How to Clean and Store Your Containers For the Winter
At the end of the summer, it’s not enough to just remove the dead plants from your containers. You should remove the potting soil and clean and sterilize your containers before using them again in the spring.
Potting soil should not be reused
It is never a good idea to reuse potting soil. It has been sitting outside all summer collecting weed seeds, insects, bacteria and mold spores, all of which can sicken or kill anything planted in it. You should discard your potting soil in the fall.
There are articles on the internet with instructions on how to sterilize your used potting soil in your oven or on your grill. Ignore them. Heat may not kill everything and the heat may not be evenly distributed throughout your soil. Some gardeners throw their potting soil into their gardens. This is also not a good idea. You are adding weed seeds, insects, bacteria and mold to your garden.
Potting soil is expensive. No one likes to just throw it out. I add it to my composter. Properly constructed compost kills all of the weed seeds and pathogens in your potting soil through the heat that is generated and the microbes that break down your compost ingredients. The added benefit is the resulting nutrient rich, organic compost that can be safely used in your garden as a mulch or fertilizer or both.
Sterilize your containers
After removing the soil from your containers and brushing out any excess, you should sterilize your pots to kill any bacteria or mold that may be clinging to the sides. Use a solution of 1 part household bleach to 9 parts water. Mix your solution in a sink or bucket that is large enough to hold the pot that you are sterilizing. You want to completely immerse it in the solution for a minimum of 10 minutes. Then rinse thoroughly.
Remove mineral deposits and salts from your containers
After you have sterilized your container, you should get rid of the mineral deposits and salts that have accumulated over the growing season. These deposits leached out from the water and fertilizer that kept your plants healthy during the growing season. Left to accumulate in the container, they can damage or kill your new plants.
Use a wire brush or steel wool to remove the deposits from your clay pots. For plastic pots, a simple scouring pad should be sufficient. Stubborn deposits can be scraped off both clay and plastic pots with a knife.
Wash your containers
The final step in preparing your containers for reuse is to wash them in soapy water and rinse thoroughly. You want not just to get them clean but also to remove any bleach residue. Bleach kills plants as well as bacteria and mold so you want your containers to be completely free of bleach before putting plants in them again. Leave your pots in the sun for a few hours to dry. This also takes advantage of the sterilizing effect of the naturally occurring ultra violet radiation.
Storing your containers
You should store your containers in a protected area if possible. Your basement, garage or garden shed are all good places to store your containers over the winter. Leaving them outside, exposed to the elements, will weather them. They won't be as attractive and won't last as many years as they would have if you had stored them inside.
Plastic pots can be stacked, but it is recommended that clay pots be stored individually. They are fragile and the weight of stacked pots could crack or even break the pots on the bottom of the stack. If you are storing your pots in an unheated shed, make sure that you clay pots are completely dry before you place them there. Any moisture left in your clay pots will expand and contract with the varying winter temperatures creating cracks or breaking your pots.
Reusing your containers every year benefits both the environment by reducing your carbon footprint and your budget by eliminating the need to purchase new containers every spring. To ensure healthy plants in your containers, clean and sterilize your containers at the end of each growing season and use new potting soil in the spring.
© 2013 Caren White
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