By Debbie Czarnopys-White – Master Gardener
Gardening is done with the best intentions, and I also had best intentions when I purchased native shrubs early in the spring. I have yet to clear the space where I’d like to place them, so they’ve been faithfully maintained, weeded and watered in their pots. With the anticipated change in a bit cooler temperatures, my schedule will again be to get the areas cleared and plant them. Deciduous shrubs (those that lose their leaves in the winter) can usually be planted safely in the fall as well as the spring. So, I’ve got some witch hazel, spicebush, and hazelnut. I’d selected these for their easy growing habits and to attract wildlife. Witch hazel can grow 20-30 feet in height and 15-20 feet in width. Spicebush can grow 6-12 feet in height and width. Hazelnut can grow 6-8 feet in height and width. I’ll mix up the plantings so the animals can have several choices.
After clearing out my planting areas, I’d like to loosen the soil, just to help water absorption if nothing else. Since these shrubs will ideally grow to their full size, I won’t be planting them too close to each other. Since I’m planting them a few months after I received them, I can expect the roots to be confined to the containers in which they were growing. It’s important to plant them at a depth that isn’t lower than they were in the container. I need to spread out the roots a bit and perhaps do some trimming if they aren’t very flexible. I want to encourage the roots to continue to grow outward. Watering well for a bit after planting will encourage the soil to naturally settle. Don’t step on the soil to compress it as that will also hinder water and nutrient absorption.
There have been several schools of thought about adding amendments to the soil to loosen it up to get the plant established. The latest suggestion is not to do this. After the roots expand easily into the looser, amended soil, they may hit the hard clay soil we’re so famous for and then stay within the loosened soil, girdling the plant and eventually killing it. Putting the correct plant in the correct soil mixture is the key. If it won’t grow well in clay, consider looking for something else that can tolerate that condition.
Do your homework (or contact a Master Gardener). Many plants come with a sign that states the anticipated size it will grow to. Check it out yourself anyway before purchasing. See if it needs more sun or more shade and what soil conditions it can tolerate. Just because something is on sale, that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice. I like to check the root ball so, if possible, lift the selection out of the container and see if or how compact the root system is. Even if compacted or growing densely, you may decide to work with it and open it up to a wider spreading of the roots. I did this quite a few years ago to a small, very pot-bound mugho pine. I actually pruned it back quite heavily, and it is now the gentle giant in my garden. Another note, just because something is sold in a small pot, that’s no real indication of its potential future size. My mugho pine was purchased in a one-gallon container. It is now well beyond 5 feet in height and width. If purchasing your plant with a root ball, ease it into the planting hole and gently remove the burlap. It’s often said that the strings or rope will disintegrate in time. This isn’t necessarily true, so remove all that you can.
Don’t prune in the fall as it will encourage new growth. If you must do pruning, wait until spring and do it only for the benefit of the plant. Over pruning can have a disastrous effect. Water well and deeply with a slow drip hose if you can. Sprinkling with a hose doesn’t do much for the root system but just gets the leaves wet. If you feel you need to, protect the trunk with a bit of chicken wire to discourage rodent nibbling. Mulching is recommended but not up to the trunk. Place mulch a few inches away so the nibblers won’t find a warm place to chew from. Remember to loosen it up in the spring.
Save the date of August 29th for another Master Gardener hosted open house and garden at the University of Illinois Extension in Nashville. More details to follow.