SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 10, 2013

Broken pots, raised beds and hydrangeas

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: Should I put a piece of broken pottery or stones in the bottom of every pot or container I’m planting? What about in window boxes?

A: Yes! There are several reasons you need something to cover the drainage hole in the bottom of any container. One is to keep the soil from running out every time you water, which is unattractive on your deck and wastes the soil, as well. Another is to assure drainage and make sure the soil doesn’t clog the drainage hole. Pot shards are fine, or use gravel or stone if available. Or borrow an old trick from the people who grow bonsai, those little trees that must have proper drainage: Use a piece of wire window screen — save the pieces of torn screen that you are replacing, or ask your repairman to save you some screen scraps. Unlike added stone, screen is weightless and can be easily cut to fit the bottom of odd-sized pots and window boxes. Another option is using a disposable drip coffee pot filter over the drain hole. Filters are relatively inexpensive, and they’ll last through a season or two. The porous paper filter allows water to slowly drip out of the pot, keeps soil in the pot where it belongs, keeps bugs from crawling into the pot, weighs nothing and is biodegradable.

Q: I think I want to try building a raised bed this year, because I’ve read they are warmer and I can plant earlier. But I rent my house and don’t want it be a big expense, and I might not want it to be permanent — so I don’t want to spend a lot in case I don’t like it! Any suggestions?

A: No matter where you live, the climate presents challenges for gardeners who grow their own food. In the North, cold is a limiting factor for some crops. A raised bed will warm up faster in the spring and can be planted sooner. In the fall, the reverse is true — it holds heat longer, so you buy another week or so of growing time. But there are other reasons to make raised beds:

Raising makes them higher and a little easier to reach. How high is a “raised” bed? It could be much higher than ground level to accommodate a handicapped gardener, or merely a gardener with a bad back. It can be made as high and as wide as you need. You can garden in otherwise impossible spots! With a raised bed, you have the opportunity to literally make the garden and load it with really great soil in the right spot.

Raised beds also enable you to easily alter heavy clay or rocky or thin topsoil, because you can simply add new, higher-quality soil on top of the problem. Another advantage is that raised beds don’t get stepped on so soil doesn’t get compacted!

When creating new raised beds, take soil from what will be your pathways and use it to build your beds. If necessary, bring in additional topsoil to build the depth of your beds. In either case, the planting area will be higher and deeper, which is especially beneficial to root crops.

Here are several easy ways to make a raised bed:

Make a frame using pine, which will last about four to five years and is the cheapest wood to use. Cedar is more expensive, but will last for more than 10 years. Corner brackets into which the standard lumber fits are nothing but pre-fab metal corners into which you slip your standard 2-by-4 piece of lumber — simpler than nailing. Although slightly more expensive, the corners are reusable and produce a raised bed in minutes rather than hours.

Logs will also work, but beware of railroad ties as the older ones are treated with creosote, and most of the newer ones are chemically treated, as well. Don’t use pretreated lumber! It is toxic to edible crops, and splinters are dangerous.

For more permanence, stone or brick can form the edge of the raised bed.

Build the simplest and cheapest raised bed of all: Just mound up the soil about 12 to 16 inches above ground level for your raised bed, and plant. All the advantages of raised-bed gardening — and no expenses. Just labor.

Q: I received a beautiful hydrangea plant for Easter, which was bought from a local florist, and was told I could plant it outside. I know there are species that are sold this time of year that are not hardy. Is there some way I can tell if this is a hardy outdoor plant?

A: Since I don’t know exactly what the florist sold you, I will take a chance and answer with some generalities: Most florist hydrangeas are “cautiously hardy” in this zone and can be planted in your garden. But please remember that these gift plants were forced into bloom for this holiday. They were grown in greenhouses with controlled heat, humidity, water and light and were fed lots of fertilizers. Once they have overcome the forcing and acclimatized themselves to our climate, most can be grown outdoors very successfully.

As the weather gets warmer, slowly acclimate your plant to the outdoors. Gradually take the potted plant outdoors, and place it in an area of partial sun, watering it regularly. Take it indoors if the nights are cold — remember, this was a greenhouse plant. Plant it in its permanent place in the garden after adjustment; this should be a place where it will get filtered sun — not hot sun — and plenty of water. Add a layer of mulch around the base of the plant to help prevent water loss, but plan to water a new hydrangea daily in dry weather. Well-amended soil and an extra-large planting hole are helpful. Gently loosen the soil in the pot as you plant if the plant seems pot-bound. After planting, treat your new plant like an established plant. Remember, no pruning for hydrangeas except immediately after flowering. And over the winter, the new plant may need protection during subzero winter days.

I have four to five large hydrangea bushes that all came from cuttings of one Easter hydrangea plant, which was bought at a supermarket many years ago. I know your hydrangea planting will be very successful, and you’ll have pleasant memories of the donor every year when it blooms.

This week’s dirt

Now that it’s May, are you wondering when to plant? Want to know how to forecast the weather? Gardeners have depended on these old May sayings and adages for generations:

“A cold May is kindly

And fills the barn finely ...”

“When oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, it’s time to plant corn and other hot weather veggies.”

“Plant corn when the apple blossoms fall.”

“If a thunderstorm occurs before seven in the morning in April or May, we’ll have a wet summer!”

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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at nsgardener@comcast.net or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.