Time to give up the pot: why it’s much better to plant in the ground

Time to give up the pot: why it’s much better to plant in the ground

We assume earthenware vessels are easier; in fact the opposite is true

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This article titled “Time to give up the pot: why it’s much better to plant in the ground” was written by James Wong, for The Observer on Sunday 9th July 2017 05.00 UTC

To newbie gardeners the world of horticulture can seem a daunting place. Between the daily slog of summer waterings, the bewildering range of fertilisers and the cost of pots, potting mix and assorted paraphernalia which can soon start to add up, I don’t blame them.

Fortunately, there is a single tip that can slash your workload and significantly up your chances of plant growing success, not to mention cutting your garden centre bills. It really couldn’t be simpler either: just ditch the pots and plant everything in the ground. This may go against what beginners are often told – after all, there is even an industry campaign with the slogan “It starts with a pot” – and it may seem counterintuitive, as container growing can seem a smaller, simpler undertaking than tackling a whole plot. But it is generally true. Let me explain.

In comparison to the ground, containers hold substantially less growing media. This means their surface-area-to-volume ratio is far greater, which causes them to heat up and cool down far quicker than the ground. These fluctuations in temperature can damage plant roots and compromise overall growth. To make matters worse, the same applies for the rate of water loss in pots, meaning you will have to get out with the hose more. In the case of hanging baskets, this can be up to twice a day at the peak of the summer.

Beautiful begonias: if you have to use pots, choose non-porous vessels.
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Beautiful begonias: if you have to use pots, choose non-porous vessels. Photograph: StephanieFrey/Getty Images/iStockphoto
If you are using a traditional compost-based potting media for your pots, you will probably also be tied into the effort and cost of continual fertiliser applications. This is because these are usually made of ingredients such as peat or coir that naturally contain low levels of essential plant nutrients. Being organic plant fibres, these tend to break down over time, meaning they will need to be topped up every year with new material.

The difference these cumulative effects can have on plant growth can be astonishing. Apple trees and berry bushes I planted in the ground consistently offer up yields up to twice that of identical varieties I bought and planted at the same time in large pots, not to mention the extra work and cost of the pots themselves.

But what do you do if you are growing on a paved area or patio and have to use containers? There are still three ways to up your chances. First, choose pots of non-porous materials like metal, glazed ceramic, plastic or resin, not breathable terracotta, which can lose water throughout its entire surface. Second, a few large pots will always be less susceptible than loads of small ones. And, finally, using a soil-based growing media (also known as loam-based) will hold water and minerals for far longer and won’t break down anywhere near as fast as compost-based ones. But, trust me, the ground is always best.

Email James at james.wong@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek

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