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While it's lovely to be blessed with a large garden, these days with urban living in small houses and apartments, it can be challenging to have a calming green space in your home. You can create a soothing, ambience with potted plants if you manage both an aesthetic and "gardening" aspect of it. Here are some tips to help you out.

1. Know your plant
It is always good to know what you are growing, the name of the plant, its growing habits, its water, sunlight requirements and what you wish to achieve from growing it. Let us start by going through these aspects one by one.

2. Your Goal
We are all fascinated by plants in one way or the other. Some for their flowers, some for their fruits, some for their foliage appearance, the list can go on. But when you pick a plant and have it for whatever reason, keep that in mind when taking care of it. A plant will do well when you know its potential and what you want it to do. For example, do you want it to climb up a trellis, or cascade down, or stand upright as a screen? For example, I keep Portulaca or common Purslane in pots, just so that they don’t keep spreading like a weed, and since it cascades down, it covers up an ugly plastic pot, and that just works well for me. So, ask yourself the same question, what would you want the plant to do for you in return for all the love and care that you give it?

3. Growth habits
By knowing the habits of a plant, it becomes easier to select the right pot size. Common sense (in most cases) dictates that the larger the plant, the larger the roots and so a large pot size would be required. But don’t despair if you want to keep a plant in a pot that has a growth habit of a tree – think about what pot size you should go for to get the plant of your dreams! In such situations, you may want to consider dwarf varieties, or just prune the plant regularly. Some gardeners deliberately keep large plants in relatively smaller containers/pots to constrict their growth. If you’re thinking of keeping large plants at a size much smaller than their natural growing habit, maybe you should think of bonsai! As a rule of thumb, a shrub such as Hibiscus will even thrive in a 1’x1’ pot with regular pruning promoting more flowering opportunities. With flowering, I should mention, it is always good to know when the plant flowers and fruits, this will give you the right timeframe to prune the branches making way for appropriate light and growth of new foliage.

4. Water requirements
This is tricky in terms of plant care. Plants in pots require well-drained growing media. The right type of growing media plays an important role in plant care. In my experience living in Colombo, I have not seen good quality potting mixes that are readily available in shops and plant nurseries. There is generally a lot of clay in locally-available potting mixes which makes the growing media-heavy and, at times, hydrophobic– meaning the media repels water, ultimately depriving the plant of a vital requirement.

If you are ready to get your hands a little dirty, try this: Take any potting media available in a garden shop or markets (e.g. Water’s Edge weekend markets). To prepare a good potting mix, mix 2 parts of ready-made potting soil to 3 parts cocopeat/ home-made compost and in addition, you can mix coco chips or old woodchips. Why use homemade compost? That’s a whole different topic which I will cover soon. However, the suggested mix allows a good amount of drainage, moisture retention, air circulation and reduces the chance of the mix becoming hydrophobic. If I’m in a time crunch, I do get large amounts of high-quality potting mix made by Cleantech Pvt. Ltd.

5. Sunlight requirements
Sunlight! We have plenty of it in Colombo, we need to know how much sunlight a plant requires. Some plants prefer early morning or late evening direct sunlight, while some can tolerate sunlight all through the day. Placing the pots in the right spot will make a lot of difference in terms of growth and pest management. Flowering also is affected with the amount of sunlight a plant receives. That said, pots are easier than garden beds to manage as you can move them to the right spot.

6. Pot size
Which pot and what size? It’s always good to keep things simple, and pots are no special case. If your plant requires a good amount of sunlight all through the day, clay/terracotta pots are the way to go. Though terracotta has a cost associated with it, they generally are the best for most plants, be it indoors or outdoors. But good quality plastic pots, like from Tuscan Path, resist UV light very well and are decent enough to place indoors, too. Then come the shapes - it all depends on the growth habit of the plant. Plants with shallow roots, bulbs or rhizomes (such as Zanzibar Gem, ginger and turmeric) can be placed in bowl shaped pots while deep rooted and large plants such as Ficus, Murraya (Mock Orange, Curry leaf), Hibiscus, hybrid tea Rosa (Roses), grafted fruit trees like Citrus, Artocarpus (Jackfruit) can go in a 2’ x 2’ or larger size pots.

7. Root Pruning
This is a strong practice of Bonsai makers and orchardists, but when one must keep large plants in pots, the roots tend or get pot bound - the roots wrap around the internal walls of the pot. This reduces and slows down new growth, reduces water penetration and the roots can even break the pot. A good practice is to prune back the roots, untangle them and repot them, either in the same pot or a larger pot. Additional care needs to be taken after root pruning – it is best to place the plant in shade for a couple of weeks to help it recuperate before it is placed back in the right spot.

8. Fertilising
An important aspect of maintaining healthy plants in pots is the timely application of fertilisers. Since there is very little growing media in pots compared to garden beds, nutrients too, are limited to the roots. You can fertilise your plants based on their nutrient requirements, flowering and fruiting periods and based on the type of fertiliser. Slow release fertilisers last longer and usually need re-application once every season or even a longer period. Always check the label before application to ensure you are not overdosing the plant which will cause fertiliser burn. If you have pots indoors, you should ideally avoid organic-based fertilisers as the odour will be too much to bear. A complete, nutrient-rich fertiliser, applied as directed, should suffice. For Orchid, Citrus or similar plant enthusiasts consider specially formulated fertilisers to give year-round bloom and fruits.

With the right amount of all the above elements, you should have a healthy flowering or fruiting plant, with minimum care and minimum pest incidences. Happy Growing!

Eric Bharucha
Author: Eric Bharucha
Farmer, Gardener, Permaculturalist, Family man and a dreamer of a better world. I belong to a 5th generation farming family and have a Master’s degree in Agriculture, a TAFE Certificate in Horticulture and a PDC from Milkwood Permaculture, Australia. I used to be a Horticulturalist- Consumer Advisor for Yates Australia and have recently moved to Colombo where I am developing an edible garden, balcony gardens and hydroponics systems.

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