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Front Page » March 2, 2006 » Home and Garden focus » Gettin' ready to garden
Published 3,504 days ago

Gettin' ready to garden

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For some people a garden means a plot full of flowers, for others it is vegetables on the vine. Regardless of which kind of garden a person raises, proper preparation, selection and care are important for a succussful season.

USU extension

I moved into a house that had a couple of trees in the back yard. Let me rephrase that--there were a couple of twigs poking up from the ground that were once trees.

These two young specimens were dead�total and complete lack of life. With planning and care the story could have been different. Gardeners frequently start out with the same vigor and enthusiasm, only to be overwhelmed by the task ahead�they 'die on the vine'.

As a newlywed and a student of landscape horticulture I was ready to tackle the gardening world. My first garden was mostly a failure�a humbling experience that prepared me to learn. I have since gained some important lessons.

There are many things you can do in the spring to improve the success of your landscape. I would like to discuss three foundational things you can do to give your plants a fighting chance. The three topics I have chosen for this article are plant selection, plant location, and proper planting procedures.

Plant selection

The high Rocky Mountain desert valleys have some interesting challenges�winter, soil and water. Winters are fairly harsh, soils are quite basic, even alkali, and water is scarce or expensive. These things all combine together to limit plant selection.

Certain plants do not do well in high desert conditions.They may thrive in the mountains above us but high deserts make them sick. In addition, how much sun or shade a particular plant needs has a great influence on plant selection.

Carbon soils are referred to as heavy (mostly clay). Some plants do well in heavy soils. Plant species and varieties should be matched to the soil type. The broad soil categories are clayey, loamy, silty, or sandy. A good gardener will then determine if it is feasible to amend the soil (it takes years to build a good soil structure) or select plants that tolerate the soil type.

The most common example of choosing the wrong plant for Carbon County is the quaking aspen. Quaking aspens can handle harsh winters (they thrive in the mountains) but higher rainfall and snowfall over the centuries, in addition to higher organic matter content, have crated a different soil. Not just more moisture, the chemical make-up of the soil and water are different. Soil chemistry is difficult and expensive to alter.

Altering the environment is expensive. For many gardeners, economics and wisdom encourages the selection of plants that will do well in the given environment. Poor plant selection does help to ensure job security for county extension agents in urban areas.

Plant Location

After wisely choosing appropriate plant species and varieties a good gardener places plants in the yard according to cultural requirements.

All locations have micro-climates and physical obstacles around buildings and yards. Some areas are more exposed to prevailing winter winds, some are protected. Certain locations have more shade than others. Some locations will have reflected heat and light. Underground lines and pipes, and more obviously, overhead lines need to be considered. What is the best distance from buildings? Is there a septic system and where is it? Compacted soils may be a problem.

Heads-up gardeners will take all these things into account when deciding where to plant. Some plants should be protected from prevailing winds, especially in the winter. The upper layer of the ground is frozen and thus, the ability of plants to replace water lost to winds is severely limited.

Reflected light and/or heat can cause different problems. Plants or portions of plants can be kept from going into dormancy because of this, causing flowering, fruiting, or even winter kill complications. The summer of 2005 got quite hot just as the tomatoes were flowering and trying to set fruit. While it is normally a good practice to plant tomatoes where reflected light and heat will give them a boost on the growing season, that year the timing of the heat wave caused this normally good practice to reduce tomato production in many Carbon County gardens.

Digging into the ground creates a possible conflict with buried lines and pipes. With individual septic systems the roots of many woody plants such as willows and cottonwoods create all kinds of problems.

Trees growing into power lines are just silly. Perhaps the person who planted those trees thought to hide the ugly power lines. Ultimately, the power company will prune the tree branches away from the power lines. The end result is usually a very deformed and/or unbalanced tree. Future headaches can be avoided by keeping tall plants away from overhead power lines.

Proximity to buildings is a problem that only becomes evident as the plants try to reach their genetic potential.

One summer I worked at a nursery in Olympia, Wash. The plant life is quite different there but people behave the same way. Homeowners would buy a small container-grown rhododendron and plant it right next to the house, not considering how large it would ultimately get. Besides, it looked so lonely and pitiful planted eight or nine feet away from the house. Many rhododendrons will reach up to 15 feet in diameter and end up encroaching onto walkways and porches.

The plants most commonly treated this way in Carbon County are arborvitaes and Pfitzer junipers. Well-meaning and tender-hearted gardeners, or worse yet, the next people to buy the property, end up annually shearing these plants back just to keep them from lifting the roofs off their houses. Plants need room to grow.

It is common practice to plant trees next to a driveway or street. Some plants will tolerate these conditions. Most plants receive undue stress due to compacted ground and limited ability to absorb moisture because of paving or concrete. These growing conditions may cause problems some years down the road, after many years have been invested into that grand old tree.

Conscientious gardeners will assess the yard and even future construction or landscaping plans. Select planning areas that will most likely assure plant success, and provide pleasure and enjoyment to all who visit.

Proper Planting

After the plant and location have been selected, gardeners must consider the following questions.

How deep and far apart should they be planted? What is the proper way to handle that ball of roots? Is time of year relevant? What can you do after planting to improve your transplanting success rate?

When trees grow or are planted in the wrong places, such as under power lines, they often get cut down or are cut back so far that they are a sight to see. Owners of trees often get angry with utility companies over such operations, but tree trimming is a part of what must be done for safety and operations.

Planting Depth

Tomatoes are the most common example of a plant that will do well if planted deeper than in the container. However, a good rule of thumb for planting depth is to plant to the same level as in the pot or container. This does not mean to dig the hole only as deep as the pot. The ideal hole is one-half again as deep as the root ball and twice the diameter of the root ball. Don't scrimp, exercise is good. Mix in some composted organic matter with the fill dirt and refill the hole to the desired depth. When planting bare-root stock determine where the soil line was before the plant was bare-rooted.

Plant Spacing

Unless a thick hedge is planned plants should have room to grow. Spacing is determined with plants in the same canopy level. Planting shrubs up close to a tree does not create a spacing problem for the tree. It may eventually create a shade problem for the shrub, but that was already covered.

The rule for spacing relates to the ultimate size of the mature plant. Do not plant any closer than 60 percent of the expected mature diameter of the plant. For example, trees that are expected to have a 20 foot canopy should not be planted any closer than 12 feet apart.

If they are planted closer (it happens in nature all the time), expect to remove the smaller or weaker plants over time (that a weaker plants over time (that also happens in nature all the time). The same 60 percent rule can apply to annual bedding plants. If soil and cultural conditions are good they will fill in and look very nice during the peak growing season.

Root Care

Handling of the root ball is critical. Many nurseries receive early-season stock bare-root. This is a perfectly acceptable way to purchase and plant perennials as long as they are planted in early spring�preferably before they break dormancy. Broken roots can be trimmed, but mostly don't disturb them. Get the plant into the ground quickly.

If the plant has already been potted it should have been potted at least 60 days prior to purchase. This will give the roots time to grow and get established so the ball doesn't crumble when the pot is removed. Please remove the pot. Even the fibrous pots create water and root barriers.

The final way to purchase perennial stock is called balled-and-burlap (b&b). These plants have been grown in the soil (just like bare-root) except when they are dug up the soil is kept with the roots. The planting hole is prepared the same as with container stock. After making sure the plant is placed correctly be sure to carefully remove the burlap. If there is a wire basket around the ball, be sure to cut and remove the basket.

Once the planting hole is prepared remove the pot. If the roots are starting to curve around the bottom of the pot they need to be redirected. If the roots are very pot-bound a sharp object sliced down the sides of the root ball will help to get the roots growing out. Older trees doing poorly have been discovered with roots wrapping around themselves. Be sure the roots will grow correctly.

A nice trick the professionals do at planting is to insert a hose with running water into the soft soil around the ball just after planting to help the soil settle around the roots. This helps to insure the roots have good contact with the soil. Subsequent waterings should be on the surface.

When to plant

Springtime is when people like to get out in the garden. They have been cooped up all winter and the warmer spring weather starts the gardener blood percolating. Flowering annuals and herbaceous (die back to the ground) perennials do well with spring planting. Care must be taken to not plant annuals too early. Be sure to plant according to hardiness season. Herbaceous perennials usually do even better when planted in the fall.

For woody perennials fall planting, after dormancy, is best. The roots will grow during the fall and spring before the vegetative growth puts a demand on them. In addition, nursery stock is generally cheaper in the fall as the plant nurseries are trying to reduce their inventory carry-over for the winter.

After-planting Care

The first season after planting, especially spring planting, make sure the plant has plenty of water but don't keep it waterlogged. If healthy woody perennials have been properly planted, not much is needed to keep them alive that first growing season. For the first year only prune out dead or damaged branches. After the roots have become established, training cuts can be made.

Fall planted tress and shrubs should be protected from marauding deer and mice. Deer damage is easy to spot�put a protective fence around the plants. Mice will girdle a tree trunk under the snow. A plastic trunk wrap is available at nurseries to help solve this problem.

The other possible first winter problem involves wind. Protect the new planting from the prevailing winter winds.

Herbaceous annuals and perennials just need adequate moisture and a balanced fertilizer, properly applied.

Ron Patterson is the Utah State University Extension Agriculture Agent for Carbon County. He can be reached at 435-636-3235.

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