Feature

Step-by-step planting

G Magazine

With the onset of the warmer days, it’s time to dig into the soil and start planting – think vegies or bright blooms. Here’s all you need to know to ensure your new plants thrive.

pot luck

Credit: iStockphoto

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Exploring the world of plants is one of the most enjoyable parts of creating a garden and there's no doubt you'll discover many interesting plants along the way. Be careful of impulse buying, and try to do your research first to make sure that any new plant you find is going to perform well and fit in with your Garden's planting scheme.

Buying plants

Your local garden centre is a great place to start when looking for a good a range of plants suited to your area. Most centres employ a qualified horticulturist who is willing to share their local plant knowledge, so make use of it! Weekend markets are good places in which to pick up bargains. Look out for people selling tubestock - you'll save yourself lots of money buying smaller plants, especially if you need large numbers of one species for hedging or the like. Mail order companies tend to sell their plants in tubes, because they are easy to package and post. You can find a lot of these companies on the internet and they are becoming increasingly popular especially for sourcing rare and unusual plants. If you want to really keep the costs down, try propagating some plants yourself, especially the ones you need in large numbers, such as groundcovers.

Choosing healthy plants

It's important to choose plants that are in good health. You can usually tell if they are healthy by having a good look at them.
• Start with the foliage: it should have a healthy colour, the same as the label, and it should be unblemished and undamaged. Have a good look at the stems and the leaves to be sure they are free of pests and diseases.
• Avoid plants that look sparse and twiggy. Healthy plants should be bushy with strong stems and branches. Have a look at the potting mix. It should be free of weeds (you don't want to take them home) and avoid plants where the mix has dried out.
• If you can, take the plant out of its pot to check the roots. Only buy plants with a well-developed root system but don't buy plants with root balls that are circling and overcrowded. This is not a good start for a plant, particularly if it's a tree or shrub.

How often should you water new plants?

In the first two weeks after planting, water two to three times a week in warm conditions and daily during hot weather. From then on, you can gradually reduce the frequency of watering until the plant shows that it is able to cope with little or no additional watering. Keep an eye on the plant for any signs of moisture stress such as:
• Wilting or drooping
• Loss of natural colour in leaves, particularly lower leaves
• Lack of vigour and stunted growth
• Loss of shine or glow in foliage
• Curling leaves
• Foliage and fruit drop
If these signs appear, give the plant a good, deep soaking. Over time, this will encourage the plant to develop a deeper and independent root system.

How to plant for success

Good preparation and regular care is essential for getting plants off to a good start. Remember, the plants you buy have been 'nursed' in controlled conditions up till now, so you've got to show them some love and tenderness, especially in the first few months while they are getting established. If you just shove them in a hole and walk away, don't be surprised when they start
to look miserable.

1/ Soak the roots
Start by soaking your pot plant in a bucket of water half an hour before planting. This will ensure the root ball is evenly moist.

2/ Dig a generous hole
Dig a hole that is at least three times the diameter of the pot. The hole should be around the same depth as the pot. If the soil below is compact, loosen it with a garden fork or crow bar, or dig the hole a bit deeper and backfill to the required level with compost. You should also roughen the edges of the hole so as to make it easier for the roots to penetrate the surrounding soil.

3/ Water the hole
Fill the hole with water and allow it to drain and soak into the surrounding soil. Do this up to three times. (Note: If the water drains very slowly, you should plant into soil that has been mounded above the natural soil level to ensure the plant has adequate drainage.)

4/ Improve the soil
The soil that has been dug out can be improved by adding some moisture-holding compost and pre-soaked water crystals. Do not add fertiliser into the mix or to the bottom of the hole - it can burn the roots. After planting apply only a slow-release fertiliser to the surface of the soil.

5/ Check the roots
Remove the plant from the pot and check the roots. If they are circling, be sure to make a series of vertical cuts around the ball to encourage new roots to form in an outward direction.

6/ Fill your hole
Backfill the hole with the improved soil, pressing it in lightly around the root ball. The finished level of soil should be at the same level as the top of the root ball.

7/ Avoid run off
Using leftover soil, create a well or dam around the base of the plant so that when you water your plant, water is caught and soaks into the soil around the root ball and doesn't run off.

8/ Water and mulch
Water the plant well with a seaweed solution and apply a 70 mm layer of mulch around the plant, taking care to keep it away from the stem.

Mulching

Mulching has become standard practice in the modern garden because it offers so many benefits — for starters, a thick layer of mulch can reduce the evaporation rate of moisture in the soil by up to 70 per cent. It also helps to suppress weeds that compete with other plants for moisture and nutrients. Then, as it breaks down, it becomes humus and that helps to improve the soil structure and increase its ability to absorb and hold moisture. There are many different types of mulch available and each has its benefits in a chosen situation.

Compost: Compost makes excellent mulch because it has good evaporation control and quickly adds humus to the soil. Good compost in large quantities is more expensive to buy and less accessible than other forms of mulch.

Lucerne or pea straw: These forms of mulch break down quickly and need to be topped up regularly. They are ideal for poor soils, as well as vegetable and rose gardens where regular applications of nutrients and humus are required. Lucerne and pea straw are generally sold in bags or bales, and they are relatively expensive.

Barley straw and sugar cane mulch: These are also sold in bales, are easy to handle, less expensive and more readily available. They also break down quickly and are good for vegetable gardens and areas where soil improvement is required. Top them up regularly.

Mushroom compost: This is a very good mulch and soil improver, but it can often contain lime, so don't use it on lime-sensitive plants such as camellias and azaleas.

Barks and woodchips: These are slow to break down, so are generally long lasting. They are best used around established plants like shrubs and trees where immediate soil improvement is not required. Be aware that some woody mulch can cause a nitrogen deficiency that shows up as a yellowing in plant leaves. This is referred to as 'nitrogen draw down'. It's caused by bacteria taking nitrogen from the soil in order to break down the woody materials. If you notice yellowing of foliage when using woody mulches, add some extra nitrogen to the soil in the form of blood and bone.

Forest mulch: Landscape suppliers will often sell chipped green waste from tree loppers as forest mulch. It is generally the most economical of all mulches and should be used in the same way as barks and woodchips.

Pebbles and gravels: This is the longest lasting of all mulches. It is great for reducing soil evaporation, although it will not improve soil structure. These materials store heat in the day and release it at night so they can be of great benefit around frost-sensitive plants and are the best types of mulch to use around succulents and Mediterranean-type plants like lavender.

How to mulch

The best times to mulch or top up mulch are in early spring and mid-summer. This will ensure that the soil is well covered throughout the warm growing seasons. Before laying mulch, remove weeds and open up the surface of the soil with a garden fork. Deeply water any plants in need.
Whenever possible, apply your mulch straight after good rainfall. The new layer of mulch will act like a blanket, trapping the moisture in the ground for much longer. Most mulch can be laid up to 70 mm thick. If you are using compost, make the layer 30 mm thick. For best results, try to maintain your mulch to its optimum thickness. Do not mulch right to the stem of plants otherwise fungal rot may occur.

Extract taken with permission from Down-to-Earth Garden Design by Phil Dudman, $35, ABC Books.