Sure is hard to garden up high in shade and wind

Wait till next year.

No, I’m not predicting that disappointed Cubs fans will be saying that again after this year’s season.

I’m talking about finding annual plants that will grow in my railing planters.

Sitting in the living room and looking out at the balcony, you’d think the boxes hanging on the balcony railings weren’t planted. You have to step out onto the balcony and look down to notice plants too small to be seen above the rim of the planters: a few coleuses, a single geranium, one unblooming impatiens, and Tradescantia zebrina (a houseplant better known by an offensive term).

I suppose this is progress over last year, when by late June I’d already given up on the railing planters because a dozen impatiens plants and about the same number of coleuses had died.

This year was supposed to be different. The railing plants would be lush, spilling over the sides of the boxes. All winter and spring, I rooted pieces of different coleuses in water. Some grew to almost a foot tall. I researched what else would grow in the mere 2½ hours of sun the balcony gets.

I wouldn't make the same mistake as last year and plant too early. I held off until three weeks later, until the second week of June. With two dozen coleuses, three cranesbill geraniums, eight balsam plants started indoors from seed, one impatiens (on probation after last year's nonperformance), and a couple of oxalises and some Tradescantia from a friend, the four front-facing planters looked pretty good for a few hours.

Then the wind picked up, battering the tall coleuses. I cut them back. Tradescantia breaks off easily, so I cut it back, too. It wasn’t long before half the coleuses died, along with both oxalises, two of the three geraniums, and seven of the eight balsam plants.

Balsam, an impatiens relative, and impatiens were supposed to provide flowers, but the impatiens and the one remaining balsam haven’t bloomed. What good is an impatiens that doesn’t bloom? Its foliage is nothing to write home about.

I don’t know what to make of it when there are two of the same species and one looks good and the other dies. Maybe, like animals, one was healthy and the other sickly.

I’m finding that some coleus are hardier than others. Unfortunately, the ones doing best are all green, not bringing the hoped-for color contrast.

Wanting to do something with the bare spots where plants have died but leery of losing more valuable plants, I turned to what many consider a weed: the common violet, found growing wild in a field. Few of them have lived either.

I liberally sprinkled sweet alyssum seeds around; many germinated, but only a few seedlings survived.

Once again, it’s an experiment to see what will grow in wind and shade in containers nine stories up.

The ironic thing is, I had a reputation as a gardener back in my former neighborhood. I transformed the parkway in front of our corner condo building with ground covers, shrubs, and flowering perennials. Some of them must have died, but it didn’t bother me because so many thrived.

I was such a novice when I planted the first hostas that I didn’t even water them after planting; they all lived. I never amended the soil, never fertilized anything. Hostas, vinca, Rose of Sharon bushes, a bridal wreath bush, purple coneflower, lily of the valley, brown-eyed susan: they all grew.

It was so rewarding. I loved gardening. It was like meditation, the only thing that could get me out of my head.

These days, it can feel more frustrating than rewarding.

Gardening with annuals sure is harder than gardening with perennials. Container gardening sure is harder than gardening in the ground. Gardening nine stories up sure is harder than gardening at ground level.

It may be that I don’t have watering down. I've always heard that plants aren’t supposed to be watered until the soil feels dry an inch down. But when several hot days have passed and the soil still feels moist but leaves are turning brown at the edges, I get nervous and water. Plus, annuals need fertilizing, and the man at the plant shop sold me a liquid fertilizer.

Maybe I’ve overwatered, but then it seems the plants look better after a rainfall, so maybe I’ve underwatered.

Should I have to think about this so much when the planter boxes have drainage holes?

It’s too problematic for something that’s supposed to be a pleasure.

Meanwhile, the perennials in containers on the balcony floor are doing well with little attention. The hostas, spiderwort, and day lilies already survived one winter in a container wrapped in bubble wrap and covered with a clear tarp, so I’m hopeful that they and the cold-hardy perennials planted this year will come through.

I won't use perennials in the railing planters, though, because it would be hard to cover them for the winter. Anything planted there shouldn't be expected to survive in the cold.

Just like last year at this time, my thoughts are turning to next year. What’s made for blowing in the wind? An ornamental grass — maybe with sweet potato vines trailing down the edges of the boxes. That should look pleasing even if not as dramatic as a cascade of flowers.

Midway through the gardening season, the point now is not how the planters look but discovering what will grow. If I can keep thinking "experiment, learning, not appearance," maybe it won’t matter if grass doesn’t prove the solution next year. After all, once I find what will make it up here without fuss, what will there be left to do but sit back and enjoy?

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    How is the drainage in your container? Sounds like that's probably a big part of the problem. Plant roots need oxygen. Without it, they will die. Soil that isn't allowed to dry out will not contain enough oxygen for them (ironically, this is why they look good after a rain, they get a little O2 boost from the rain water. I think you might want to consider using something like backing peanuts in your container bottom. For drainage. Also, drill a few more holes in the bottom of it. When your soil has been wet for several days, give the plants a tiny shot of hydrogen peroxide diluted in water (like a TBS H2O2 to a half gallon water). This will help get oxygen to the roots right away. But do try to increase drainage so your plants aren't sitting in wet soil all the time.

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    *packing peanuts.

  • Thanks for taking the time to advise me. Your diagnosis makes sense. Before I planted this year, I poured a lot of water into the containers to make sure they drained -- but they may not be draining well enough. Before I plant next year, I will take your advice.

  • Lyndsey, I thought I'd show you the railing planters I have:
    They have a reservoir, but a piece on the bottom can be opened for drainage, and I have it open. The planting depth is only six inches, but maybe I could put a layer of packing peanuts above the reservoir.

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    Sorry for the delay. I meant to check back to see if you had replied sooner, but life gets busy often. :-)

    Sometimes different soil types struggle to drain as well. If you worry you don't have enough room for packing peanuts, an inch or so of pea gravel or sand can work as well, but it is a little heavier to life/hang.

    Something you can try on the off season- fill the pot like you would when a plant would be in it. Water as you would for a day or two and then leave it unwatered for a full day. Then dig it up and see how wet the stuff at the bottom is. If it's more than damp then it is a drainage issue, if it doesn't seem soggy then my diagnosis may be incorrect. Some potted plants struggle with root temps, too. A digital meat thermometer can help determine if the soil is getting too hot. You can Google the ideal soil temp for particular plants.

    I hope you're able to work it out. Those planters look really pretty and I think they would be very enjoyable if they will work for you.

    Another option is those metal planters with the coconut mesh stuff. Those drain GREAT. Lol.

  • Hi again, Lindsey. Thanks for taking such an interest. After your diagnosis, I felt pretty sure that the problem was root rot from too-wet potting mix. The planters have a reservoir at the bottom that doesn't drain till it overflows, so there's probably water in the bottom of the planters. But there's supposed to be — that's the "self-watering" feature. The webpage doesn't say you shouldn't water at all but that you don't have to water as often with these planters. I wrote customer service for better watering instructions. Specific instructions didn't come, but I was told that I probably was overwatering, and the customer service rep is sending me a watering meter.

    That's not going to solve the problem when there's an extended rainy period, but I've been keeping notes on what plants are doing OK. I recently planted a couple of sweet potato vines, which so far are doing well, so I'm thinking of planting them next year along the edges with an ornamental grass in the center.

    I would like to keep the planters — they have proven very sturdy in high winds, which obviously is a concern nine stories up.

    Anyway, thank you for being so interested. I can let you know next year how things go in the container garden.

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