Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best Planting Tip I Ever Received



This spring my wife and I started to convert the expanse of lawn around our newly purchased ranch house into gardens.  While we focus on renovating the insides of the house, the focus for our garden is its infrastructure and bones.  To that end, we’ve been smothering several hundred square feet of lawn under cardboard, newspapers, and compost; planting young shrubs to create screens; carefully carving specimens out of overgrown trees; and generally preparing the soil for future garden spaces.  Last week we installed several hundred perennials and grasses on the side of our house.  During that planting, I remembered the best planting advice I’ve ever received.

This advice came to me by way of a representative from Monrovia Nursery.  Monrovia is one of the sleeker national nurseries with big ad budgets and relentless branding strategies.  While I’m typically turned-off by glossy national nurseries and their patented plants, I must admit that Monrovia knows their stuff when it comes to installing plants.

A root bound container plant. Image from Virginia Cooperative Extension
The advice focused on techniques of installing container plants.  The big problem with container plants is that they get root bound.  Roots naturally grow out and down (mostly out) away from the plant.  When the roots of a plant in a pot reaches the wall of a pot, it has nowhere to go and will begin circling the perimeter of a pot over and over again.  Almost any gardener who has brought home a new plant from a nursery has seen how a container plant can get root bound.  It’s best to avoid plants in this condition, but often gardeners don’t have that option.

Roots of a Panicum plug.
Direct them away from the
plant before planting.
I had known how to direct the roots away from the plant using a root hook, or by scoring the sides of the roots with a sharp blade.  However, what I did not realize was that root bound plants often become so dense, they will not absorb water.  The density of tangled roots in a container plant can make the plant hydrophobic—it literally sheds water.  Think about a dry sponge.  When you first stick it under the faucet, water bounces off of it.  So if you simply place that root bound plant in the ground and water it, water will more than likely run off the root ball and move toward the less dense soil around it.  Even if you water it, the plant may not be getting the water.

How do you deal with this problem?  The idea is to soak the plant for several minutes in water prior to planting.  When you plant, fill up a large bucket with water--preferably rainwater since it does not have any of the chlorine or other chemicals of municipal water.  Take the plant out of its pot and gently pull any encircled roots away from the plants.  Then set the root ball in the bucket of water.  Let it soak for anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes—or until air bubbles stop coming out of it.  This deep hydration actually reverses the plant’s hydrophobia.  When you install a sopping wet root ball into the ground, the dry soil around it actually clings to the root ball by osmosis, creating a better soil to root contact.  This technique is especially good for container trees.  If the plant is that large, consider filling a wheel barrow full of water. 

Here I'm soaking the Panicum
in compost tea prior to planting.
Want to really baby that plant?  Here’s my own little spin on this trick: soak the root ball in a bucket of freshly brewed compost tea.  Compost tea is essentially compost-brewed water that is aerated for 24 hours and mixed with a bit of molasses (or other sugar).  Compost tea takes the beneficial bacteria and fungus present in compost increases them exponentially by aeration and sugars.  These bacteria and fungus are critical in root establishment.  Soaking your new plant in compost tea literally loads the root ball with beneficial soil microorganisms right before it gets planted.  More on compost tea later.

Next time you plant, have a bucket of rainwater or compost tea by your side.  I promise, you’ll notice a difference.

34 comments:

  1. I've been installing landscapes professionally for over 15 years, so I never thought someone could teach me something new about installation. However, this tip makes great sense. I imagine a significant portion of plants that don't live are because they are too root bound and can't absorb water. I'm going to give this tip a try. Thanks!

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  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for the comment. Definitely try it out. I've been doing it for the last year, and I think it makes a difference. Let me know what you think.

    Thomas

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  3. Wow...wish I had thought of that last year! I bought a bunch of Pennisetum that were the most root-bound plants I've ever seen...spent hours loosening up the roots after having to literally cut them out of the pots.

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  4. Hi Scott,

    Yeah grasses seem especially bad for getting pot-bound. I've had similar experiences. It's one of the reasons I like to get them as quarts or even plugs. Of course, they do take longer to get established, but you don't have the rooting issues.

    Thomas

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  5. You can add to this step by examining what medium your plant is growing in. Nowadays, many plants are rooted in chunky, bark-like, soilless stuff. It helps to try to shake as much of this stuff out of the rootball so that the roots come into better contact with more moisture-retentive soil.

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  6. What a great suggestion! Thanks for the information!

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  7. Add molasses or another sugar to your compost tea?! I've never heard this. Do tell me more...
    Ailsa

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    1. Bacteria feeds on sugars, therefor multiplying the amount of helpful little guys inside your roots.

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  8. That's an excellent idea-- a matter-of-course for bare root plants, but never thought of it for potbound ones. If you don't have rainwater you can let a container of tap/hose water sit for 24 hours--the chlorine dissipates. I do that all the time for my houseplants.

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  9. Great tip. Really good information. Something we should all remember. Thanks.~~Dee

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  10. Thank you - I did not know this and have often been sold root bound plants! Going to be doing this to all plants I plant from now on.

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  11. I like to soak the root balls with a liquid seaweed/water mixture before planting as a natural root stimulator. I teach my clients this trick and tell them, when the bubbles stop, you're ready to plant.

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  12. great article Manure Tea, Compost Tea, Seaweed the more we share with growers, gardeners the benefits of gardening natural the less they will turn to chemical fertilizers. Like using vinegar as a weed killer...

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    1. Vinegar as a weed killer? Do you mix it with water or straight? Never heard of this.

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  13. This is one of the best tips I have heard of in a long time. And it makes sense to me too! I will share this with my customers.

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  14. this is the best ever tip-TY

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  15. This is a great tip. Thanks!

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  16. great information :), have been doing this for years & it works. Also, soaking some of your garden seeds before planting (ex. peas)

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  17. I work in a Lowe's garden center and the plants are root bound when we get them. I will pass this tidbit along to our customers.I try to talk to them about more natural planting and taking care of the soil, but a lot of people just don't want to hear it. Especially the systemic fertilizers/bug killers. I realized what it has to be doing to bees, butterflies, humming birds, any creature that eats the nectar of the plants that this stuff is used on. So I try to talk to them and make them realize that they are killing our environment with this stuff. Some listen a lot don't.

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    1. I work at Lowe's garden center as Nursery Specialist. I am printing this out for hand outs. Great Info!

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  18. for my house plants I just add chlorine remover to my water that I put in my aquarium .

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    1. The water from your aquarium is a terrific fertilizer as well. We water our houseplants with aquarium water only. When it is time for large water changes our gardens get the "waste". All the things that poison your fish/amphibians (Nitrate, Nitrite and Ammonia) are awesome fertilizer:) Not to mention the water doesn't end up in the sewer treatment plant.

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  19. Took two years of Organic Gardening and did not know this! I win money and lots of ribbons at the fair every year. This year with this tip I will win more!! Thank you for the tip!!

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  20. I have also found that by adding coffee grounds into the bottom of the hole and mixing with the soil before adding the soaked plant. The grounds hold the water and will break up a clay soil.

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  21. I've been doing this for years--works great never thought about using compost tea--learn something new every day! thanks

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  22. I always break up roots and soak plants in my fishpond which grows algae. I water with pond water as much as possible, then top off the pond with fresh water. You can see the results almost immediately. If we drain the pond to clean it, I run a hose into flower beds. WOW; what a difference it makes.

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  23. Wow, good stuff! I'm still somewhat of a novice gardener..but absolutely going to try these great tips! Come on Spring:)

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  24. Another effective trick is to add a drop or two off liquid soap, (like Basic H) to the soak water. It seems to help the roots absorb the water.

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    1. Awww, just the suggestion I was going to post!!! That works especially well if you have a dried out hanging plant that the water runs right through.....soak the whole pot in a pail or container with water and a couple drops of Basic H. (I have used dish soap in a pinch)

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  25. Another way to soften your water is to use a bit of apple cider vinegar to a gallon. It helps plants absorb nutrients and has trace minerals in it.

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  26. I have a worm farm and I also have worm "tea". Can the tea be used in place of the compost tea?

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  27. I was planting next to a small pond (I built) and came across one plant that was so root bound I wasn't sure about planting it. What the heck, I tossed the pot aside and threw the plant into the freshwater pond. I dug my hole, went to get the plant and by golly, the bound-up roots were loose and pliable. Hooray! It was a matter of "nothing gained, nothing lost"!
    The plant was happy to be able to spread it's roots! Still growing a year later!

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  28. I have soaked my plants prior to planting, for a few years now. I soak them in a weak solution of transplanting fertilizer, works great for me.

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