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What to grow here.....

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

I have a problem with this large planter.....I have planted snapdragons, petunias, wave petunias, marigolds, daiseys, and everything under the sun.....(and shade :) ) and while it starts out o.k., within a month it dies off.....It gets sun until about noon, then the evergreens shade it....


This message was edited Mar 16, 2013 10:58 AM

Durhamville, NY(Zone 5b)

For starters what's the mix that fills the containers, how deep is it and what is you watering regimen. Do you get a lot or a little rain?

central, NJ(Zone 6b)

Do you find it dries out too quickly? Are you using a potting soil with moisture control or water gel crystals? Do you fertilize it?

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Hmmmmm...I am trying to post a pic, and can't seem to ......grrrrr.

central, NJ(Zone 6b)

all I had to do is highlight the "" and right click 'open link' worked fine

but to post a pic, you need to go below the reply box and click 'choose file' and pick a photo from your computer files, it needs to be resized to a lower resolution or it will not post

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

I am glad you saw the pic.....I think the pic I have is too large to post.

The planter is about 3' by 3' or so, and about 3' high. (Kind of a tall above ground planter, surrounded by cedar lumber). Every year I have added garden soil, or some compost. I even have fertilized it, and still no luck. I water my garden (last yr. it was very hot and dry here) about 3x a week.....I wonder if the shade (from about 1 p.m. on) from an evergreen is so much shade that it doesn't ge enough sun....

I even have put calibrachoa (million bells) in there, and they just died off.....hmmmm.

Any suggestions is always helpful....Maybe I should dig all the dirt out for about 18". and fill with what? Potting soil, or garden dirt?

Opp, AL(Zone 8b)

I don't know how to post 3rd-party hosted images here directly, but if you paste the "naked" URL, it's clickable.

Opp, AL(Zone 8b)

Is it open to the ground at the bottom?

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Thanks purpleinopp!

No, it isn't open on the bottom. It had been built before we bought the house, and I believe they built a small 'deck' and then built the large planter on top....

Do you think that may be the problem?

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

I think the problem must be in what it's filled with. It looks like it's open enough, and even with afternoon shade your plants should not have died. Maybe the garden soil is too compacted? Not enough compost to fix it? Or missing nutrients? Heavy clay? Sand? I'd say dig out some, try to figure out what it's missing, and add. You want a good rich loam, not too heavy, with good drainage but some water retaining ability.

The simplest is to buy potting mix if compacted garden soil is what is killing off the plants. I hesitate to say peat moss as it is not a sustainable resource. But there are a lot of people here who know quite a lot about soil amendments and building a healthy garden. I hope they chime in...

Good luck!


Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Thanks Pam.....I hope they chime in too!

Lexington, KY(Zone 6b)

I have a similiar situation with a brick garden that was built by the former owner on my patio. It gets mostly shade but hot afternoon sun. It's been a problem finding something to grow there that does well in both conditions. I've tried a lot of different things. Impatiens, begonias and caladiums seem to do best-but I try to shade them in the afternoons. I have oregano growing in the middle which comes back every year, but no other herbs have done well there. It sounds to me like you've done all the right things as far as soil and amendments. Maybe you should experiment with some different flowers-?

Lexington, KY(Zone 6b)

P.S. I should have made some suggestions. . .why not try some of the ones I mentioned. You've been trying to grow sun lovers in mainly shade-I think that's why my herbs wouldn't grow. I would look for those marked "Shade, part shade or part sun." Just a thought! Good luck, I know it's frustrating!

(Pam) Warren, CT(Zone 5b)

Morning sun and afternoon shade is a good combination for many, many plants. The opposite can be a killer. Morning sun is relatively gentle, afternoon sun is far more fierce. So I'm still thinking there's a problem in the soil... Maybe no drainage? That could lead to rot...

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

I think all of your suggestions are right on....I think I will dig out maybe 12-18" of soil and replace that....then try IdealPeggy's idea and plant impatiens...although, I think I did that a couple years ago, and they didn't work....One thing I haven't tried is hostas.....maybe a part sun, part shade hosta would work....I never have had much luck with begonias...

I agree....this is so frustrating.....but this is a new year, and I will try something different....and see what works...

Lexington, KY(Zone 6b)

Quote from sm4657 :
I agree....this is so frustrating.....but this is a new year, and I will try something different....and see what works...

Just think of all you're learning-lol-but it is fun to experiment with annuals. There are so many pretty possibilities! Go in and look at some of Gymgirls pictures of caladiums and coleus. . .they're amazing!

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Here is a way to test the soil that is in there now:

Put some soil in a straight sided container, like a canning jar. Make sure the soil has no clumps and settles in the jar. Mark how high the soil is in the jar. (A piece of tape on the side of the jar is easy to mark on).

Add water and a drop of dish washer detergent. Not the 'wash the dishes by hand' stuff, the machine stuff.

Shake. A lot.
Stop shaking and watch the time with a pen or pencil in hand.
At 30 seconds mark how much soil you see settled in the jar.
At 2 minutes mark how much soil you see settled in the jar.
At an hour...

How to interpret the results:
1) If there is a lot of stuff still floating... this is organic matter, compost, needles from the evergreens. Good.
2) If the water is still murky at 1 hour there is a high clay content. Not great for containers.
3) In 30 seconds the largest soil particles fall out of the water. Sand.
4) In 2 minutes the mid-sizes of soil particles fall out of the water. Silt.
5) If the water is murky after an hour, but clears overnight this is pretty good.
6) If the water is stained yellow to brown, or even into the reds or oranges, but more like clear-brown, or clear- yellow, or clear-red, like tea, this is organic acids from the organic matter. Too much is not good for the plants. If it is so dark you cannot see through it I would wonder if the needles from the evergreens are landing in the container and making the soil too acidic for most plants. You could do a pH test on the soil to see if this might be the problem.

Convert the levels of sand, silt, clay and organic matter into percentages based on the height of the soil when you first filled the jar.
Up to 50% organic matter may not be a problem in a pot, especially for shade plants. Somewhere between 30-50% is good. (but not all from the needles of the evergreens- a mixed source is best)
Up to 50% sand is pretty good, though not if the other 50% is just organic matter.
Up to about 25% silt is OK.
Up to about 10% clay is OK.

Within those values there can be some variation.

If you can dig into the soil with your hand, or with some really easy trowel work, then it probably is just fine. I would add fertilizer and make sure the container is properly watered through the heat of the summer. Containers (even large ones) dry out faster than the garden soil. Especially with a soil blend that is high in sand and organic matter.

If it is so hard you have to get in there with a pick then there is probably too much clay in there. (if the kids are building award winning mud pies this is not good). If you need to remove some, do so, then mix the new material with what remains in the box, at least a couple of inches down. You do not want to create a problem of having 2 layers of different materials in there. Optimum would be a couple inches of blended materials, then a minimum of 6" of new soil for the smallest annuals, a foot for most perennials and largest annuals.
If there is a lot of room in the box, then you could add a lot of soil conditioner, compost or other source of organic matter to loosen the soil with high clay content.

If you think lack of water was part of the problem, then add a mulch of fine bark, either ground bark or fine chips. This will help insulate the soil from high temperatures, add more compost for next year as it decomposes and help hold in the moisture.

Worcester, MA

As long as you're digging the soil out, why not line the bottom of the planter with good sized rocks to help with drainage. I use the same dirt in my planters year over year, but before I put anything in, I mix in a bit of compost and really 'air' it out with a garden fork. Also, the suggestion for mulch is right on - I mulch all my containers and it really cuts back on watering.

How about a wildflower mix for your region? Melampodium? Drought-resistant, self-sowing and bright! Pot marigolds are equally cheerful and care free. Mix in viola - so pretty and tough nuts... self-sowing as well.

I really love the explaination of testing the soil - thanks very much!

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Diana_K....thank you for the directions on soil testing....I will give that a try. It is a good thought about the soil being too acidic from the pine needles....and I will mulch, too, I have never done that with this planter.

Davids188....I never thought about a wildflower mix...what a good idea.

Worcester, MA

sm, I have a couple trouble spots myself (myriad problems, frustratingly endless) and natives finally worked. I've had continuous blooms for over 13 years. I 'refresh' the beds (aggressively rake, compost, add seed, feed and mulch) every few years or so, when I feel ambitious. Despite that 'work' upkeep (and cost) is negligible. You have a huge container, might as well be a bed, so maybe natives will be happiest... Good luck.

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Thanks ! It is a great idea!

Worcester, MA

Good luck and you're welcome... Please stay in touch and let us know what works for you.

Bishan, Singapore

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BUda, TX(Zone 8b)

sm... I know this will probably come after the fact, you had said you were going to dig out 12"-18" of soil and replace. If it has been several years that the "garden soil" has been in there, it will more than likely be compacted tightly. If the planter can't drain, all you will be doing is shortening the height of the planter, and make root development almost impossible. Even adding rock won't help the situation. since the extra water doesn't have any place to go. Since it sounds like it's going to be very hard to add drainage to the bottom of the planter, you are going to have to monitor moisture content with a meter. I did 5 gallon plastic buckets last year and thought I was watering enough, but found out I was under watering, by a lot.

Tapla, a DEFINITE container-mix guru, has a lot of very good instructive posts on the Soil Forum & Container Forum also. He would be a great help with your problem that you've been experiencing for several years. He can tell you which specific mix would be the best for your planter...

Marshalltown, IA(Zone 5a)

Thanks kevcarr59...........

I haven't started on the planter digging yet....we got 2" of much needed rain this last week, with more in the next couple days. So, no digging here.

Last year, ( around the middle of April), I was digging up and dividing my Caesar Siberian Iris' ( a job and a half), and I had a section about 12" in diamenter left over, and I thought, why not put it in the large planter.....It did bloom there, and yesterday I was out and noticed that some little shoots from it are coming up for this year......hmmm....maybe the planter has a lot of acid in the soil?? I seems nothing else like this planter....Also, last year the boards on the old planter started to bow out a little, and two snapdragons shot through and bloomed....where they came from, I have no idea, because I have never planted snapdragons there. And being in a cold 5b zone I don't know how they wintered over....just strange.....maybe I should plant some snaps in there along with some snap seeds, and see what happens after I amend the soil.....?????

BUda, TX(Zone 8b)

One of the things you might want to do is have a soil sample tested by your county ag extension service, and they would tell you exactly what you have in the planter. With it done professionally, you can be fairly confident in the results. I don't know what cost is involved with that, but it should be money well spent, and a lot easier on you. Diana has a great instructive post above, and some of the available soil test kits basically use the same criteria & processes for their tests.

It sounds like you have a few anomolies going on in your planter. If you were to clean it out totally, fix the drainage in the bottom, and put in a "known" media, then you would remove many of the unknowns you have. Cutting the variables down to a minimum, you can then follow a lot narrower path to get the results of having a planter that you can use with confidence. Using "garden soil" in a planter that has no drainage is basically making a brick out of what material is in there. It would seem to me there is no air getting to the roots, and that would be the reason most plants are not surviving past a month or 2...

I am not involved with flowers at all, I work with vegetables almost exclusively, so I don't know preferences of what flowers you plan on growing in your planter. I just correlate some of the practices over to what would be done for veggies. I don't think there is much difference between veggies or flowers, as to having a healthy root envirionment is paramount in both cases. Yes, there are certain specifics to what items you want to plant, and you can't have two totally different growing parameters in the same planter.

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