Q: I want to give my mother a window box full of plants, but I can't seem to get plants to grow nicely together. They look pretty together at the beginning, but then something goes wrong and some of the plants begin looking sad. Eventually, half of them die and I get mad and throw them out. What is the trick to getting them to stay alive and look nice?
A: Many people have a hard time with the artistic side of arranging plants, but it sounds like you have that part down. The part of getting plants to grow nicely together is the horticultural side. In the spring, many stores selling plants have them all on display in one place. That may be fine for a week or two, but eventually the true nature of the plant will come forth.
Plants that need full sun or full shade are often side by side in the store. You may find plants on opposite sides of the store and like the way they look together. But if you buy them and place them in the same pot, no matter where you put the pot, one of the two plants is not going to like the environment and it will start to die.
A sun-loving plant will slowly die in the shade, as it can't grow well without enough sun. A shade-loving plant will die faster in the sun because the leaves will get sunburned and won't get enough water from the roots.
When choosing plants, you need to know the characteristics of the environment where the planter is going to be. If it will be in the sun, then all of the plants you choose for the planter must be able to tolerate sun. The tags on the plant will tell you what nourishment the plant needs. If it says full sun, the plant will need at least six hours of direct sun per day. Tags that say part-sun can be confusing: That can mean the plant needs full sun in the morning, and then full shade all afternoon. Or, it could mean the plant needs indirect exposure to sunshine filtered through tree branches. Full-shade plants can often tolerate morning sun for a few hours after sunrise, but must not be exposed to sun in the heat of the afternoon.
Another important environmental condition to consider is the amount of water the plants prefer in the soil. This information may not be on the tag.
Some plants that prefer dry soil will rot away if the soil stays too damp. Plants with thick, fleshy leaves, such as sedums or plants with silver, hairy leaves (like the Dusty Miller) will require drier soil than most other plants.
Many people do not water container plants often enough. There is a limited amount of water in the soil, and with several plants all smashed into the same pot, some plants may not get enough water.
On the other hand, if the pot doesn't have drainage holes, the plant roots may get waterlogged and begin to rot. Never put gravel in the bottom of the pot — it prevents drainage, so the water accumulates in the gravel and the roots rot.
Being in a windy location can cause the soil to dry out quickly. While it may have enough moisture, the wind may prevent the plant's leaves from absorbing the water quick enough to stay alive. Wind is a big problem for hanging baskets and plants on high-rise patios.
Sometimes plants are placed outdoors too early in the spring. If this happens, the plants may grow well together otherwise, but may not do as well together if one of them is exposed to cool weather. The plants that don't tolerate the cold weather may not grow for several weeks, so the cold-tolerant plants often take off and smother them.
Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.