spring I planted 2 forsythia bushes in a new
landscape setting. I prepared the planting site with a mixture
of sandy loam and peat moss. I have watered weekly since the
rains stopped and fed with a compost tea (horse manure and
water slurry) once a month since planting them in late February.
The plants now look wilted and the leaves are turning brown.
What can I do?
ANSWER: Forsythia is a hardy deciduous shrub
which is not particular as to soil, and do well in partial
shade as well as in the open. However, if kept too wet, they
can develop root rot. I would quit watering this year and
see if the plant recovers. If the roots are badly rotted,
I am afraid the plant is doomed. Sorry. You can put another
one back in the same place IF the drainage is good and you
don't over water it.
QUESTION: I planted 4 large pots of fall tomatoes, planting
2 plants in each pot (I read in a TAMU publication that this
was a recommended procedure for fall tomatoes as it increased
yield). The plants appear to be doing very well, but I am
concerned about the density of the foliage in the pots. I
do have cages in the pots. On the subject of thinning plants,
I have always heard you say "don't do it if they are
caged". Will enough sunlight get to the center of the
plants? I fully intend to pick the tomatoes when the blossom
ends turn pink and then let them ripen indoors.
ANSWER: It is best to use smaller growing (determinate)
varieties such as Surefire or Heatwave. Granted, if you are
fertilizing a lot -- which you should be doing when you are
growing tomatoes -- you will have a lot of foliage. As long
as the plants are located in an area where they receive 8
to 10 hours of sun daily, the dense foliage will produce a
crop of fruit. It will not damage the plant if you want to
cut some stems out of the plant to allow more air circulation
and enable some light penetration.
QUESTION: I recently had the pleasure of visiting
Vancouver, B.C. As you may know, the gardens there are magnificent!!!
The locals commonly use a type of English yew for hedges,
pot plants, etc. that has much smaller foliage than the Japanese
yews that are commonly used as landscape plants here in South
Texas. What is your opinion of yews in general, and do you
think this type of yew would grow here? I have a new home
on a large, one acre lot in an established residential area
of northwest San Antonio. I need an evergreen landscape plant
to install around the back yard fence perimeter to hide the
multiple privacy fences from view. The only other plant I
have seen that appeals to me is a wax myrtle.
ANSWER: Wax myrtle is not a bad choice, or you
could use standard (tall growing) yaupon or Burford holly.
There is a list of recommended plants for South Central Texas
at the bottom of the Publications section of PLANTanswers.
Most Yews do not do well here in Texas. The reason things
look so nice in Canada is the cool nights and moderate day
temperatures with periodic moisture -- NONE of which South
Central Texas enjoys. But let's compare our winters!!!!!!
QUESTION: Last fall, I purchased and planted about 15 standard
Burford Hollies intending to hedge them against my rear fence.
They were growing in small 1 or 2-gallon containers at the
back of a nursery and were really tall, some almost 6 feet.
I planted them and cut them back to about 4 feet. During mid
to late-summer, the lower, older leaves on several of the
plants turned brown and fell off. On several plants, the only
green growth is at the very top, so can I cut them back severely
and expect them to grow back out? How much? What caused the
older leaves at the bottom to turn brown and fall off? Water
ANSWER: Water stress from transplant shock or
from lack of sufficient watering could have caused the bottom
leaves to fall. Fear not!! The Burford holly is one of the
best and will come back. I would cut them lower in February
or early spring just prior to the initiation of new growth.
This will result in re-foliation lower on the shrubs.
QUESTION: My property has several large cedar trees around
the house. I have heard that the cedars use more water than
most trees. Is that true?
ANSWER: No doubt that junipers use water, but I do not think
it is more than other trees. Juniper covers a large portion
of the Hill Country, thus robbing the native grasses as well
as the recharge zone of water. By removing the cedar, we leave
more water to enter the aquifer.
QUESTION: I have several cypress trees on the property. One
has a diameter of approximately 7 feet. Is there any way to
determine the age of the tree short of counting the rings.
I have heard age estimates ranging from 150 to 500 years.
ANSWER: Counting the rings is the only way I
know of to determine the age of a tree. Some of the very large
trees have been cored to determine how old they are. I am
sure the tree in question is over 500 years old.
QUESTION: We recently moved into a house and there is a Montezuma
Cypress in the back yard. The tree went several years without
care and we wanted to know how to go about tending to it.
It looks like it needs pruning, but we aren't sure when or
how to do it. What tips do you have?
ANSWER: You are BLESSED to have a Montezuma
Cypress -- they are one of the fastest growing, carefree trees
available. Leave them alone and let Nature take its course.
The only pruning I have ever done to my Montezuma Cypress
is to remove a fork that appeared in the top of the tree --I
wanted a tree growing straight-up!! Other than that, I have
not touched the tree for 15 years and it has averaged about
4 feet of growth per year -- give it LOTS OF ROOM!!! Think
about the along the San Antonio River Walk -- it will grow
that big and larger in about 100 years.
QUESTION: We just purchased a house and we plan to move in
about 45 days. My mother sent me some iris bulbs to plant,
but I will not have my garden ready until next spring. Can
I put them in large pots and transplant them next fall after
my gardens are ready?
ANSWER: That is a good idea. Perennials which bloom in the
spring are divided/planted in the fall so if you plant the
bulbs in containers, you should have blooming iris in your
containers next spring.
QUESTION: I am looking for an oleander I saw in a book of
"new" plants coming out. The flowers look just like
a child's pinwheel of red and white. I'm hoping someone knows
where I can purchase one.
ANSWER: Try these sources:
Route 7 Box 43
Opelousas, LA 70570
141 North St
Danielson, CT 06239
739 Gaillard Rd
Moncks Corner, SC 29461
QUESTION: I've been growing ornamental peppers that had a
tag that read "not edible" when I bought the plant.
A friend of mine saw an employee eating the same peppers at
a local nursery and now I'm wondering if they are just simply
not so tasty or if there is some other reason for the "not
edible" label. Of course I grow a variety of peppers
for eating that are delicious, but always want to try something
new and I'm wondering if I may be missing out!
ANSWER: Most ornamental peppers are edible but
retailers do not want to take the chance of someone possibly
eating one, getting sick and filing a lawsuit. These peppers
were not bred for eating but rather ornamentals. Some peppers
such as the Rio Grande Gold is ornamental as well as edible.
Dr. Ben Villalon, world-famous pepper breeder
has this to add:
CHILLI = chile = pepper = Capsicum = chili =
Aji = Axi =the same thing. None mean hot. Chilli is the NAHUATL
(Mexican Indian) spelling. It is also the most widely used
spelling in the whole world - ASIA, AFRICA, INDIA, MEXICO,
and some parts of Europe. All chilli is edible, whether wild
Mark Black, Extension Plant Pathologist, adds
Many pesticides used in ornamental nurseries
for insect and disease control are not labeled for use on
food-bearing plants, especially those that are greenhouse-grown.
Therefore, fruit from newly purchased ornamental pepper plants
should not be eaten due to the potential risk from pesticide
If you grow the plants at home and do not apply
pesticides, or apply pesticides according to the label, and
use only those that are labeled for pepper, then enjoy!
Ben Villalon adds this comment:
Pesticides not labeled for peppers should never
be used. If so, the plants should not be sold to the general
public. That is another world. All capsicums are edible!
QUESTION: What do you do with the pineapple plant after it
flowers and you pick the fruit. Does it put out more buds
for a new plant or do you need to dig it up and start a new
ANSWER: Yes, it will put out 1 to 2 new shoots which have
the potential to produce fruit. However, over time the fruit
gradually gets smaller and you will need to start a new plant
from the pineapple fruit or from new slips at the base of
the plant. Commercially, 1 plant usually produces 3 fruit
before a new plant is started.
QUESTION: Last spring I was given several tiny plants and
told that they were "moonflowers". They are now
2 to 3 feet high and blooming. The heart-shaped leaves are
approx 4 inches wide and 6 inches long. The blooms are white,
trumpet-shaped, and are approximately 9 inches from the base
of the bud to the tips of the petals. The open flower is approximately
4 inches. They bloom at night and close during the day. I
can't find any information that sounds like what I have. Can
you help identify this?
ANSWER: The plant most commonly called 'moonflower'
is one of the morning glories (Ipomoea alba). However, I do
not think that this is what you have as it is a vine that
will grow up to 15 feet.
I think that you have one of the Daturas, most
likely either Datura wrightii or Datura metelloides. These
plants meet the description that you've provided. The flowers
only last one day and, if pollinated, will be followed by
a round, thorny seed pod. It is from this seed pod that they
derive one of their common names - 'thornapple'. These seed
are highly toxic and hallucinogenic and were use by Native
Americans in their initiation rites and religious ceremonies.
Another common name is Jimson Weed. See this web site for
a picture of the Datura (the leaves on your plants may not
be identical to these):
QUESTION: I don't understand why my indoor basil plant drops
its bottom leaves. I pinch new buds in an attempt to make
it bushier, but it appears to just grow taller because the
lower stems are bare. The top leaves look very healthy, but
I'm not getting much yield. The leaves turn yellow before
dropping. The plant sits in an east window, but the house
next door is 2-story, so it only gets a few hours of late
morning sun. It is so hot here that I am afraid to set it
outside. Any suggestions?
ANSWER: The problem with your basil is the lack
of sunlight. They prefer to be in full sun. Fortunately for
us here in Texas, I do not think that it can get too hot for
basil as long as it gets adequate moisture. I would go ahead
and set it outside on the patio or someplace where it can
get much more intense light. Do not put it directly into a
full sun location as you need to acclimate the plant to the
sun. Morning sun should be fine and then gradually ease it
out into full sun if you have it.
QUESTION: I purchased a Saucier Magnolia in January of this
year. The nursery I purchased it from planted it. It has been
kept watered and continues to put out new leaves, but the
leaves quickly turn very brown and dry. What could be causing
this? Is there some treatment or mineral it needs? I have
noticed that a red oak in the same area also has leaves that
are turning brown. I have also seen a lot of crickets and
spiders in the bermuda grass.
ANSWER: I think that I would ask the nursery
that planted your tree to come out and inspect it. It may
be that they put fertilizer in the planting hole when they
planted it and this could be burning the roots, causing the
leaf burn. The leaves on the red oak are the result of the
exceedingly hot and dry summer that we have had until the
rains came. It should be okay. Crickets and spiders are not
harming your trees.
QUESTION: We have a yard full of junipers. What is the best
way to remove these 30-year old beasts? They are ugly and
make our house the worst looking one on the block. We would
like to plant a lawn and flowers once this ominous task is
ANSWER: If there is a way to rent, borrow or
otherwise get a front-end loader, I recommend tying a chain
around the trunks of these plants and around the bucket of
the loader. Using the hydraulic lift, pull them from the ground.
If this isn't possible, perhaps you can do the same with a
vehicle like a pick-up truck and pull them out horizontally.
Otherwise, I guess that you will have to cut off the branches
and grub out the roots, which sounds like a lot of work!