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Sometimes you don't want a garden. You just don't have the time necessary to put one in and care for it several months of the year. You live in a house, an apartment or a condo without the amount of space that you'd need. Sometimes the quantity of energy required for a garden is more than you have to spare. Or you just can't face the challenge of confronting southern Nevada's growing conditions.
Or maybe you want to grow a plant that simply cannot do well outdoors in this environment. Something that can't take the heat, or perhaps the cold. Or it requires a very rich soil; or an acidic soil. Or it wants more shade than you can reasonably provide outdoors.
Your want certain plants, whether it's for their beauty or other qualities, like their taste, or their air purifying properties. But - you don't want to have to change the ecology of your whole neighborhood in order to get them.
You do want plants. And that probably means you want potted plants.
People have been growing plants in containers for hundreds and hundreds of years. From the bonsai tended by a dedicated Japanese artisan in the 1700's, to the aspidistra in the corner of a Victorian parlor, to the bougainvillea hanging from the ceiling of a chic restaurant, potted plants provide a chance to grow something in a manageable way. In a container, something can thrive that would otherwise not even survive.
You might notice that I said "In a manageable way". Not that there is no effort involved, but it's do-able.
First, just like gardening, you decide what you want to grow. Ornamental kale in a pot? Sweet 100 tomatoes in a hanging basket on the patio? A whiskey barrel full of petunias, or a spathephyllum in a clay pot in your living room?
A potted plant is a mini-garden, whether it's an orchid or a philodendron. Every plant has its own ideal environment. You already know that, which is a big reason that you are growing it in a pot in the first place. After you have decided what plant you want, then you need to consider what to do if it's going to thrive.
There are three key components in plant care: Light, soil and water. No matter what the circumstances, you need to ask - How much light does this plant need? Will it get the right amount (not too much, not too little) in the space where you propose to grow it? Will it be too hot? I mean that if you have a south facing window and that's where everything will be grown, you probably won't have great success with african violets, since they can't take light which is so bright. The leaves can develop sunburn, which can lead to disease. On the other hand, tomatoes or peppers will do well with bright light, since they need good sun to produce fruit.
You need to make sure that the leaves are kept clean of dust. Outside, the wind tends to clean them off. Indoors, however, dust can settle on the leaves and block the amount of light that gets to them. As an aside, I do not suggest any of the leaf polishes on the market, a healthy leaf has its own level of shininess and it uses that level to obtain optimal light.
The next essential component in plant growth is soil. I'm using the term "soil" in the most general, non technical, way to include any kind of potting medium or mix and the pot that contains it. It holds moisture and is a source of nutrients. The potting mix needs to be disease free, which is why you don't usually re-use the soil, taking it from one plant to new plant (unless of course you can sterilize it). Throw the old soil outside, where the sun and microorganisms can work on it. Always thoroughly wash and rinse a pot, especially if it's been used before. The soil is also what the plant anchors itself in, where its roots grow. Unlike a plant out in the field or yard, a potted plant has a very small area to produce roots. Roots are the channels through which the plant obtains nutrients. You don't want that space to be so small that the plant doesn't have enough soil to get nutrients and water. Make sure that the pot is large enough for the plant. If you're going to move a plant from a smaller pot to a larger one, gently loosen the ball of roots so that they can grow out into the larger pot. There needs to be some way for the pot to drain so that the plant is not sitting in water. Two guides for pots and plants - the smaller the pot, the more often it needs to be watered. And unglazed clay pots get dryer much faster than plastic ones. Clay pots don't tend to last so long here in the desert, since it's so dry. But they can last a number of years.
Finally, water is critical to all life. Nothing lives without water. Don't let your plant dry out completely. Cacti and succulents can tolerate lack of moisture well, but even they must be watered occasionally. You can imagine what an orchid wants.
If the plant has been in a pot for more than, say, six months, give it a low strength fertilizer on a regular basis.
If you can mist your plants regularly, you have a good chance to keep them pest and disease free.
For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Good luck and good growing!