It’s not over until……the last plant is sold! Many gardeners mistakenly assume June marks the end of the planting season. Come July 1, they tuck their shovels into garden sheds and drive past garden centers without a sideways glance – the same places that only a short time before they had screeched into on two wheels. Say it isn’t so! Summer and fall are still fine times to add to existing gardens or install new ones. Plus you can get some incredible price breaks on plant material! If this was not true, landscapers would be out of business. But there are some tricks to later season plantings to reduce shock and encourage strong growth. Follow me.
If you have the flexibility to wait until September to install sun-lovers, do so. August sun can be brutal, even for the toughest of plants. Shade plants can be installed most any time. Drought tolerant plants will handle summer plantings better than moisture lovers and those with large leaves. Some gardeners have discovered good results by spraying stressed larger leaves with an anti-dessicant, such as Wilt-Pruf, to reduce excessive water loss through leaf nodes.
When you arrive home with your potted treasures, water the pots well before digging them in. You want the roots to be well-hydrated before removing them from the container. Dig a hole wider than the pot, but the same depth. If your soil is less than ideal (sandy or clay), work some compost or manure into the excavated soil. Slip the plant out of the container and place it in the hole. If the plant is root-bound (dense mat of roots), which is more likely with late season purchases, it may remain stuck in the pot. Gently tap it to dislodge. If this doesn’t work, rap harder. If it is still stubborn, you may need to place it on the ground (on its’ side) and gently step on the pot to shift the potting medium. Final blow – pick the pot up and throw it on the ground. Still no action? Grab some scissors and cut the pot away from the roots. You could have done this from the start, but why not reduce your stress level and blood pressure at the same time? Break apart root-bound plants by cutting an X in the base of the plant and work sections apart so fresh soil can make contact with the ‘starved’ roots inside. This is very important for establishing healthy, deep-rooted plants that over-winter better. Otherwise the roots will keep circling into the same area and eventually starve themselves to death.
Once the plant is happily sitting in its new home, pour a liquid fertilizer over the roots before back-filling with soil. This is quickly absorbed by root hairs and helps the plant adjust quicker. I opt for organic products like Neptune’s Harvest Fish and Seaweed fertilizer versus chemical Miracle-Gro. I hope you will do the same. Once the plant is moistened, then back-fill with soil and tamp down firmly with your hands. Next, water in well with ‘plain’ water.
When planting in August, do so in the morning before hotter, mid-day sun or better yet, dig when it is raining out. It is important to keep your new residents watered every three or four days as the roots settle in. The hotter and breezier the weather, or the sandier your soil, the more frequently you’ll have to water. After a few weeks of this pampering, you can start to lengthen the time between ‘water glasses’. To keep water concentrated around the roots instead of running off, build a rim of soil around the plant to create a moat. Another method for slow-watering thirstier plants is to fill two liter plastic soda bottles with water, poke a hole in the caps, and invert into the soil at the base of the plants.
If your plant starts to go downhill (do not read as die), then resuscitating measures are called for. If there are flowers or buds on the ‘patient’, cut these off. If there is no improvement in a day or two, remove one-third to one-half of the stems and foliage. The last resort is to prune the plant back to within three inches off the ground, as when cutting gardens back in fall. If this seems painful to you, put on a winter jacket and pretend the cold is coming. Your goal is to redirect all energy to the roots so they can get established. Once they’re happy, your plant will send up new top growth, and hopefully even some flowers. Whatever you do, don’t fertilize the plant again during this stressed stage. The initial liquid feed during planting will last for up to two weeks. Over-fertilizing will only complicate matters (read as possibly kill the plant).
In addition to cutting back plants that are stressed, for those located in full sun, you can shelter them from energy-sucking sun rays with an umbrella, fabric tent or a cardboard box set as a trap (you remember how you used to tilt a box on a stick with a string tied to it to try and capture wild things?) Your choice of shelter will depend on how much potential razzing you are willing to take from neighbors.
Fall is one of my favorite times to shop for perennials, flowering shrubs, evergreens and trees. Even though air temperature are dropping, soil temperatures remain warm. Plus, most plants will soon be going dormant; they don’t require the same energy demands dedicated to top growth and flowering. They are ‘downshifting’ for the winter ahead and therefore much less prone to installation shock. If you run out of time to plant all of your great buys, simply store them in their pots in unheated garages or sheds or under tarps outside. Make sure to water the pots well before tucking them in for the winter. If voles, mice, chipmunks or squirrels are an issue, cover the pots with small meshed chicken wire.
So skid-daddle out to your local garden center and let the good times continue to roll. Many times you will be greeted with super sales designed to help gardeners overcome their fear of summer planting. Of course, now you won’t be one of those hesitant shoppers.
Kerry Ann Mendez is a garden designer, speaker, teacher and writer and the owner of Perennially Yours in Ballston Spa. Visit her website at www.pyours.com