The last post, Dig a hole and stick it in, dealt with planting your new botanical treasures so that they don’t croak in the first moments of life in their new homes. Let’s assume that went well and you’re now faced with the task of keeping them alive during the “critical establishment period.” This is the time during which the plant becomes rooted in and acclimated to its new home, not unlike the the time it takes humans to feel at home after they relocate.
Newly planted on October 11, 2002 (left); Ceanothus ‘Frosty Blue’ and grasses grown in, March 29, 2008 (right). The label did say Frosty Blue gets 9 ft. tall and wide – and that is exactly how big it wants to be. The parkway is 6 ft. wide so I prune it to keep it off the street and walk, and to keep the height to about 5 ft.
Transitioning from nursery conditions that promote fast, soft growth to the harsh, cruel world of your garden can be difficult. In the process of becoming established in their new home, plants grow new roots that eventually extend into the surrounding garden soil. Here are a few tips to help your recently planted shrubs, trees and perennials during the establishment period.
- Water thoroughly making sure that the soil in and around the planting hole becomes wet.
- Allow the soil to become moderately dry between watering. If the soil surrounding the roots stays too wet the roots are prone to rotting. Furthermore, roots need both air and water. Small spaces or pores fill with water when the soil is excessively wet, starving the roots of air.
- It is best to water plants, especially when young, before they become drought-stressed. Many plants will show slight wilting of leaves or stem tips when they need water. Unfortunately plants with stiff stems and waxy leaves may not wilt, even when severely stressed. Check the soil beneath the surface near the roots and water when dry. Also, use nearby succulent plants, that more readily exhibit signs of drought-stress, as an indicator of water needs for your more rigid individuals.
- Some young plants will wilt slightly during the heat of the day but perk up as temperatures decline. If the soil near a slightly wilted plant is moist, extra water usually will not help. It may be helpful to set up a temporary sun screen for new plants during the heat of the day. I sometimes place a plastic chair over the plant, removing it as the day cools. Young plants become better able to withstand heat as they become established by putting on new root growth.
- If your plants are wilting but the soil is moist, do not add more water. Plants wilt for many reasons. If the roots are diseased, a common problem for plants in overly moist or poorly drained soil, they exhibit drought-stress because they are unable to take up water and provide it to the above ground portion of the plant. For more causes of wilting consult Linda Chalker-Scott’s Horticultural Myths – Leaf Wilt and Water. If your plant is wilted despite adequate soil moisture, it may help to gently prune back the stem tips and allow the soil to dry. Follow up with careful watering practices – only water when the soil is moderately dry and the plant looks like it needs a drink, a bit hard for novices to tell but it comes with practice.
- Continue to carefully monitor for water during the first one to three growing seasons, gradually watering less frequently, though continuing to water until the root area and beyond are wet. Remember to provide supplemental water during dry winters. This is the time that native plants, especially those from chaparral, grassland and scrub areas, do most of their growing.
- Three to four inches of mulch can be helpful in moderating temperatures and reducing water loss. Keep mulch away from the crown of the plant (the area where root and stem cells differentiate).
- Do not allow weeds, annual wildflowers and fast-growing perennials to crowd or smother your new plantings.
Many native plants do not show much above ground growth during the first year or two. However, much is happening below the surface where new root development is needed before the plant can increase in size.
Observing your plants over time will teach you more about how to care for them than any book or class. Each “failure” is an opportunity to learn. Do a post-mortem to try to determine what went wrong. If you cannot figure it out you may want to try again. My rule is three strikes, you’re out; any plant that does not succeed in three tries is not meant to be in my garden. With so many wonderful native plants to choose from, this is just an opportunity to try something new.