Who doesn’t like to have a patch of green in or around their home? A small garden outside the house or plants on the balcony or patio can be cheery and uplifting. Studies have shown that growing plants inside a house has several health benefits. But with homes becoming smaller and smaller, the question is: where’s the space for this salubrious greenery?
One way to get around this modern-day obstacle is hanging baskets. A popular trend in the 1970s, hangings baskets are gaining traction again, thanks to their many advantages. For starters, they are the perfect solution for soil-less balconies and small urban gardens where space is a constraint. You can alter a dull view from a window by cleverly placing baskets with eye-popping seasonal flowers, if the window gets the winter sun, or with lush greens, if there is shade. In large gardens, flowering baskets suspended from bare branches can add some drama to a tree that sheds in winter.
These baskets when placed at eye level work well for windows. Otherwise, they can be suspended from wrought-iron brackets or rawlplugs in concrete or brick overhangs. I have designed tall metal spikes with arms for baskets to hook on to. The spikes end in prongs, like the tines of a giant fork, and can be pressed into the earth for stability. They are very versatile and can be placed anywhere to uplift a dull corner or a bald patch of lawn.
While baskets have certain advantages over ground planting, in that they do not require weeding and are safe from field rats or visiting cats, there are two aspects where greater care is required. Because they are suspended, baskets get windblown, dry out quickly and, thus, need daily watering. This makes nutrients leach out, so a regular feed must be incorporated during growing and flowering season.
With the increasing popularity of hydroponics, a variety of polymer gels are available online that can reduce the need for daily watering. But these are fairly expensive. I simply add chopped-up bits of sponge, like florists use in their wire basket bouquets. This is fairly successful in retaining moisture, besides being far more cost effective. If the soil shrinks inwards from the edges of the basket and the leaves look limp, a quick remedy is to leave the basket submerged in a bucket of water for five minutes. You will also need to prod the soil if it is too clayey, and it may require some reworking.
Regular feeding for seasonal flowers is simple and a variety of liquid manures are available online. I make an organic sherbet and its ingredients can be sourced from any large nursery. I soak fresh cow dung with sarson ka phalli (mustard cake formed from the residue of the pods when oil is pressed), and add a few spoons of bone meal into the slurry. This is left to decompose in a covered drum for at least a month. Half a mug of this concoction is dissolved into a standard watering can. It is slightly odorous, but it helps to produce healthy plants with profuse flowering.
Hanging baskets with trailing flowers are the most popular. Beginners can start with some seasonal flowers that are especially easy to grow, such as petunias. A humus-rich compost added in the potting mix will ensure that they bloom profusely. I get about 50 flowers of the Bravo variety at a time. Since petunias germinate in slightly cooler temperatures, it is best to buy ready seedlings from a nursery that gets its supply from the hills. If you are keen to germinate your own seeds, you will need to do that in a tray, and transplant them into the basket when the true leaves appear on the seedlings.
For a novice gardener, I recommend a Nasturtium Jewel mix, with its beautiful ivory and green variegated leaves, for seed germination. The young leaves can be picked and thrown into salads as a peppery addition. The fruit can be pickled in brine and vinegar and tastes a bit like capers. Pelargoniums also trail well, as do fuchsias and begonias, especially in hill stations.
While most people prefer a single type of flower, variegated leaves and multiple flowers planted together make for an interesting mix. It is best to plant the main flower, such as geranium and variegated ivy, in the centre and the others, such as lobelia and verbena, towards the edges. It is possible to produce a new and interesting mix every season. For a mixed plantation, a larger size basket, at least 12-14 inches in diameter, is preferred.
Baskets can be fashioned out of many things, starting from coconut shell halves for succulents and orchids, to giant wrought-iron spheres, which can go up to three feet in diameter. The latter are made to order and can be quite a conversation piece. They should ideally be planted with ferns and succulents. These baskets require diffused light in a shaded area, regular misting especially for the ferns, a good potting mix, and a spray of fungicide for the succulents. Very large baskets get ultra-heavy when watered. One solution to reduce weight is to fill the centre of the sphere with polystyrene chips. Suspension chains and brackets should be reinforced. Succulents such as sedums, jade, kalanchoes, the trailing string of pearls, string of hearts and nickels cascade over the edges of the baskets in a short time. The trailing strings are temperature sensitive and not very suited to harsh extremes such as in Delhi.
Ferns, when grouped together and misted, draw moisture in one another’s company. Some interesting varieties include rabbit’s foot, Polypodium, golden and sword. While stag horn fern in a kokedama (a Japanese moss ball) is for the ambitious gardener, it is very fashionable. It is possible to get quite inventive through trial and error. I have made holes around the circumference of an ordinary matka with a screwdriver, planted in the holes and suspended this from a macramé holder.
I am going to suggest some simple DIY steps to make your own hanging basket.
- One 12-14 inch metal wire basket with metal chains (these have a longer life than plastic ones and the air circulation for roots is much better). Never buy plastic supports as they snap in the heat.
- 250 gm (dry) moss, a basket liner in a breathable but waterproof fabric such as garden netting or reconstituted coir lining, a thin plastic packet to cut open and use as an inner layer, and some sponge bits cut into two inch pieces.
- Good quality potting mix and a suitable plant or companion plants.
- Soak the moss in a bucket of water so that it swells and expands. Place the basket comfortably on an empty pot to form a steady base. Cut several one-inch holes in the plastic packet – this ensures the moisture is retained. Place the basket liner in the basket. If you are going for side planting, like kalanchoe or petunia with lobelia and ivy, snip holes in the liner large enough to insert the young plant comfortably from the sides as well.
- Reserve some of the moss for encasing the top, mix some into the soil with the sponge, and place some in a thin layer above the liner but below the packet.
- Now remove the plant from the pot and place it in the centre. Pack it firmly with the prepared soil.
- Next, place the trailing plants at the side. Pack in more soil, and pat down with the wet moss, which can be secured with a bit of string.
- Water well. Watch it at ground level for a couple of days before suspending it. In two weeks you should see new leaves, and perhaps flowers too.