In the garden with Felder: Some year-end decisions in the garden

December 7, 2019 10:08:15 PM



My leaf and compost pile is breaking my mind's heart. Heaps of once-had-to-have plants have been left to rot into more useful soil amendments.


After decades of avid collecting, watering, fertilizing, primping, lugging indoors and back out with every season's change, I finally had to let some plants go. Like old books on a groaning shelf, they had multiplied into a burgeoning jungle, crowding me out of my smallish sunroom which doubles as my office. Not enough room at the inn.


Oh, I gave a few away, but to be candid some of my favorite plants, mostly succulents and cacti, aren't all that exciting to most gardeners. You gotta be a little nutty to appreciate the subtle differences between 20 or so variations of "mother-in-law tongue" Sansevieria.



So, on a sunny day last week I laid them all side by side outside my potting shed and went to the garden center to get new pots that would both look good and fit along the window wall.


Also got some fresh potting soil, plus a couple of important ingredients to make it better for succulents and other plants whose roots can rot easily -- and because I travel a lot, including nearly all of the past 10 summers, from my other home in England, can stand going for months without being watered.


Not all potting soils are equal; some are downright terrible. A good one will hold water in absorbent peat moss, yet let excess water drain away without drying out too quickly; it should also hold up and last a long time. A bad potting soil is mostly cheap finely-ground bark plus a little of the more expensive peat. When I get one of those, I usually add a little extra stuff to help make it better, either a little more peat or something for better drainage.


The most popular extra drainage ingredient is inexpensive perlite, which is a volcanic ash, heated and puffed up into small white bits like crunchy popcorn. It improves soil drainage and prevents compaction as potting soil naturally decomposes and packs down. But because perlite "floats" out of potting soil during watering, I often add a little expanded clay, which is sort of like non-absorptive kitty litter. Sometimes I go with fairly finely-ground limestone. They both help potting soil hold up for years.


By the way, instead of filling the bottoms of my pots with gravel, I simply cover the bigger drainage holes with cut-up bits of a worn-out yellow mesh dish scrubber, or sometimes with small pieces of a window screen; this keeps potting soil in and ants out. I also set all my pots atop three or four small "pot feet" so dripping water will evaporate rather than stain my floor or rot my deck; easy pot feet can be made of small rocks or even crushed aluminum cans.


All this to say that when I got home, mixed my potting soil blend on my driveway, filled my new pots, and stored the rest in a trashcan, I started making life-and-death decisions.


Unusual or memorable plants got repotted and pruned back for the winter, with cuttings stored in plastic bags to share later. I usually mix two or three different plants together in medium or large pots, both for looks and to reduce the number of pots I have to water or move around. Plus, they create small humidity zones that help them cope with indoors better.


My angst aside, the leftover plants that didn't get spread out to other gardeners are now happily headed towards being next year's pepper and tomato soil.


Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the "Gestalt Gardener" on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to [email protected]