Planting native plants

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There is so much information on the web and some of it is contradictory. How can one know what to believe? This is a truly difficult question – whether we are talking about plants or anything else. As an example consider these two videos on planting native plants. The first video, by the Palos Verdes Land Conservancy, runs less than two minutes and provides some planting basics. Though short and catchy, I found myself questioning quite a few practices, including:

  1. They do not let you know that the new plant must be thoroughly watered before planting. The plant and the soil should be well hydrated.
  2. I think they planted too deep, though they suggested that the crown (place where stem goes up and roots go down) should be level with surrounding ground. Planting too deep is a common reason for new plant failure.
  3. The planting hole and surrounding soil is bone dry. It should be moistened before planting. The dry surrounding soil will suck the water out from the root ball. This is a critical step.
  4. They did not roughen the root ball at all. Unless the plant has very delicate or brittle roots, I loosen the soil of the root ball on the outer surface. This untangles roots that may have started curling around the pot and it gives you a chance to examine the root ball a bit to make sure it isn’t overly pot bound or diseased.
  5. I like the way they put the surrounding soil back around the root ball, firmly but gently pressing it in.
  6. The hose was set up to drip water into the planting hole. It would be better to set up a sprinkler or hold a hose with a gentle spray to moisten the hole and the surrounding soil (see #3 above). The soil below and around the planting hole must be moist.
  7. I think the new mulch placed around the plant looks odd. There is weathered mulch on the site and I would have just used that. Also note that it is important to keep the mulch away from the crown (stem) of the plant. This area is susceptible to rot and so it should be kept clear and as dry as possible.

Here’s the link:

Mike Evans from Tree of Life Nursery put up a 4-part video series on planting and watering new California native plants. This very informative set of short videos demonstrates how to dig the hole, plant the plant, water it in, and follow-up water several weeks (yes, weeks!) later. My only minor, and I mean very minor, caveat on this video is that Mike uses backfill beneath the plant. He emphasizes the importance of planting so the crown does not sink too low, but for beginners, if they use too much backfill and don’t pack it down well and get the placement just right, the plant may subside with time. I have spoken with Mike and he agrees that for beginners it may be simpler to instruct them not to backfill the hole. We both agree on the desired result – plant high enough so that the crown is roughly at ground level: Not too high in which case the upper roots may get damaged or dried out, nor too low, subjecting the plant to possible crown rot. Mike makes a point of reminding gardeners to plant and water so that the crown of the plant is not exposed to warm, moist conditions. Because planting and initial watering is so critical to successful gardening, Mike takes the time to carefully describe each step, including the reasons for doing them. Learn and enjoy!

To summarize, be careful about the information you get from the web. Check several sources and remember that very short instructions might leave out some important information.

This is the best time of year to be planting native plants. Save water by taking advantage of natural rainfall, planting after the garden has received some deep water, and hopefully will be receiving more. Happy planting!

2 thoughts on “Planting native plants

  1. Glennon Poirier

    Really appreciate this post! I’m working on a new CA native garden in my backyard. I barely have any
    Idea what I’m doing but I’m learning. I have a couple books and have looked at some sites, but by and large it seems hard to get good information about CA native plant care on the web, to me. I have read a couple of your other posts, too and enjoyed them.

    Planting and watering is more complicated than I believed previously. Many of my plants seem to be doing okay and establishing. I killed a Ceonothus already, though. Well, two actually. One was a “concha” and the other was a “dark star.” They seem remarkably easy to overwater. I’m having the best luck with my salvias. I have a soil moisture meter now and find it helps. I see now that I was not doing my plants many favors by watering so much during summer. Live and learn.

    • Hi, Mike Letteriello at “Prisk Native Garden” on Facebook. I praised Barbara’s posting this info on FB.

      But again, I don’t feel that there are hard and fast rules. I keep my plants more moist than some others do, unless they’re the following: some penstemons, like P. spectabilis and P. palmeri, wooly blue curls, and many Ceanothus, as you noticed. (Also, flannel bush!). I underwater them this side of death. I found I’d rather underwater them and perhaps kill them rather than overwater them. But sometimes they’re just a crap shoot. I had one C. ‘Ray Hartman’ in my front yard for about fifteen years before it died. Then I replaced it and killed it by probably just ONE watering too many. This last one is taking off because I deliberately neglected its irrigation. I’ll just let the rains do it from now on. Of course, I do a lot of berming and planting of plants on slopes for maximum drainage. Some don’t like that, but it works spectacularly for me. I’ve even bermed up an area, but planted the BOTTOM of the root ball of the plant on “native soil” (unamended), and it’s all worked. I say try different things and learn, as you are.

      Definitely: Salvias will take more water, especially in well-drained sites. I found they like extra water in summer even after they’re established.

      One more thing: It’s all “gardening.” It’s not science. We all have reams of anecdotal experiences that are different. It’s the plant, the exposure, the soil, the drainage, the microclimate, etc. etc. We never stop learning.

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