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Soilless growing mix key to beautiful hanging baskets

Jessica Walliser
All containers, including hanging baskets and window boxes like this one, should be filled with the right growing medium and maintained properly.

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Friday, April 12, 2013, 8:40 p.m.

Each spring, I enjoy going to local garden centers to check out the “goods.” One of my favorite things to see are the rows of hanging baskets dangling from the greenhouse rafters. They all look so lovely. I usually end up with one or two in the trunk of my car, but I also enjoy building my own hanging baskets at home.

Whether you purchase your baskets or you plant your own, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. It's the secret to growing beautiful, healthy hanging baskets, and it's in the same place it is for all aspects of gardening — the soil. To be more accurate — in the case of hanging baskets and other pots, it's not actually soil, it's potting mix. But, regardless of whether we're talking about a vegetable garden or a hanging basket, the secret to a gorgeous and productive garden is what's surrounding the roots.

If you plant your own baskets, start them off right by buying the best soilless growing mix you can afford. It should be comprised of a mixture of sphagnum peat moss or coir fiber, vermiculite, perlite and other ingredients. I prefer to use potting soil with an organic fertilizer already mixed in, so I also look for compost, dehydrated manure, alfalfa meal, greensand and other organic soil-enrichment products on the bag's ingredient list.

There are lots of brands out there, and I've experimented with many of them, and I have to say that some brands are way better than others. You may have to try several types to see which one works best for you. But regardless of which potting mix you select, mix it 60/40 with finely screened compost (you can buy it by the bag at your local garden center if you don't make your own). The compost will aid in moisture retention, add nutrients, introduce beneficial soil life, and help suppress certain diseases.

Select the plants for your hanging basket based on the concept of blending together “a thriller, a filler and a spiller.” Your “thriller” should be one or two more upright, bold plants that go in the center of the basket, three or four “filler” plants surround your “thriller” in the middle layer of the basket, and then the “spillers” get positioned around the edges where they can spill out over the basket and hang down off the sides.

Carefully inspect plants for pests and diseases before you buy them and shop at a reliable local nursery where they can answer your questions and help you select the best plants for your growing conditions.

Once the basket is planted, keep it regularly and religiously watered. The same goes for pre-made baskets you buy. Make sure there is a drainage hole in the bottom of the container and that the roots are never sitting in standing water. Poor drainage can lead to root rot.

In the height of summer, you may need to water your baskets once or twice a day. There are water-absorbing polymer crystals you can add to the potting soil when you fill your containers. They are intended to help contain soil moisture and then slowly release it to the roots over time. However, in my experience, the compost you've added to the mix works in much the same way and the crystals aren't necessary.

Once every week or two, fertilize your hanging baskets with a liquid, organic fertilizer mixed in with the irrigation water. I like to use a blend of a fish hydroslate product and liquid kelp, diluted according to label instructions. Not only do these fertilizers contain the necessary macronutrients, they contain scores of trace minerals, amino acids, plant growth hormones and vitamins that you won't get in the blue, chemical-based liquid fertilizers. You could use fish emulsion (which is kind of smelly) or brew up some compost tea to fertilize your baskets and other containers.

And the last trick: Keep the plants well-pinched and deadheaded throughout the growing season. Most of the annuals we typically use in hanging baskets require an occasional haircut to generate new growth and flower buds. Use a clean, sharp shear or your fingers to trim back a little of the growth once every three weeks and remove any spent flowers on a weekly basis.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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