I’m currently working on beautifying the outdoor spaces of a houseboat – which is a first for me. It involves a number of changes, but the one thing that has been occupying my time lately is the backbreaking work of removing root bound plants from large containers and planters. I would describe much of what was there to begin with as poor choices for that location; large shrubs which invariably would blow over in the sometimes 60 mph winds that wipe the back decks clean in winter. To remedy this, the people who sold the house to the current owners had made these interesting contraptions of boards that were screwed directly into the deck, then put the pots on top, and secured them with bungee cords. Functional perhaps, but not very elegant, as you can imagine. And so much of it devoid of any logic reasoning. After removing most of it, I have three rather obvious takeaway observations to share:
- Containers with openings larger than their base will always be more likely to blow over in strong winds, than planters with a large base. (Which is why rectangular planters are so popular on houseboats – duh!)
- I understand the conundrum of weight distribution on floating homes, but seriously—don’t fill the bottom half of the pot with styrofoam. Just don’t. It makes them disproportionally top heavy, and even more prone to tipping over.
- Large shrubs and trees become windsails in exposed locations. A better choice might be swishier plants like grasses and perennials, and lower, more compact shrubs. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it, until proven wrong.
Anyway, long story short – I hired my muscly friend William to help me. Yesterday we tackled the built-in planters in the front. Cussing like sailors over the waterlogged, plastic-filled mess, we slowly and painstakingly emptied each cavity. One contained a dead Cotinus, and another a struggling Snowbell (Styrax japonica). Long skinny (a shovel blade’s width) troughs had Clematis, Hydrangeas, and other, smaller things. They all had in common that they were a bitch to remove. We persevered, and—bit by bit—out they came, their roots encased in large blocks of styrofoam. (Which makes it that much harder to reuse plants, which I had been asked to do, when possible.)
William with one of the many blocks in the Cotinus planter.
A small mountain of plastic from about half of one of the trough planters. Sheesh…
I totally get the temptation of using fillers instead of good soil—it’s cheaper, weighs less, and is endlessly easier to transport in a little cart— down the long ramp to the boardwalk below, and from there, out to your slip. It was clear that whomever had planted this, way back when, had totally opted for easy and cheap. As you probably figured out, plants don’t really thrive in styrofoam. But, since they do want to live, they brave the odds and push out those roots as best they can. The roots had grown right through the styrofoam blocks, knitting them together into larger, matted clumps. As I write this, we have one cavity left to empty (the one with the Snowbell). So far, we have removed more than three (3!!!) large garbage bags filled to the brim with styrofoam. And I have grown to loathe the squeaky sound of pitchfork penetrating plastic. I can’t wait for it to all be gone, so the fun of planting can begin!
This, my friends, is how the Cotinus died. The poor thing drowned! Just like what happens if you put rocks in the bottom of containers, styrofoam can effectively block the drainage holes. For happy plants, skip all that other stuff, and just use soil.