Organic Container Gardening Secrets

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Organic hanging baskets can be decorative as well as practical, indoors and out.
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An eye- and palate-pleasing array of potted herbs. These grow at MOM's low-cost earth shelter.
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Whether in wire baskets or natural containers, organically grown displays brighten the home.
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A well-organized hanging vegetable basket can be both attractive and extremely useful.
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Clay "strawberry pots" are versatile containers . . . and they can be used for ornamentals, as well.
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The first step in creating a hanging basket is to work a ring of sphagnum moss around the rim.

Make the most of these organic container gardening secrets to healthy ornamentals, indoor herbs, year-round vegetables and colorful hanging baskets. (See the organic container gardening photos in the image gallery.)

It’s quite a treat to pick a fresh sprig of rosemary or
thyme in the middle of February . . . that little piece of
summer fills the air with garden freshness. Just as
enjoyable is the lush beauty of a hanging basket that’s
overflowing with ornamental plants (or vegetables!).

You can create such indoor plantings successfully
and organically, but let me be honest: The task is
not as easy as container gardening with chemical
amendments. After all, an organic soil is not simply a
mixture of wholesome ingredients but a medium filled with
biological activity . . . and that activity is hard to
maintain in a small, enclosed container. To do so, you’ll
have to apply both extra attention and some special
know-how. I’ve been perfecting my indoor organic growing
techniques for the past five years–three of those at
MOTHER’s Eco-Village–so I’ve learned a lot of the
organic container gardening secrets of indoor organics the hard way: through
experience. I’ll be glad to share them with you here,
especially as they pertain to two of my favorite indoor
plantings–kitchen herbs and hanging ornamental
baskets.

ORGANIC CONTAINER SOIL MIXES

Organic soil contains complex living nutrient chains that
are in a constant state of renewal. Warm, moist gases from
decomposition foster fungi and bacteria. Organic surface
litter and subsoil minerals feed earthworms, which leave
their humus-rich castings for plant roots. Everything is
connected. To maintain a container organically, then, you
have to feed the soil in order to feed the
plant.

Consequently, organic container growing demands
involvement–you can’t just stick an herb,
vegetable, or ornamental in a pot and forget it. The
easiest and best long-term plan is to annually reconnect a
contained plant with natural soil by growing it outdoors
during the warm months. (I do this with almost all of my
perennial herbs.) Another general rule is that large
containers work a lot better than small ones: They provide
more room for roots and soil organisms to intermingle. Of
course, some plants–such as jade, dieffenbachia, and
most flowers–do better when potbound. These will need
to be repotted often to keep their soil fresh (unless
they’re particularly slow-growing).

The actual soil you use will have to be mixed carefully.
The single most important quality you’re after is good
structure
: The constant watering a pot or basket
requires would soon break down ordinary garden soil. I
start of by layering stones or pieces of broken clay in the
bottom of any container to provide drainage. (I use
clay–not plastic pots.) Then I add a layer of worm
castings or quality compost made entirely from vegetative
matter (no manure). If the pot will hold heavy
feeders–such as tomatoes or blue flowers–I then
put in a layer of ground-up egg-shells to provide extra
calcium.

Next comes’ a soil mix that’s very similar to the seedling
flat mix we use when starting plants for MOTHER’s gardens.
I combine five parts oak leaf mold . . . four parts good
topsoil . . . two parts compost . . . two parts coarse,
sharp sand . . . one to two parts worm castings . . . and a
pinch of Earthrite C allpurpose organic fertilizer.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Earthrite C is available from Zook
& Ranck, Gap, PA.]
If I’m going to
keep the plant contained for a long time, I’ll add two
parts oak bark chips to this mix to provide structure and a
long-term nutrient supply.

This mix is mostly carbonaceous and very stable. Its loose
texture opens a lot of surface area to soil microorganisms.
You can also add one part perlite, vermiculite, or milled
sphagnum moss if you like. These help lighten the soil and
have a remarkable ability to absorb and retain both water
and air. They have no nutrient value, however.

Be sure that you mix your container soil ingredients on a
clean surface–I wipe my counter first with a 10%
chlorine bleach solution. You can keep any extra mix clean
for later use by storing it in an airtight plastic
bag.

Does all this soil mixing sound like a lot of work? Well,
it’s my belief that organic container growing
demands a quality soil. However, sometimes I do
make things simpler for myself by buying a high-quality
potting mix from a nursery and adding compost (and/or worm
castings), sea kelp, bonemeal, and Earthrite C. Such
commercial mixes are mostly mineral and organic in origin,
but they’re generally sterile, as well. That’s why I add
some extra supplements to supply and help nourish soil
fauna. I use this “nursery-based” mix mainly on ornamentals
that will never be put directly into the garden, because
good commercial potting soil can maintain its structure
almost indefinitely.

If you’re going to be keeping any plant in a container for
more than a couple of months, you must provide it with some
occasional supplemental feeding. Spraying the foliage about
every ten days with a weak solution of seaweed is a very
efficient way to feed it. Calcium nitrate can also be
sprayed on–again in a well-diluted solution–to
provide a direct nitrogen boost.

A whole bunch of homemade concoctions derived from fish,
manure, herbs, or compost can be applied to the soil. But
most of these– especially manure teas–should
not be sprayed on the leaves: They will increase
the likelihood of plant disease. Applied as liquid
supplements to the soil, they’ll feed the organisms that,
in turn, feed the plant.

ORGANIC CULINARY HERBS

Probably the most useful plants for organic container
growing are the culinary herbs. At MOTHER’s self-reliant
permaculture homestead, we’ve installed a large growing
box, next to our kitchen’s south-facing window, that’s used
for raising herbs. Wherever you grow them, though,
you’ll find them to be versatile and valuable.

Of course, the biggest benefit of maintaining an indoor
herb garden is that it allows you to harvest fresh
flavorings 12 months a year (not to mention being able to
enjoy the plants’ fragrance and the sight of them framing a
frosty scene outside your window!). It’ll also let you
bring in those tender perennial herbs that would otherwise
be lost to the first killing frost. In this way, you’re not
limited by your planting zone. In our zone-seven home we’re
able to “winter over” such delicate plants as sweet
marjoram, rosemary, coriander, and several varieties of
scented geraniums.

Some of the tender perennials–such as the pineapple,
emerald, and indigo sages–generally get too large in
just one season to move to containers. I take fall cuttings
from such plants and raise those indoors.

I also grow some annuals that I start from direct seed in
August or early September. These include sweet basil,
cumin, some pepper grass or salad cress, small-leaved
garland, and a nutty-tasting green called roquette.

To complete the collection, each fall I usually dig up one
of each of the hardy culinaries just so I can have them
fresh in the middle of winter. These include chives,
oregano, common sage, a few varieties of thyme, apple and
blue balsam mints, parsley, and shallots (for their tops).

ORGANIC HANGING BASKETS

I’m also fond of indoor ornamentals. But as all of you who
have become addicted to growing these decorative species
probably know, they do tend to accumulate.

While I sometimes trade some of my extras for different
plants, I’ve found another use for surplus ornamentals: I
arrange.them in large, multispecies hanging baskets that
are quite dramatic. These picturesque islands, suspended at
eye level or slightly below, really show off beautiful
foliage and flowers. Spilling greenery in all directions,
they catch your eye and pull you right into the center of
miniature worlds. And if you use a dwarf semi-cascading or
leaning juniper (or other suitable miniature evergreen) as
a centerpiece, the whole assemblage takes on that bonsai
quality of scalelessness. A few well-selected stones and
driftwood pieces added to the basket complete the
picture.

You can also make beautiful hanging baskets with herbs.
Rosemaries, thymes, and parsleys are especially suited to
ten-inch hanging containers. You can create a very
woodsy-feeling assembly by having a two- or three-year-old
creeping rosemary cascading over one side of a basket
filled with the lacy blue-green foliage of thyme, sage, and
dwarf catnip.

You can even make a surprisingly attractive hanging basket
with vegetables! A Small Fry tomato, planted in the center
of a 24-inch basket, can be supported by a cord or rope
hanger and surrounded by celery, spinach, bok choy, leaf
lettuce, and French marigolds. Any plants you don’t have
room for on top can be set into the basket’s sphagnum moss
sides. (Leaf–not head–lettuce and flowers work
best here.)

No matter what type of plants you’re raising, though, don’t
use any invasive types. An orange mint, a Boston
fern, an airplane plant, or a spider plant will soon take
over a basket filled with less “pushy” species.

To make a hanging container garden, you’ll first need to
acquire a wire plant basket (available from most nurseries;
I’ve used sizes from eight to thirty-six inches in
diameter) and a bag of unmilled sphagnum moss. (You’ll need
a surprisingly large amount of the moss–a small,
12-inch basket alone uses about 450 cubic inches.) Make
sure you get a solid hanging support–a hook with a
molly bolt in Sheetrock just won’t hold up a heavy
container. Likewise, see that your cord or wire is secure.
If you make a macrame hanger, use an inorganic
material–not jute, which will rot. Maybe I sound
overcautious here, but, believe me, being awakened in the
middle of the night by the thud of a fallen 24-inch basket
is not a pleasant experience!

Start by soaking the moss in a container of water. Then,
while it’s soaking, bend down the horizontal wire
sections just below the rim, all the way around
the basket. Then grab a handful of moss, squeeze the excess
water out, fold it in half, and insert it
snugly–mossy side out–into one of those
just-under-the-rim sections of the basket. Continue until
this section is filled with sphagnum protruding equally
into and out of the basket. Then pull the bent wire back up
into place to secure the moss. Follow this procedure,
working around the basket, until you’ve completed a
sphagnum ring. That will help hold your soil mix in and
keep the rest of the moss you’ll add from settling.

Next, start at the bottom of the basket and line it with
unfolded, hand-size moss patties. Generously overlap these
pieces as you go–so your soil mix won’t fall
out–and make sure you get up under the ring on top.
The lining should be about 1 inch to 1-1/2 inches thick all
over. Then pull off any loose pieces from around the
outside to “clean up” the appearance of the basket. (If
you’re fortunate enough to have access to Spanish moss, you
can use that tropical material instead of sphagnum and let
it drape down from the basket for a dramatic effect.)

Now cover the bottom of the basket with the moist soil mix
I described earlier, and gather your ornamentals. (You may
well want to arrange some on a table, while they’re still
in their containers, to help you plan the composition of
the basket.) You’ll begin by installing the plants that
poke out the sides of the container. Work a hole in the
moss just above a horizontal wire. Fill the basket with
soil to that level, then gently maneuver a side plant’s
root ball into the hole so that the top of its root is at
the inside edge of the moss. Fill soil around that root
ball and go on to the next horizontal plant.

Good choices for this application are ivies and other
trailing plants. Set an odd number of these–probably
three or five–around the sides of a foliar basket. On
the other hand, if you’re making a flower-laden basket of,
say, pansies or petunias, you can plant them at every
section to give your basket a thick burst of color.

Once you’ve filled the sides, you can put in your top
plants. Start by setting tall ones in the center (or just
off-center). Work different shapes of foliage around the
basket and finally, near the rim, add a few that will
cascade down. (Just watch that you don’t let a hanging
plant cover an ornamental in the side.)

One pattern I’m fond of for the center of a basket involves
using a large split-leaf philodendron to provide shade and
then hiding a delicate prayer plant or African violet in
that shadow . . . sort of inviting people to look inside.
(If you do use such delicate flowers as the African violet,
leave them in their own containers, burying them, container
and all, in the basket, and remember not to omit those
small containers when feeding and watering the
basket.)

A few of my other favorite basket ornamentals are table,
button, maidenhair, and bird’snest ferns . . . bronze,
grape, and Swedish ivies . . . mother-in-law’s tongue . . .
wandering Jew . . . rex begonia . . . fuchsia . . . some of
the slow-growing small and midsize bromeliads . . . and
schefllera (or umbrella plant).

That’s it. All you have to do now is clean up . . . trim
any blemished leaves from your plants . . . thoroughly
water the soil . . . and set the basket out of direct sun
for a day or so to “heal in.”

NATURAL GARDENING HANGERS

A particularly eye-catching variation of the hanging basket
theme is the natural hanger. To make one, simply use a
piece of driftwood, twisted tree branch, or half rotted
stump section for your hanger instead of a basket. Look for
a hollowed-out wood piece with some short limbs or branches
for support handles. If you use a rotted stump, knock off
all the pithy, soft material and let the whole thing dry
thoroughly. If you’ve got a piece of ocean driftwood, soak
it in water for a couple of days to wash out the salt. And
if any piece has a deep, water-holding pocket in it, line
that potential rot spot with a piece of plastic garbage bag
to protect it.

To create a basket, attach a length of one-inch chicken
wire across the front of the wood with nails or staples.
Leave a little extra wire on top. Now, starting at the
bottom, line the chicken wire with soaked sphagnum. Then
add soil and side plants as you did before–making
sure the soil is packed in well so it’ll hold the moss in
place. Plant the top, cover the soil mix there with moss,
and fold over the extra chicken wire to hold that moss in
place. If there are any blank areas in–your planting,
you can make an opening and insert a small plant or cutting
of, perhaps, sedum or wandering Jew.

ORGANIC CONTAINER GARDENING CARE AND MAINTENANCE

Of course, taking care of those baskets, herbs, and other
indoor plants is the real test of the indoor gardener. Here
are a few helpful hints.

Light: Providing the amount of light appropriate to your plants is
essential–too much is just as harmful as too little.
So when you’re grouping greenery in a basket, try to
combine types that have the same lighting needs. Most
tropicals need partial shade, which is best supplied by the
filtered, direct sunlight you get beneath a slatted porch
roof, below a shade cloth, or–during warm
weather–under a light shade tree. Most vegetables,
flowers, and herbs want full sun–or only about 10 to
15% shade. If the light is uneven, rotate your plants or
baskets every week or so.

Water: There’s no set schedule for watering plants
. . . they transpire much more water on a sunny day than on
a cloudy one. Temperature, wind, and humidity also affect a
plant’s needs. The only way to know when to water
is to stick your finger down into the soil–it should
be moist, but not wet, to the touch. You may be surprised
by what you discover. Mature plants, for instance, can have
quite a thirst. I had a 16-inch Swedish-ivy basket that
took up to two gallons a day in August! Still, be careful:
Overwatering is the single biggest killer of
container plants, primarily because it’s so hard to detect.
You can spot an underwatered plant; its leaves start to
lose color and droop. An overwatered specimen, though, may
look just fine until it suddenly keels over dead from root
rot.

Water in late morning or late afternoon (but early enough
so the water can evaporate from the leaves before evening).
If possible, water from the bottom–set your pots in
saucers and fill those saucers with water. The capillary
action of the mix will draw up the liquid and nutrients.
This technique will reduce soil compaction and help prevent
the mix from drawing away from the wall of the pot. You can
even take a hanging basket down once in a while and set it
in a tub of water for a few minutes.

In general, glossy, leathery leaves enjoy being sprayed
often, but water only the soil of fuzzy-leaved plants.
Never use cold tap water in the winter. And if you
must use city water, let it sit for at least a day first,
so the chlorine can evaporate.

Fertilizing: I’ve already given some fertilizing
advice. In addition to that, consider working fresh
compost, worm castings, or other general organic amendments
into the surface soil of any container that you’ve kept for
more than a few months. On the other hand, cut back liquid
feedings during the slow-growth winter months . . . and
never give liquid tea to a severely dried-out basket, or
you may overdose it. Also, don’t feed liquid fertilizers to
any plant until about three weeks after transplanting
(unless you want to administer a weak solution of chamomile
tea or vitamin B, right after transplanting to help it heal
in).

General Care: The plant combinations in a hanging
basket will change over time. Usually, you end up with two
or three hardy perennials and periodically add annuals,
such as flowers. Just keep cutting off lanky growth and
unattractive or spent blooms . . . remove any leaves that
have blemishes . . . and replace any plants that are
dying.

If your plants are healthy, they’ll continue to grow. And
if your ornamentals start making babies, you can take that
as a sign that you’re doing something right . . . namely,
mastering the art of organic container growing!

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