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Simple steps can boost perennial survival

— A couple weeks ago my wife and I took advantage of the beautiful late winter weather that we were having and planted some container plants in our garden. This is in a bed that we started renovating last fall. It was the first perennial bed that we planted in our yard many years ago and it had turned into a hodgepodge of plants that we thought might be interesting. The problem was that there was no order in the bed and it lacked unity.

We moved some plants, threw away some plants and added some plants. Our goal was to pull the bed together with multiple plants of the same species, add interest through varying leaf texture and pay close attention to plant height and color so that the bed will be both attractive and harmonious.

I always enjoy planting because of the potential that is inherent in a new plant. To me it is exciting to see how it will grow, what it will become, how it will enrich the overall landscape and setting. But the first step is always to transplant it successfully.

Prior to planting it is always a good idea to hydrate the roots or root ball. Soaking the root ball or bare roots in a bath of warm water will make sure that the plant has plenty of moisture to get it started well. It’s a good idea to add a little high phosphorous, low nitrogen fertilizer into the water bath according to label directions in order to stimulate the root growth. Allow the roots to soak for at least one hour.

Any soil will be improved with organic matter. If your soils are sandy, like ours, organic matter will help to improve the nutrient and water holding capacity of the soil. If you have a heavier, clay soil organic matter will reduce the potential for water logging and allow the roots to grow freely. I read somewhere that if you have $100 to enhance your landscape you should spend $90 on improving the soil and $10 on new plants. My experience over the years suggests that there is a lot of truth to this adage. Mix the organic matter heavily into the entire bed as deep as you can dig. This will make a huge difference in the success of your planting and your plants will love you for it.

Dig the hole about twice as big as the pot or the roots that will be planted. Do not take a short cut here by adding organic matter only to the hole. This will change the texture of the soil in the hole and can act as a sponge, pulling moisture into the rooting zone and potentially drowning the plant or preventing the roots from growing out of the planting hole. Organic matter should be added to the entire bed and not just the hole.

Many of the plants that we buy in containers have been grown there for some time and are root bound. This was the case for the dwarf conifers that we purchased. The roots were starting to wrap around the pot. If left undisturbed there is a high probability that these roots would continue to grow in a circle and would never grow out of the planting hole into the surrounding soil, thus weakening the plant and eventually killing it. In order to prevent this from happening I always take my shovel and cut through the root ball in a longitudinal direction cutting up to half the root ball. This forces the roots to start growing in a new direction and will help them to grow out of the planting hole.

If you are planting a bare root plant make sure to remove any broken or damaged roots. All roots should be facing down and not bent. Roots that are jammed into a hole and bent up can cause weak growth and the eventual death of the plant.

Planting is usually a two-person job. While one person holds the plant in the hole at the level that it was grown in the pot or in the nursery, the other person should back fill the hole with soil. When the hole is partially filled, tamp the soil to eliminate air pockets and stabilize the plant. At this point it’s a good idea to irrigate the plant with the nutrient rich water that you used to soak the roots of your plants. Once this water is absorbed by the soil, finish backfilling the hole and once again tamp it down. Do not allow the fertilizer water to go down the drain as the high phosphate levels in the water can cause algae blooms and other environmental disruption.

Care in planting will yield success and many years of enjoyment as you watch your new planting grow and thrive. We are anxious to see how our new planting develops over the next few years. I’m sure that there will be plants that we will want to move from one part of the bed to the other in the future, but that’s part of the fun of gardening. Our planting beds are a dynamic, evolving system that we are always trying to improve.


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