My EarthBoxes Stay Too Wet. What Should I Do?


“I have a problem with my EarthBoxes (self-watering containers) staying too wet. I need better drainage. Which of your products would you suggest I try?  Thanks!” Question from Larry of Mooresville, Indiana

Answer: There are several things that you can do to fix this problem. First, remove all of the old potting mix from the boxes, and make sure that the self-watering system and holes are free and clear. It is not uncommon for them to get plugged up with soil and roots over time. Next, choose a very fast-draining potting mix. I suggest using Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix and boosting its drainage with added Black Gold Perlite. Consider four parts potting mix to one part perlite. Finally, be sure not to overwater the boxes. Allow them to dry somewhat between watering. I hope that these tips help!

Happy Gardening!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Soil Matters to Lavender


Distinguished by long thin wand-like flower stems, English lavender is the hardiest of them all.

The Serenity Prayer asks us to “accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, with the wisdom to know the difference.”  If you’ve tried growing lavender with little success, maybe it’s time to identify what you can change to make this year’s garden a fragrant bee filled blend of drought-resistant lavenders for landscaping. It only takes a little wisdom to make a difference.

french lavender
French lavender is the commercially grown species popular throughout southern Europe.


Lavender comes from Europe where it has been grown in the South of France since Roman times.  There, the Mediterranean climate mirrors that of California where winters are wet and mild with long dry seasons extending from May to as late as December. These plants are naturally adapted to loose friable soils, sandy loam and fill soils that don’t pack down.  In areas with persistent humidity, extensive summer rain, and dense acid soils, lavenders languish.

A Need for Porous Ground

Naturally, fast-draining soils ensure the roots are exposed to plenty of oxygen during the growing season, and if irrigated or rain falls, it moves in and out of the root zone quickly.  Such porous ground, particularly on a south-facing slope, helps to counteract the slow soil surface evaporation caused by humid climates with stagnant air.

spanish lavender
Larger flowers and a shorter stature define the heat-tolerant Spanish lavender.

In northern California where rainfall can be very heavy in winter and soils are dense and extremely rich, lavender struggles despite its preference for the climate.  Fields now growing commercial lavender are plowed into mounded rows well above grade to enhance drainage and keep the root zone sufficiently aerated.

Amending Soil

Fortunately, the soil is among the things we can change by adding amendments that open its structure.  Prepare the natural soil by blending it with pumice and Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.  Use this enhanced mix to raise up the soil surface so the crown or base of the stem of the plant is above the surrounding grade.  This is also a good way to create soils that are perfect for rocky outcrops and raised beds where lavender thrives.

In San Francisco where conditions are cool and damp, growers prefer to mulch their lavenders with minerals such as washed sand or decorative gravel that help reflect heat back onto the plant. This porous material also creates a dry barrier between damp soil and the plant foliage to discourage mold.

Choosing a Lavender

All three species have yielded endless horticultural varieties to choose from.

Before you select a lavender for marginal areas, consult a local expert to find the best species and or variety to match your microclimate and soil conditions.  They vary in cold hardiness, size, and color from the cold-tolerant English lavender to a Spanish lavender to fill that super hot spot.  And for those romantics who love the notion of true French lavender in the garden, these plants will be the genesis of homemade tinctures, fragrant waters, sachets, potpourri, soap and a wide range of natural herbal cosmetics.

Once you know what to plant, select a sun-filled area and improve the soil for drainage, then plant in spring so there’s plenty of time to adapt your ground before the summer heat and fragrant flowers to come.

Landscape Lessons from a Fremontia

fremontia blossom
Different flannelbush species are endemic to different California climate zones, from the West Coast foothills to the eastern mountain ranges.

For almost twenty years I lived on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada where the flora was rich in the most outstanding native flowering shrub species for drought resistant landscapes. The most valuable observation was seeing where they chose to grow in the wild.  When you study the habitat of any plant closely enough, you learn exactly what it wants, and the conditions it prefers in your yard, too. Continue reading “Landscape Lessons from a Fremontia”

Fast-Draining Soil for Succulents

Potted Specimens - Fast Draining Soil for Succulents
This succulent collection features inspiring examples of plant and pot compositions

“Water applied must drain through the soil in fifteen seconds. If it fails to do so, the soil is too dense.” Such advice came to me decades ago from an old school nurseryman who specialized in cacti and succulents. Back then I thought this fifteen second law regarding fast-draining soil for succulents was ridiculous. After moving to the desert I learned what native cactus ground looks like. Water applied instantly vanishes into the soil. The nurseryman was right.

Today about half my collection of succulent plants are grown in small pots that come into an unheated south facing greenhouse for the winter. They are planted in Black Gold Cactus Mix, which drains within the fifteen second rule.

Soil is Everything

What many new succulent gardeners fail to understand is that, because cacti root differently, soil is everything. Standard plants go deep to catch ground moisture after the surface soil dries out. In the desert, cacti adapt to short periods of rainfall by spreading out shallow roots over a large area. These roots are capable of rapidly taking up water before it water drains through porous ground. This water is immediately stored in a succulent’s specialized tissues that hold it between widely spaced rain events. Shallow rooting is the reason why most cacti do best in low, wide pots, pans and bowls with large, open drain holes.

Succulent Pot - Fast Draining Soil for Succulents
This low, wide pot allows for plenty of surface root development beneath the surface gravel.

Cactus potting soil contains perlite, which looks like little white pieces of popcorn. While it is excellent for a root zone, it floats to the surface when I water. This and little bits of organic matter become entangled in the spines or settle in nooks and crannies of smooth surface skin. This is not only unsightly, it brings soil born bacteria in direct contact with the plant skin which may begin the rotting process.

To control these floaters, succulent aficionados apply a layer of fine gravel on top of the potting soil to keep it all in place when water is applied. White rock is popular for modern style containers with a more graphic look. I prefer washed gravel because it’s more naturalistic and blends with the rocks I find on walks to use as an accent stone. You can also use aquarium gravel for more unusual or brightly colored composition of succulent, pot and surface material.

Transplant Gently

Even the smallest damage to the skin of a plant can allow pathogens to enter and begin the process of internal cell damage which leads to softening rot. When transplanting cacti, I handle each plant carefully to avoid the slightest damage. Once removed from the original pot, I do not replant immediately but allow it to sit bare root in the open air for a few days. This lets any damaged roots or skin heal over or callus before repotting in new soil. Failing to do so brings soil pathogens into direct contact with a wound, which inevitably infects internal tissues.

When your soil is sufficiently well drained for cacti and gorgeous succulents, it becomes downright difficult to over water them. The warmer months of summer are their rapid growing season. During this growing season, water often, feed modestly, and above all, make sure you use Black Gold Cactus Mix to be sure it drains in about fifteen seconds.

Better Results All Season Long with Black Gold®

Black Gold All Purpose with Multicote Potting SoilWith the advent of Black Gold® All Purpose, you are now able to enjoy the benefits of a premium quality potting soil with a fertilizer that will feed your plants for up to six months. Sun Gro sells this same fertilizer product to professional growers. By incorporating Multicote® into your potting soil, your plants will have a consistent supply of nutrients throughout the entire season.

Multicote®, a controlled release fertilizer, has been coated with a polymer that slowly breaks down to release the nutrients over time. Unlike other controlled release fertilizers in the marketplace, Multicote® will not release excessive nutrients in higher temperatures, thus ensuring your plant will thrive no matter what the weather. This baseline of fertilizer allows your plants to grow all season long, not just when you remember to fertilize. Additional fertilizations with a liquid fertilizer, starting a couple weeks after planting, will ensure your plants get all the nutrients they need, particularly if your plants are heavy feeders.

Ideal for all types of plants, Black Gold® All Purpose with Multicote® is a great choice for house plants, patio containers and hanging baskets. Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss with earthworm castings, forest humus, compost and pumice combine to provide your plants with both moisture retention and good drainage. Since this potting soil has a higher amount of peat moss, it is ideal for gardeners looking to reduce their fertilizer and water usage.

Think of all the benefits – you start with a premium potting soil; add a controlled release fertilizer that will lessen the frequency of fertilizing; and you get improved plant performance by using Black Gold® All Purpose Potting Soil with Multicote®.