Your potted plants are (probably) thirsty

Some quick tips from our gardening expert on how to keep your potted plants alive

How to take care of potted plants
Many potted plants require a lot of water.

Photograph by iStock / Getty Images Plus

Garden Variety is an occasional column about growing plants without grief.

The best thing I’ve ever grown in a container was a Meyer lemon tree—when I lived in DeKalb County, I put fresh citrus from my own porch into my Thanksgiving recipes. I could do it because four feet away from that tree, a water faucet stuck out of the wall.

Potted plants dry out fast—and I’ve learned a gallon of water weighs eight pounds. Part of my teenage plant nursery job was helping haul hoses and nozzles, trying to keep the stock alive. My aunt used to have a part-time summer job just keeping the outdoor plants watered at a single Kroger.

So if you’re thinking of getting some new potted plants, prepare yourself for success by reading the nursery tags that say how much water and sun the plant needs. Those lush hanging baskets of ferns and pink petunias need water every day or so. For the laziest possible gardening, look for “xeriscape” choices—plants that don’t drink much.

Rosemary and other herbs that have small leaves are good starter choices for pots. Because the leaves are small, there’s less surface area that water can evaporate from.

Plenty of potted plants can even live outdoors year-round; check the tag to see if the plant is a “perennial.” Other good choices are succulents like agave and aloe that can also live for years in a pot if they’re brought inside during the winter. Meyer lemon, too.

Or, change out the pots every season. Here in the South, it’s always warm enough to have something purple or pink growing on the patio, like chrysanthemums in fall or frilly decorative kale in winter.

Keep in mind that porous terra cotta pots dry out faster than plastic, resin, or glazed ceramic ones. Direct sun also adds lots of heat—give the pot some shade by hiding it in a slightly larger pot or basket.

Go ahead and get dirt from the store too when you’re picking out your plants—it’ll have material in it that holds water. If you can find it, get some with a shredded coconut fiber called “coir.”  It’s a renewable alternative to swamp-mined peat.

My lemon tree eventually outgrew its pot and would have been too heavy to haul inside in a new pot. So I planted it in the ground. We’ll see if it lives.

These days I’m left with exactly one potted plant—a little succulent jade plant my uncle sent me. It’s small enough to hold in one hand, which is good because it needs to spend winter indoors. I haven’t watered it in a week and it’s doing just fine.

Maggie Lee has been gardening in metro Atlanta for half her life and now runs Yonder Farm, a cut flower and herb farm in Fairburn.