The lone voice of horticultural reason

Slow Down And Plant

Last week’s column mentioned how important it is to resist the temptation to pack it in from a gardening standpoint, now that most of the gardening season has passed. Most true gardeners scarcely give this temptation a second thought, for there is still plenty of enjoyable gardening to be done, particularly if we are accomplishing tasks that will give us a leg up next spring.

Still, I’m tired. My regimen of getting up early to garden an hour before work at least a few days a week has fallen by the wayside this month, as the ancestral bear in me argues-convincingly-to eat and sleep a little more instead. I know my cues. It all means slow down. I have once again had a fabulous summer being a gardener, and the best way to savor the experience through the winter is to complete a few more simple tasks, not rush about at an even more frantic pace trying to get everything done. There are two things I have learned: gardening is never done, and spring always comes. I’ve hurtled headfirst into gardener burnout before, and it is not pretty. Let’s taper off.

Plant a tree or shrub-this is a great time for it. Nurseries are offering sales and the best tree and shrub prices of the year are right now. It provides for a rewarding few hours of gardening, as there’s a definite finish line.
Why are the next four weeks a good time? Cool weather. Planting now, after the hot months are over, means the soil is still warm, the tree or shrub will see a little root growth, then quietly harden off and go to sleep for the winter. No great shock, no stressful July heat, no muss, no fuss. Come spring it will have already moderately established itself and will charge into its first full growing season.

New research from the University of Minnesota throws the old “$20 hole for a $10 tree” theory out the window. Dig the hole as wide as possible for the tree or shrub-four, five, six feet in diameter-not “twice the diameter of the pot or root ball” as earlier espoused. What researchers found was that quite often the roots in such holes never break through into the undisturbed soil beyond the hole-they just circle and circle in cramped quarters. Toss in the drought from a few years back and some severe winters and that’s why we’ve seen so many dead trees and shrubs the last few springs; they never developed wide-ranging root systems to combat adverse conditions. So when planting, I’ll dig a hole as wide as until I’m tired of doing it, then rototill the soil further beyond.

Dig your hole to only an inch or two deeper than the height of the root ball, or soil level in the pot. Don’t improve the soil that you toss back around the plant. The theory now is life is hard-get used to it. Don’t fertilize trees when planting, wait until spring.

To remove large shrubs from pots, slit the sides with a utility knife. Then tear and claw at the root ball with your hands, at the shoulders, sides and bottom, until you’ve loosened the roots a bit. Score the sides with a knife if the roots are fighting you.

If the tree or shrub is balled and burlapped (“b & b”), remove all the twine circling the trunk, cut open and fold back the burlap on top, and plant. Cut the top half of the wire cage off with a bolt cutter and remove the burlap beneath it. Try to ensure good, even contact between the bottom of the ball and the bottom of the hole. Fill the hole halfway with the old soil, step it in lightly, then soak it with a hose until you’ve created a moat. Wait until the water has drained away then fill the rest of the hole with soil, leaving a mild indentation around the base of the tree to collect water. Soak again, thoroughly. Mulch the area around the plant with a good four-inch layer of shredded bark or chips.

Water all trees and shrubs once a week after planting, straight through October and right up until the ground freezes. Place a hose at the base and let it run for five minutes around a small shrub, ten minutes for a five-gallon container plant and twenty minutes or more if you were wrestling with a larger b & b item.

Best of all, planting trees and shrubs in the fall means you don’t have to plant them in the spring, when all good gardeners have a lot longer-ranging things to do.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener