In Planting, Five Points to Ponder.

    Note: This article is the same one posted under "Planting" on the "Home Page".

So, you want to plant, right? Great, because now is the time to think about it and answer some questions for yourself. We are now on daylight savings' time and real spring is almost at our door. So, sure we all want to do some planting. But, before you grab your checkbook and head for the nearest garden center, take a little time out to consider... Why, When, Where, What, and How.

Why We Plant

We plant to improve and change our existing landscape grounds. By thoughtfully managing the space we have to work with, we can designate areas for privacy, recreation, food production, beautification. We can personalize chosen areas with our own design ideas and plant choices. We may plant to attract birds, butterflies, wildlife, and beneficial insects. We can put in companions for other plants.

We plant for sensory stimulation from color, fragrance, texture, etc. Some of us plant for the primal pleasure that comes from making a connection with our earth. We can plant for shade, or a windbreak, or for wood and forest products. We can plant to rejuvenate soil health, to conserve our natural resources, and we can plant just to enhance our sense of physical and mental well being. We may plant for ceremony or out of tradition. We may plant for environmental or community stewardship. Some plant for employment or industry or research.

There are a variety of therapies that use planting and subsequent care to extraordinary societal and personal success. And, of course, there is art -- photography, painting, sculpture, and satisfying the inner artist in us all. Ask yourself why you plant. Insist on answers.

When We Plant

Spring is generally a very good time to plant many things. What is most important is the proper follow up maintenance program to guarantee success throughout the season and into the following year. Yes, bedding plants and tender vegetables usually go into the ground by early June. Perennials can go into the ground as early as possible in spring. Plant trees and shrubs early, too, while still dormant and they'll fare just fine. The most important requirement is sufficient moisture. You cannot rely on rainfall unless you monitor it closely and supplement it when it is inadequate. Newly planted trees and shrubs require between one and two inches of water a week until the ground freezes in late fall or winter.

For substantial tree and shrub investments, fall planting offers more advantages. Temperatures begin getting cooler, not warmer. Precipitation becomes more regular. Weed seeds are not germinating. Many plant pests are no longer active. There is a greater opportunity for roots to become well established over the winter since the above ground portions are not stressed to produce new growth because they go dormant. The roots will continue to grow until the ground is frozen.

Where We Plant

Suit the plant to the site and not vice versa. Look up and all around. Your choice of plant, tree or shrub should flourish with the amount of light it will receive in the planned location. Look down. How well drained is the soil in the chosen spot. Go out after a considerable rainfall for the next few days. Is the soil still soggy or is it drying as it ought to when compared to other areas? I know a Professor at Cornell U. , Donald Rakow, who actually recommends an analysis of the planting site that includes digging a 5-6 feet deep hole or to the hardpan layer, filling the hole with water and monitoring the drainage. If it takes more than a day to drain down, consider the site only for plants suited to that condition. If you're investing a large sum of money, it makes sense to me.

Take a few random soil samples from a depth of six inches from around the area you might expect the root zone of your plant candidate to be. If you are planning an herb garden and the soil pH is 5.6, you would be better off considering a raised bed with imported soil with a more alkaline pH near 7.0. This would be a rare instance where you would try to adapt the site to the plants. One should not even think of doing this with expensive, long lived specimen trees. If I were to plant a favorite of mine, River Birch (Betula nigra), I'd first know it will attain its best development in moist, fertile soils, pH 6.5 or lower. I'd also know it can spread 40 to 60 feet and reach 70 to 90 feet in height at maturity (30-40 feet in twenty years). I'd know everything I could about the site. Is it windy? How much sunlight does it get a day?

What We Plant

What we plant naturally follows in large part from your answers to "why?" and "where?". Taking notes up to this point puts you way ahead of the curve. No one is closer to your aesthetic sensibilities. With the internet, hundreds of excellent publications available, and most libraries being on-line, your search within your choice parameters will be relatively easy, if a little time consuming. Look for the blossoms, architecture, fall leaf color, fruit persistence, all the elements you desire. Good quality photographs are out there.

There are two "what?" elements that I would like you to attach to your choices, once you've narrowed your decisions. First, look for cultivars that possess high degrees of pest and disease resistance, as well as stress tolerance. These selections will require lower maintenance, have fewer structural problems, and be least bothered by occasional drought or excess moisture. Second, limit selections to hardiness zone 4 unless you're willing to provide extra protection or tolerate some loss to winter kill in some years. We have in rare winters seen zone 3 conditions.

How We Plant

How we plant is the final part of the equation to success. Let's assume all the elements are in place. Plants of known good quality have been purchased from reputable dealers. Planting annuals and perennials is similar to all other planting including houseplants, trees and shrubs. Sufficient moisture is the common need for all. The old saw still rules: Plant a $5 plant in a $50 hole in a $50 location. Dig the planting hole at least three times as wide as the root mass and as deep. Slope the sides to the bottom of the hole to accommodate the root ball comfortably. Most root growth should be horizontal and fairly shallow, parallel to the soil surface.

Great care must be taken at time of planting to be sure all roots near the surface are covered with soil and slightly above the soil grade. If the root mass goes too deep, replace some of the native soil back into the hole. Backfill the hole with the same soil. Carefully work the soil around the root mass to eliminate air pockets. Water while backfilling. I use a rounded end broom sick to work soil around the root mass.

When finished planting, step back and see if the tree or shrub is planted slightly shallow with the top inch or two just barely above the surrounding soil grade. Not to worry. This portion will soon be completely protected and covered by two to three inches of mulch. Use any remaining soil to form a berm around the perimeter of the planting hole. Water thoroughly one more time. Place mulch (I like pine needles, but straw, bark chips, shredded leaves are all fine) 2 to 3 inches deep over the area to the berm. Leave 2 to 3 inches spacing around the truck or stems to safeguard against vole damage. No fertilizer is required. No staking is necessary unless the plant is top heavy or in an exposed site.

Voila! You have successfully installed your choices at the best time of the year, in the most appropriate place, to suit your desires. Install a rain gauge, plain or fancy, open to the sky, and check it after each event. Supplement water if necessary. There's your maintenance program. Congratulations!


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on April 16, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.