Dig a hole and stick it in

Download PDF

Last year a wonderful group of students from Occidental College and local girl scouts spent MLK Service Day planting new plants in the South Pasadena Nature Park. To begin the day I gave a quick demonstration on how to put plants in the ground. I was worried that they would think I was being condescending since basically you just dig a hole and stick it in.

Occidental College students and girl scout volunteers arriving to work at the South Pasadena Nature Park.

Well I learned a lot that day. There are many things I take for granted when I garden, little “tricks” that make sense to me since I have seen what happens when I don’t do them. For example, after noticing a high level of drought stress in a California lilac (Ceanothus) that I had planted about a month earlier, I pushed down on the root area and realized that the highly organic potting soil had decomposed leaving large air pockets around the roots. Now I check the potting soil and if it is too organic, I shake off as much as possible before planting. I then gently but firmly pat the root area to remove large air pockets without compacting the soil too much. It takes experience – which means some failures.

Dig a hole and stick it in.

So for all of you who are new to this – and even for those with experience – here are little things that I have learned about how to stick them in the dirt.

  1. Check the weather forecast and do not plant if Santa Ana winds or extremely high temperatures are in the forecast.
  2. Make sure that the container plant is well hydrated before you transplant it. You should water it well several hours before transplanting.
  3. Dig a hole as deep as the soil depth of the container but wider that the pot. If you have clay soil, rough the outer surface of the hole.
  4. Unless you are working with a plant that has very brittle or delicate roots, shake off as much of the potting soil as possible. If the roots are circling the pot, unwind them and stretch them out. If the plant is extremely potbound and has a fibrous root system, like grasses, you can be quite brutal, cutting, tearing and teasing the matted roots apart.(See picture of Will Flemming wiregrass.

    Potbound California fescue (Festuca californica) on left. Before planting, I chopped off the matted bottom with my trusty spade and teased the rest of the roots apart.

  5. Place the plant in the hole making sure that the root crown (the spot where the stem(s) go up and the roots go down) is level with the surface or slightly above it.
  6. Fill in the hole with surrounding soil. Do not use amendments or fertilizers.
  7. Gently but firmly pat down the soil. You want to remove large pockets that will dry quickly, without compacting the soil too much. It takes a bit of experience but most people are too gentle. Don’t stomp on the ground but pat it down firmly.
  8. You can create a little berm around the plant to help the water sink into the soil rather running off. If you do this you may need to remove it during the rainy season.
  9. Mulch moderates soil temperature, prevents the soil from drying quickly, helps with weed control, and gives your new garden a finished look. If you apply mulch make sure that you keep it away from the crown of the new plants.
  10. Water thoroughly. Drink a beer. Go back and water thoroughly again. Make sure the root area and the surrounding soil is thoroughly wet. This is surprisingly difficult especially in heavy and clay-rich soils. You might even need to go out again about an hour later to water once more. Do not water the plant again until the soil has started to dry out, though it is important that you don’t wait for it to get too dry before watering these brand new plants.

For more planting tips see The Myth of Instant Landscaping: “How hard can it be to stick a plant in the ground?” by Linda Chalker-Scott.

In the next post I’ll give some tips on how to keep your new plants alive once they are in. In the mean time, remember that a dead plant has much more to teach us than a thriving one; so dead or alive it’s a win-win.

5 thoughts on “Dig a hole and stick it in

  1. Good one! Seems like such a simple thing, but as you say, there's a lot of experience we bring to the task. The tip about shaking off some of the soil is one I often forget.

  2. I garden in heavy clay soil. When putting a new plant in the ground, I dig a hole and fill that hole completely with water before I put the plant in the hole. It seems to work better than watering after the plant is in the ground.

  3. qbc – you fill the hole and then wait for it to totally drain, right? I think your method has the advantage that you don&#39;t have to dig into wet, clay soil. Doing that can really cause compaction. Any other tips for heavy soil?<br /><br />Barbara – I often forget also but when the potting soil is really rich I think it is best to get most of it off. The only plants I don&#39;t recommend this

  4. Great tips, especially knocking off the loose soil, providing of course it&#39;s a plant that doesn&#39;t object too much to having its roots tickled.

  5. CVF – Yes, yes, yes… some plants must be handled gently when transplanting. Do you know of others than those I mentioned above? Thanks for the comment – Barabara

Comments are closed.