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When Planting, Play by the Rules

March 16, 1995|LEONARD REED

Gardens can present a multitude of vexing problems and what seem at times unreadable symptoms of bad health. What to do? First, keep heart: More often than not the underlying causes are just one or a few of the same old culprits. Then, review your own history with the plant in question. Key truths emerge.

Nursery professionals, when pressed, say the No. 1 cause of plant failure is improper watering. After that, in no particular order, the key causes of plant failure are: poor soils, poor site selection and improper fertilizing.

Herewith a Hazards Primer for the homeowner who has no wish to become fluent in what I have come to call mulchera , but who does want a pretty bank of flowers here, a prolific herb patch there, and maybe even a tree that throws enough shade for a weary gardener to pull up a chair and take in the beauty of it all.


The rule is simple: The plants want only the water they need. Fail to furnish it, they croak; give them too much, they may drown or croak by rotting. Some plants, such as tulip poppies, are drought tolerant and are happy with infrequent, deep watering. Others, such as roses, drink insatiably and may, in the first year, show signs of fainting the first time you take a vacation.

All, however, need regular watering until root systems are established. How can you know when enough is enough? Ask at the nursery when you buy. And then pay strict attention to the next two categories, which are as important as watering.


The hole you dig for your new plant will be its home for a long time. Take a cue from the dirt in the planting container: It's always sandy, porous and never sticky. Water runs through it like a colander. This makes for rapid development of delicate root systems. But your back yard soil is rarely like that. And your goal is to promote the container's root development by digging a hole that acts as a far larger in-ground container of sorts: plenty of room for the roots to expand quickly through porous soil to help the plant get established.

Green Meadow and Green Thumb International nurseries and any number of books on the subject always suggest digging roughly twice the size of the container--or more. (Note: Some authorities are unyielding on the subject. Rayford Reddell, the Petaluma-based rose god, writes in his "Rose Bible" that the most important factor to any rose's success is the "Almighty Hole." For a little spindly bare-root plant, he suggests a hole 2 feet wide by 18 inches deep, which in my case turned out to be two huge wheelbarrows full of straight clay.)


Clay, the dominant soil through much of Ventura County's residential areas, has a bad name. It repels water and, when it gets enough, wallows in it. It drains slowly, sometimes not at all. It can become so densely packed as to be a concrete-like barrier against delicate roots seeking to grow--particularly at the edge of the hole you have dug. That's the bad news. The good news, says Dobler, is that clay, when in the right proportions, does a fine job of retaining water and nutrients for slow distribution--something a too-porous mix can't do and something that's valuable in the plant's maturity, when you'd like to keep maintenance to a minimum.

When you dig the hole, check the soil. Is it sandy? Is it dense and clay-like? To plant successfully, it should crumble in the hand easily and not stick together in clumps. You will be among the few and lucky if your soil is just right. If not, head to the nursery and select what is called "amendment." Your soil amendment might be peat moss, redwood compost, a mix of manure or sludge with rice hulls and forest products--any number of choices that help to break clay down and make it crumbly. Or it might be rich topsoil if sand is your problem.

In any event, mix bags of the amendment in with the soil you have dug--a one-to-one ratio makes a dent, usually--and then use it to backfill around and over the root-ball when you plant. This treatment is key, as it works in concert with the dimensions of the hole and also the transport of the water and fertilizer.

In backfilling with a good mix, you have created your expanded in-ground "planter" but also encouraged such prolific root growth that the roots stand a good chance of penetrating the hard walls of the hole. And you have done so with a soil through which water freely passes and drains well below the bottom of the roots.


Eric Finkbeiner has my favorite line on this subject. "It doesn't matter where in Fillmore a fuchsia is planted, you'll croak it." What Finkbeiner means is that fuchsias require a specific microclimate--dappled shade or ambient light, with plenty of cool woodland-like root growth--that does not exist in Fillmore.

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