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How to keep your plants looking their best

Your Muddy Trowel planting kit is brimming with tough plants, the majority of which are perennials, with the aim that you find them easy to care for. Here are some simple rules of thumb to help you keep them at peak performance.

Out with old, in with the new

Firstly, by ‘old’ we don’t mean your plants, we’re talking about their flowers. The main aim of the flowers on your plants is to attract pollinating insects that result in the plant producing seeds to produce further plant children. Once seeds are produced, the plant thinks it’s done its job for the season and can take a break and stop flowering.

This is why you will need to regularly deadhead your plants. Regular as in every 3-4 days. Deadheading is the removal of the spent flower heads before they have the chance to turn into seeds. It’s often something that makes sense to do whilst you are watering your container. The exception to the deadheading rule is that you should not deadhead plants that produce fruits (containing the seeds developed from the pollinated flower), for example tomatoes. Deadheading a tomato plant will result in no delicious sweet tomatoes for you to scatter on your salad.

Many plants can be deadheaded just by pinching out the old flower heads. Fuchsias are a good example of this.

A fuchsia flower that is starting to fade and go brown at the edges
With your finger tips pinch the base of the flower stalk at the junction it joins the main stem or at the next leaf junction down on the stalk.
The fuchsia deadhead removed

Old flower heads are usually fairly easy to identify as the petals may have started to discolour, gone wrinkly or perhaps fallen off altogether. Dahlias can be tricky though and so we thought it would be useful to use Dahlia plants as an example of how you should deadhead plants with more robust stems that need cutting, but also to help you identify the difference between a deadhead on a Dahlia and a new flower bud.

Step 1: find the old flower to deadhead
Step 2: check it’s not a flower bud
Step 3: move your secateurs below the dead flower head to the next leaf junction on the same stem
Step 4: cut the stem of the dead flower head above the leaf junction and at a slight angle

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

Watering is very important for container gardening. On hot, sunny and windy days your plants may need watering twice a day. Plants that are thirsty might show you they need a drink because their leaves start to wilt. However, irritatingly, wilting leaves can also be a sign that plants are being overwatered. So, if in doubt try feeling how damp the compost is (an inch or two down from the surface). If it feels bone dry, give your plants a drink.

Some of our planting kits contain herbs that are used to Mediterranean conditions and actually prefer to be drier and enjoy heat and drought. Herbs like Thyme, Rosemary and Oregano all prefer it on the dry side. This is why we add grit to the compost for these plants to help with drainage and ensure they aren’t getting waterlogged.

Just like you need more than water to be healthy and happy, your plants are the same. Flowering is energy intensive and they need to be fed to continue to flower. At Muddy Trowel, we recommend liquid tomato feed, diluted with water according to the instructions on the bottle, given once a week to your plants. 

Direct your water to the base of the plants and the compost rather than their leaves. A common misconception is that you need to water your container until you see water emerge from the bottom of it via the drainage holes. This is a sign of using too much water and actually washes away the nutrients in the compost faster. You’ll conserve water and the nutrients for your plants better, if you water the container well, but not excessively.

If you are worried that the compost has dried out too much and isn’t retaining water at all, it’s a good idea to immerse the base of your container in a large bucket of water and let it stand for 5-10 minutes. This will give the compost a chance to absorb the water and become damp again. Take the container out and let it drain and then water regularly to avoid a repeat.

Prevention is better than cure

Here are some key things you can avoid to maintain healthy plants:

  • Avoid overhead watering, spraying the leaves with water and watering at the hottest part of the day (this can scorch the leaves).
  • Avoid leaving the container in windy or very exposed conditions where stems might be prone to snapping if unsupported
  • Avoid irregular watering as this can stress plants and lead to loss of leaves, splitting of fruits (for example tomatoes)
  • Avoid allowing them to be overrun with pests like aphids, black fly, green fly, caterpillars, snails and slugs. Use slug and snail repellents like egg shells, organic pellets, copper strips round your container or decorative gravel on the surface of your compost
  • Avoid leaving sun loving plants in the shade for prolonged periods or putting shade loving plants in direct sunshine for prolonged periods

But if you need a cure, you need a cure

Powdery mildew

Overhead watering can lead to powdery mildew which is often inherent in the soil a plant grows in, but can start to emerge when the plant is subjected to excess humidity, irregular watering and insufficient air circulation.

Powdery mildew will appear as white blotches on the leaves and if not treated can result in the loss of the plant. Spraying milk on the leaves is an effective treatment for the mildew and if you do this over a few days and leave the plants in the sunshine, it should clear up. Thinning the stems on the plant if it’s got particularly big and bushy will also help improve air circulation around the leaves.

Buglets (Aphids, black and green fly)

Aphids, black fly and green fly can be squished with your fingers or sprayed with a soapy water spray.

Aphids are sometimes farmed by ants that are drawn to their sweet and sticky secretion.

Ants in themselves don’t harm the plant but they are known to ward off natural predators of aphids, such as the ladybird. If you are finding that your plants are covered in ants and aphids, you should consider reducing the number of ants by using bait stations or ant powder, as well as dealing with the aphids.

Slimers (Snails and slugs)

Slugs and snails can also be picked off by hand. Dusk is normally a good time to check your plants for slugs and snails. Remember to check the undersides of the leaves too. You can use one of the many pesticide free solutions for slugs and snails available in garden centres or online. 

Crawlers (Caterpillars)

Caterpillars can also be picked off by hand. It’s also possible to see if butterflies have laid eggs on the underside of leaves that will hatch into caterpillars. The eggs are typically grouped together in a small patch on the leaf and can be scraped off or the leaf can be removed and disposed of entirely.

Grubblies (Vine weevils and their larvae)

Vine weevils look like black little beetles and are a sign that your plants will be putting up a fight against the larvae that stay in the compost of your container and attack the roots of your plants. The adult beetle will cut sections in your plant leaves, but this is mostly cosmetic and it’s the larvae that are more problematic for the health of your plants. 

An effective treatment against this is the use of nematodes that can be bought online and posted to you. These microscopic worms will attack the larvae and kill it quickly. Treatment is most effective in late summer and spring time and should be applied to moist soil.

A final word on insects – striking a balance

Insects play an important part in the natural world and whilst we often refer to some of them as pests, there is a balance to be struck and you need to comfortable with where you draw the line. A healthy garden with lots of wildlife can often achieve a good balance where insects are kept under control by natural predators and you don’t need to intervene. In an urban environment like London, this is harder to achieve. 

To some, the advice above, particularly where it results in the killing of insects, might seem harsh. The challenge is that your plants can’t grow legs and evade these insects. If attacked in numbers, you might lose the plant altogether. At Muddy Trowel, we want you to derive joy from your plant kits for as long as possible, but ultimately, only you can determine the level of intervention you wish to apply to this eclectic group of beasties.