When it comes to fall planting, it’s all in the roots
Fall is for planting. We have been saying this in the business for almost 25 years now – ever since growers started producing trees, shrubs and evergreens in containers. I like planting now and generally I have more success with September and October planting than I do with spring planting.
With the cool temperatures of fall the ‘top growth’ of winter-hardy woody perennials slows and hardens off. At the same time the roots are busy putting down young feeding roots which will provide support for substantial growth come spring.
#1 Buy a Plant with young Roots.
I remind you that no plant will perform well in your garden without strong, healthy roots. Put another way, the only way that a newly planted tree, shrub, evergreen or rose will grow and thrive in your garden is after it has developed a system of roots that will support the ‘top growth’ that we see and wait for so anxiously after planting.
How Do You Know Good Roots?
You will know that a woody plant has the right kind of roots while shopping at the nursery by pulling it out of the pot. You don’t have to yank it all the way out of the pot, but far enough to see the extent to which they fill it. If they completely fill the pot or turn around the interior contour of it, you have a potential problem.
Ideally you should buy plants that fill about ½ of the pot with roots; the other ½ of course should be the soil mix. This plant needs no lessons on how to grow. Planted in early October, most fall-planted nursery stock will put down new roots before the hard frost of late November or December. That is two months away, give or take. The new root growth will benefit you in the long run as you can gain up to one year’s growth over the specimens that you plant next spring.
If you cannot pull the plant out of the pot as it could be too big to do this then push your finger through the surface of the soil. If that is not possible the chances are pretty good that the whole pot is full of roots – not a good sign.
#2 Hole Prep.
Second only to buying a quality plant, is the preparation of the planting hole. That is if your goal is to get your plants growing as fast as possible. And who would plant something and hope that it did not grow?
Dig a hole at least twice as wide as the root mass of the plant and 1 ½ times as deep. Back fill with quality triple mix (equal parts top soil/peat/compost), place the plant in the hole and top the hole up with more triple mix. Stomp on it with the heel of your boot to get the soil in firm contact with the roots. By doing this you are sending a message to the roots that it is indeed time to find a new home and get growing. Set the plant a few centimetres above grade for proper drainage, allowing the water to drain away from the centre of the plant, not into it.
What if the plant is Pot bound?
If you bring home some nursery stock that is pot bound or even partially pot bound be sure to pull the roots out from the circular mass that they have grown into while inside the pot. This entails using a sturdy knife or even the tip of a small trowel to get a grip on the roots and pull them out. You will do some ripping and tearing in the process and you may suffer some self doubt that you are somehow doing the plant harm. Not so. You can remove up to 1/3 of the roots without causing damage to the plant.
Once planted with new soil firmly packed around its’ roots the plant will enjoy nothing more than a good, deep drink of water. The addition of a ‘starter’ fertilizer is a popular thing to do and I have no doubt that it helps. The usual formula of a liquid 5-15-5 with butyric acid is designed to encourage the development of roots early on.
#3 After Planting
After you have planted your new woodies in the garden it is important not to let them dry out and not to kill them with more water than they can digest. As a rule I suggest that you put your finger in the soil about four to five centimetres deep (two to three inches) and if the soil is dry it is time to water. They love nothing more than the oxygen-charged, warm water from a rain barrel.
As winter approaches you will have plants in the ground that will thrive next spring. You will have taken advantage of many fall discounts at nursery retailers this time of year and you will be planting in some of the most pleasant temperatures for outdoor activity in the whole year.
Fall planting. You win, no matter how you look at it.
- Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.