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Last week’s column about tabletop gardens brought a few interesting questions, mostly about caring for dish gardens we already have. So here are a few tips about that dish garden you just received as a gift, or the one that you have been struggling with for ages.

Let’s start with the name, "dish garden." It dates back ages to when a few tropical plants were placed in a ceramic dish or container. Some still do come that way. But today, while most of them come in baskets, many other containers are also in general use. And today, they are more than just a few tropical plants. The gardens can, indeed, contain only tropical plants, but we do need to consider other popular types of plants such as cactus, succulents, ferns and orchids, as well as combinations of these plants. We need to look at their needs separately, because not all of them need the same treatment.

Let’s look first at that tropical garden that came for your birthday or anniversary, or as a "get well" gift from a florist. It is pretty and a lush green, isn’t it? And you will want to keep it that way. First and foremost, try to set it in the right place. It needs light, not burning sunlight — like there is any of that around Auburn in March. Right now, on a table a few feet from a south window, or even a west one, would be ideal. That situation will probably work until mid-June, when we do get a lot of bright sunlight. When the time arrives, perhaps a north window situation would be ideal until mid- to late autumn. Putting it on a counter, in a dark corner of the room, will not work.

Just as important as light, I think it is important to know how to water your plants. Overwatering kills. While they do not like being bone dry, the tropical plants in your garden hate wet feet. As I mentioned last week, too much water will kill off the tiny rootlets that bring water into the plant. How do you know? I say by weight. Most of these gardens are only 9 to 12 inches across. Until you get used to this, let a few leaves begin to wilt so that you will know water is needed. Now, before you add anything, lift the garden. Light, isn’t it? Remember that. Now, add a cup of tepid water and after a few minutes, note the weight. After noting these weights for a few times, you will know when to water, just by lifting the garden. The systems will work with nearly every garden in your collection, no matter what the size or material it is made of.

Temperature is easy. If you are comfortable, most tabletop gardens, whether they be foliage, cactus, succulents or ferns, will be happy. Just don’t keep them next to a radiator or other heat source, or in front of an air conditioner.

There are two ways to look at feeding these gardens. Which you choose will depend on how you want it to grow. Many of us are content to keep it small, and in the original container as long as possible. In this case, the use of fertilizer should be minimal. The plants will need some, just to keep them green and healthy. Generally, half-strength every four to six weeks will do.

On the other hand, if you just cannot wait for them to grow large so that you can have them as individual specimen plants, it is time to feed them with fertilizer. I like to use something like Miracle-Gro 20-20-20. I find that half-strength solutions every other week will work. Then, when the plants outgrow the container, break them out and plant them into individual pots. I usually use a 4-inch pot. Then, as it grows and needs it, I go up a size, seldom more than 2 inches above the pot size it is in. You can build a very nice plant collection this way.

Next week, we will look at handling other types of tabletop gardens.

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Carmen Cosentino operates Cosentino's Florist with his daughter, Jessica. He was elected to the National Floriculture Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2008, received the Tommy Bright award for lifetime achievements in floral education. He can be reached at cosenti@aol.com or (315) 253-5316.

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