General Rules for Planting

There are a host of guidelines for the successful planting of specific plants but there are several rules that apply to most plants. Here are a few tips:

Before planting

It is very easy when returning from the garden centre with a car load of plants you swore the last time you wouldn’t do again to find a space and get them into the ground. This is definitely the wrong approach. I won’t convince you to plan your plant purchases because we all go out for a visit to the garden centres and see a plant you fall in love with and before you know it, you are loading a trolley full into the boot of the car! However if you do love your plants, the best thing to do if tend for them from the start.

Know your soil

There is no point in buying plants that are inappropriate for your soil conditions. I have met individuals you live in a chalky, alkaline soil area, who desperately want to grow Rhododendrons and Azaleas but cannot do so. In short, it is not going to happen. Even with the introduction of ericaceous compost on an ongoing basis, they will at best struggle. Nature is far more powerful than even the most dedicated gardener and natural conditions will prevail. So check you the pH and the general makeup of your soil. That way you can focus your buying to plants that will have a fighting chance of surviving. There are a load of books out there that will help you select the right plant for the conditions that apply to your garden and that is not just the acidity but also the richness, the drainage and the aspect. So a bit of preparation before venturing to the garden centre will save you money; time; effort and frustration.

Prepare your soil well

You have selected the position for your newly acquired plants. They are the right plants for the acidity of your garden, they can cope with sun or lack of it and the drainage is appropriate. Good start but that is what it is – the start!

Always prepare the planting area well before you start. Ideally before you make the trip to the garden centre. So what do you need to do –

  • Work out the area required to give the plants enough room to prosper. Don’t pack too many into a space. The best you will have are weak plants that will look just that and are likely not to grow again next season.
  • Check what else is around the area. You don’t want to be digging up dormant plants or bulbs and you don’t want your new plants to be stifled by other established, more vigorous plants.
  • Dig the area over thoroughly and remove all weeds and unwanted plants. If you are starting a new plot off this may mean digging the whole thing over to a deeper depth. If you do this, add some well rotted organic matter at the same time. As a rule, ideal planting soil should be ‘crumbly’ (friable) with an even tilth (all the crumble the same size rather than clods). This is more challenging in heavy clay areas and the introduction of grit along with well rotted material can help to break up the clods. Just a quick point on soil – every soil type has its own challenges. Clay soils are not always bad news, they hold nutrients better but drainage is a challenge. Sandy soils a good for free drainage but the nutrients and moisture are easily lost. Thus the preparation of the soil.
  • Do not give into the temptation to pre-dig the holes for the plants. This is simply dry out in dry conditions and become waterlogged in wet. Leave this until the time the plant is ready to go into the ground.

Planting Conditions

The best conditions are those that avoid extremes.

Never plant when the soil is water logged or if it has been raining for a prolonged time. If the soil feels too wet and cold then it probably is. I know this sounds weird as you will hear and read about watering the plant well before, during and after planting but the main thing to remember is that a plant has to be able to ‘breath’. Unless we are talking about sub-aquatic or marginal plants then very wet conditions will damage the plant. Waterlogged roots are likely to die, followed quickly by the rest of the plant. If there are puddles on the ground after rain, then it is still too wet. If you look up the planting conditions for a lot of the most common perennial plants and shrubs, you will note that they stipulate that the soil should be well drained. In clay type soils this can be a problem, so materials should be introduced to create the correct conditions, such as fine grit in the base of the planting hole.

Similarly, never plant into very dry soil. It is much harder for one thing, and any moisture in the plant pot or in the roots will be drawn out into the soil. Remember a quick watering of the surrounding soil does nothing really for the plant. Also do not plant in very hot, sunny conditions. This will really put your new plant under enormous stress as it is trying to establish itself in dry conditions at the same time as it is losing moisture through the leaves. In short even a very healthy plant is going to find this a more difficult situation to deal with. If you have to plant in dry conditions water thoroughly the night before and I mean thoroughly. Check the water has permeated the soil well.

Preparing the plant

If you are buying plants from a quality nursery or garden centre, it will have been tended carefully during its life. It will have been watered regularly and be kept in ideal conditions in shade or in the sun. You have to continue the care. Plants in pots will dry out very quickly and the plants you buy may be a bit dry if you are purchasing them later in the day or if you have had them lying awaiting planting. It is therefore essential these get a really good soaking before you attempt to put them in the ground. Have a bucket or better still two buckets of water beside you. Put the pots into the buckets for at least half an hour to allow the plant to take up as much water as possible and the soil around the plant to hold as much water as it can. Remember when the plant goes into the ground, the moisture will equalise with the soil around it. Do not attempt to do this out of the pot. The essential role of the pot is to protect the young roots and hold the soil together. With regards to the latter point, some plants you buy may not have been in the soil for as long as may expect and taking them out can result in the soil ball falling apart and thus the roots are exposed and damaged.

If you are planting a tall plant and one that is staked or whose branches are tied together, it is sensible to remove the ties (often green plastic tape) from the stake and cut the string holding in the branches. Failure to do so means you may have a planted plant with a tie beyond your reach. Yes it has happened to me, we planted a tree only to have to start again when you realised we had missed a string holding the branches! You learn by your mistakes.

Once you have the plant ready to go in the ground have a really good look at it. You are looking for its ‘fair face’. All but very small plants will have a better side, one that offers up a more symmetrical shape and one whose growing habits are going to do what you want them to do. It doesn’t take too long, stand back have a look at it from various angles and decide on your favourite. You are ready for that hole!

Get ready to plant!

You don’t need to dig a huge hole. Just make sure that the new plant sits in there comfortably and that you have enough space to work in soil around the roots. If you have generally poor soil, then you might to dig a larger hole and put better soil back in with the plant. It is important not to plant too deep. Always plant the plant at roughly the same level of the pot/root system, or where the soil level was before the plant was lifted. If you plant too deep the plant tends to rot off (there are some exceptions, but it is a good rule of thumb). With larger plants trial the plant while in the pot to get this right. The objective is for the plant to go from pot to hole in one attempt. It is not good news for the plant to be lifted and replanted several times as this will damage the roots and you tend to disturb the walls of your planting hole.

Before making the final transition you can add a little slow release fertiliser to help rooting. Fertilisers come in all shapes and sizes, but a little bonemeal sprinkled around the edge of the planting hole helps root growth. Don’t be tempted to add too much as this can have the opposite effect. If in doubt just sprinkle a little bonemeal on the soil after planting and it will work its way in eventually. I prefer to work such things into the soil so the roots are not sitting on it. If the food is further down, the roots will find it and encourage root growth will help anchor your plant. You can also sprinkle a quantity of mycorrhizal fungi pellets into the hole. This is widely available in garden centres and interacts with the roots and encourages rapid growth. Remember it is lot like fertiliser and should be in direct contact with the roots.

Back fill around the plant and firm it in without over compacting. This will mean that you don’t get a solid layer and you get good drainage. You can use your heel for larger potted plants and bare-root trees but definitely no stamping!

After the plant is in place

Always water in after potting or planting. Let this drain away from the surface and give them some more, just to make sure that there is enough to keep them going for a while. Do not allow the soil around new plants to dry out in their first season. There may be a few plants that produce better crops if the watering is controlled, but most don’t respond well to drought stress in their first year. Whilst saying that, it is better to give the plants a good prolonged watering rather than a sprinkler for half an hour every evening. The reason for this is where the water permeates to. You want the water to get down into the soil around the roots and not sit on the surface. We can always tell when there is an automatic watering system in a garden because the roots of the plants are usually nearer the surface.

So you now have your plant in place. These guidelines are clearly general ones but some plants will require more specialist methods for example aquatic and marginal plants and further research and advice should be sought for these. Plants such as climbers will require to be carefully tied to supports or wires, trees and tall shrubs may need a robust stake for the first three years to help them cope with wind. Preparing well and planting your new specimen with care should result in a wonderful new addition to your garden to enjoy.