Ellen McDaniel-Weissler

As anyone knows who has ever attempted to garden, the very act of planting and caring for living green things can be wonderfully therapeutic.

Here where I live, on Haystack Mountain, the ground is made up entirely of rocks, old arrow heads, deer feces and rocks, so my “gardening” is mostly limited to pots on the front porch.

But even that agricultural oasis can soothe my soul. For those who may not be expert at the “pot garden” (which has nothing to do with marijuana, I hasten to add!) here are some tips for getting your tiny Eden into shape:

1. It doesn’t matter whether you buy the plants or the potting soil first, you will always end up with some leftover soil that you will need to go out and buy plants for, or some leftover plants that you will need to go out and buy soil for.

Any “pot gardener” who denies this fundamental fact is lying. (Having leftover soil with no plant to put in it is literally agony for the true pot gardener.) No matter which you do, you will also never have enough pots, even if you commandeer the kids’ plastic beach buckets into service.

The result of this inevitable imbalance is that you will eventually have a front porch which has no room for anything but potted plants — no porch swing, no rocking chairs, no “welcome” mat, nuthin’; the only thing which will not be inconvenienced by the lack of floor space will be squirrels.

2. It is best to buy your plant stock from the “half-dead” shelves at the plant or hardware store. These are the pathetic-looking survivors of a week and a half where the teenager who was supposed to keep all the for-sale plants watered decided it wasn’t worth worrying about the ones at the back of the displays, because who looks at those anyway?

If you buy from the “half-dead” shelves, you can buy a lot more, because they are dirt-cheap (play-on-words intentional). Also, if you manage to revive them, you can feel like a very colossus of agriculture! If you don’t, it won’t be your fault, it will be the fault of the kid who works at the shop, and you will only be out 25 cents per plant.

3. Try to purchase a variety of colors. If you buy all purple flowers, your front porch will look like a bruise. I attempt to buy at least a few white flowers (although I find them boring) to break up the cacophony of blues, reds, oranges, yellows, purples, fuchsias, pinks, light blues, light reds, light oranges, light yellows, light purples, light fuchsias, light pinks — well, you get the idea.

It is very difficult to locate an actually BLUE flower — they are almost all some version of purple, which is nice, but a little blue would be a welcome addition. I have tried acrylic paint, but with limited success.

4. Do not put your favorite and most expensive Japanese porcelain pot anywhere near the driveway when your son is learning to back up the car.

5. Never hang a bird feeder anywhere near your potted plants. The birds will not cause any problems, but the squirrels, who have no respect whatsoever for the time and money you have spent or the beauty of the display, will frolic through your planters with gleeful abandon and will break all the stems, so that your begonias begin to resemble the relics from the “half-dead” shelf, even if you paid full-price for them. Don’t get me wrong, I love squirrels, but they need to learn to read my “Squirrel-Crossing” signs.

6. If you don’t get around to potting your new plants for a few days (weeks) or so, make sure that when you do, you break up the roots that have become like spaghetti inside the little plastic container that the plant came in.

If you don’t, your plant will simply die a horrible, root-bound death in its new habitat, and its weeping and groaning will keep you up all night. Do not assume that the plant will figure out, for itself, how to expand into the new soil in which it finds itself. Plants, generally speaking, are mentally a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, if you get my drift.

7. Never pot a flower in a pot that does not have drainage holes in the bottom. Don’t get me wrong, plants like water, but there is a reason why you never see plants doing the backstroke. Plants are very picky about what they drink, and how much.

Most folks simply fall back on the garden hose, but I recommend Perrier. This will fool the plants into thinking that they are receiving spa treatment, and they will bloom better. But don’t give them too much, or they will begin to be spoiled and entitled, and will stop responding to simple commands, sort of like my kids.

8. Finally, make sure your plants get plenty of sun — and by “plenty” I mean 20-22 hours per day. This is my excuse for why all my plants are dying — there is too much shade on my front porch. Since my front porch faces northwest, we only get the late-evening sunset rays, which are apparently inferior to the early morning, wake-you-up-with-a-nuclear-blow-to-the-retina rays.

Your best plan would be to abandon the front porch altogether and place all the pots on the roof, providing that you have a flat roof. If you don’t, they will reappear on the porch in very short order, and quite a bit the worse for wear.

Granted, if you put them all on the roof the neighbors won’t get to be astonished by your green thumb, but at least you won’t have to see the damage wrought by the squirrels, and the folks on the International Space Station will enjoy the view.

Better still, save yourself all that trouble and expense, and buy a coffee table book on Longwood Gardens. This won’t take up as much space on your front porch, and it won’t smell as nice, but at least you will always be sure it is getting the right amount of water.

Ellen McDaniel-Weissler is a LaVale freelance writer. Her column appears in the Times-News on alternate Sundays.

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