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Pampered Plants

by Roberta McReynolds

Last year I clipped an idea from a magazine that sounded intriguing and I wanted to try someday. I felt was good enough to pass along to the garden club newsletter editor. It was so interesting, in fact, I actually followed through and gave it a try.

Many of my outdoor plants are in containers. They are easier to keep weed-free and I can move them around as the mood strikes me. However, during the summer months the flower pots dry out quickly. Some of the plants can’t survive if I forget to water them each day.

One solution to keeping the soil from drying out so fast can be located right down the aisle of the grocery store in the baby section: disposable diapers. The mysterious stuff that wicks away moisture to keep babies dry can also retain water and release it slowly as the soil dries out. Instead of the water running out the bottom of the pot, it gets stored in the granules until the plant needs it.

I purchased a package of diapers and began my search for magic granules. I grabbed a pair of scissors and, like a surgeon, decided where to make my incision. I went for the center of the crotch, assuming it was the logical place.

My previous practical diaper experience, decades ago, involved the cloth variety. Disposable diapers are not something which I’m familiar with at all. I dug around the layers, releasing tiny bits of cottony fluff into the air. I turned the diaper upside down and shook it: no magic granules. I began to wonder if this diaper was a dud. I probed and groped all over, finally realizing I had attacked the product from the wrong side. The secret to keeping a baby dry is drawing the moisture through the cotton and away form . . . um . . . the source. The granules are on the other side of the cotton next to the outside leak-proof layer of plastic.

I reversed the diaper and cut through the outside. Voila! Now when I turned the diaper over and gave it a shake, magic granules rained down on the newspaper I had spread out. They were small and looked a bit like table salt, only coarser, and there weren’t very many of them. I split open three more diapers and looked at the tiny pile of granules, wondering how many landfills would I fill with ruined disposable diapers just to keep my plants moist?

Fortunately I had read in a separate newspaper article that when adding these granules to the soil, one needs to follow directions on the package exactly. (Oh, did I forget to mention you can apparently buy this stuff ready to use? Now, I ask you, where is the fun and adventure in that?) The story stated that if you are supposed to add one teaspoon per a specified volume of soil, don’t dare use more, because when the granules absorb water and expand, the poor plant can be pushed right out the top of the container.

I decided I’d better see how much expansion actually took place. I put a pinch in a bowl and added water. Within seconds the water was gone and the crystals had transformed into weird gel-like lumps many times their original size. I added more water and the granules drank that up, too. I was thrilled. Since I didn’t have "directions" for how much to add to the soil (funny how the diaper manufacturer didn’t foresee this need), I worked out a plan. I would hydrate the granules before mixing them in the soil so I would know the volume when transplanting. I slit open a few more diapers and was ready to go to work.

Many of my plants (okay – all of them) needed to be repotted anyway. Some had weeds (I said containers were easier to weed, not weed-proof!) and all were root-bound. Granules were hydrated and mixed with potting soil. As I removed my plants from their pots I promised them it would only hurt for a little while and then things would be better. It helps, you know, to talk to your plants and explain what you are doing. My grandmother always swore by that method.

I finished quite a few containers and the plants survived the process. I still have plenty of diapers leftover to keep me in business when I get around to the rest of the pots. One package of 30 "Cruiser" size diapers will be more than I need to finish the job. That particular size was selected, by the way, based on logic. Wouldn’t a toddler need a larger supply of magic granules than a newborn?

I figured the plants couldn’t be any worse off than before my experiment, but the true test of success arrived with hot summer temperatures. This year the area where I live has experienced a hotter-than-normal summer. Those containers I didn’t finish repotting have suffered in the heat. The plants with the absorbent granules have done very well, even when I neglect watering once in a while. I believe they are thankful for being pampered.

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