The tricks of perfect planting
Introducing plants in mid-winter gives
them the best chance of surviving summer's
heat and drought. Trying to transplant larger,
older trees and shrubs is pricey and unwise.
Read on for more essential tips…
By Jennifer Gay
The best time for planting is between mid October and mid March. What! I hear the cries, what about all that rain, freezing winds, snow and sticky mud? I grant you that you need to avoid those periods of inclement weather; but as soon as we get a run of those calm, sunny days that often come after winter rain - then that's a perfect time for planting.
You may experience some problems if you don't have well-drained soil - you really have to wait for the soil to dry out before you can work it. Generally speaking though, planting during the low season (with the optimum months being November and February) gives the plant roots a chance to become established before next summer's drought sets in. In this way they have a fighting chance of surviving the stresses of the hot, dry period. Low temperatures factor a big advantage in autumn/early spring planting; this combined with greater soil moisture, means there is no need to pay so much attention to watering in the early stages, saving not only water but also in time.
You may also want to introduce larger plants into your garden for immediate effect, but these are, in my view, an expensive and risky luxury. Yes, big trees give great immediate results, but consider also that mature plants not only make a bigger hole in your pocket, but they also carry with them a greater risk of loss. Post-transplant shock can be more severe for an older plant, and it may take time to establish itself and continued growth. It's always a good idea to back up mature specimens with smaller, cheaper plants that may have less impact to begin with, but have higher rates of survival and establish faster than large plants. You may feel frustrated at first, but I have rarely found the wait to be as significant as feared. Suddenly you find the smaller tree is growing up and racing ahead of more mature plants, its roots establishing quickly, because it has less growth above ground to feed and support.
It's not just the timing of planting and the size of plants chosen that can give your garden specimens a good start in life: adequate soil preparation is also important and is an investment you will never regret. The topsoil should be dark, rich, friable tilth. You must certainly need to ameliorate the soil to achieve this - the incorporation of organic matter will help, as well as supplying nutrients. Consider replacing the top 30cm (minimum) of soil if it is seriously compacted. Most building sites suffer from severe compaction and therefore poor drainage.
Few people think about this problem in Greece, but Greek soils can get waterlogged. Adding grit and organic matter helps to correct this, and in worse case scenarios, you can put draining tiles under the planting beds. Be sure that there is a 2 percent minimum slope for the drains and that an outlet is provided on the downhill side. If for one reason or another, poor drainage can't be corrected, use only plants that can tolerate waterlogged conditions. If you have the opposite situation on your hands -a light sandy soil - the addition of organic matter can also help improve the water holding capacity of the soil.
This also has a big impact on your plant's success. A properly planted tree or shrub will be more tolerant of adverse conditions and require less management than one planted incorrectly - planting technique influence future water and fertilizing needs, Choose plants carefully, making sure they are right for your garden and for the position they are intended for. It's simply a waste of money to buy something on the grounds that it is appealing, only to find it struggles or dies because it is not appropriate for the situation. Also look for plants with strong healthy growth, with the root balls showing plenty of roots but not so packed that the plants are pot bound.
Most plants in Greece are sold as container specimens, as opposed to bare rooted. Container grown plants go through limited transplant shock if given adequate follow-up care. The main problem with container shock is the possibility of deformed roots - pot-bound plants have roots circling inside the container, and they can continue this pattern once in the ground making themselves a physical barrier to future root growth and development. If this situation is not corrected at planting time, the plant may experience slow growth and establishment because of the girdled roots - may never perform to its full potential. Some form of root mass disturbance is recommended when you remove the plant from its pot for planting - gently tease out the roots, taking care to break as few as possible.
Container-grown plants should be handled by the container and never by the tops of the plants. If the plants must be held or stored on the landscape site, it' best to place them in a location protected from wind and sun. If the plants are dry when you buy them, plunge them into a bucket of water to ensure the root ball is moist right through.
When preparing the planting pit, make sure the area is weed free then dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and about the same depth. Water the plants well before planting. Ease the root ball out of its pot and set it firmly in the hole so that the top of the compost is level with the ground around it. Work a mixture of soil and organic matter down around the sides of the root ball with your fingers, firming gently as you go. Add a handful of slow-release fertilizer - expensive but worth it. To help the plant get the most from water given, construct an earth dam about 10cm high around the plant so that it collects in this 'saucer', moving slowly down into the planting hole - water conservation at it's simplest. Water well again and mulch around the plant to lock in that precious moisture. Plants vary in their water needs but general advice for trees and shrubs is to water once a week deeply during dry periods until established.
Trees on windy and exposed sites will need staking. There are many theories on this - something you would be forgiven for thinking a simple matter. Currant wisdom says that the stem of a tree will develop better strength if it flexes a little in the wind. Staked too high the tree will strengthen only above the stake and the supported growth below will weaken, and become dependent on the stake. Eventually this differential may result in a snap. Usually the tree should be supported at about one-third of its height and will generally only need this support for the first three years.