Fall is for Planting the Right Way
"Fall is for planting" was a marketing slogan of the American Nursery and Landscape Association many years ago to help garden centers bring in fall customers and extend the selling season. The slogan represented good, sound horticulture practices. Fall IS a great time to plant because you and the plant have thankfully escaped the oppressive heat of our southern summers and crossed into cooler, soothing temperatures. When you are getting ready to watch the kickoff for Homecoming football in the South you should think: after the game is a good time to sink a shovel in the soil and prepare a nice home for roots. Forget the plant top and think roots at this time of the year. Dig a shallow, wide hole. Incorporate compost into a large planting area. However, if all you are going to do is throw a handful or two of peat moss in the hole, save your money. Plant at ground level or slightly higher, water well, mulch, fertilize according to the recommendations of the soil test, stake if needed, and return to HD football, your fall bulb catalogues or the leisure diversion of your choice and let nature do the rest.
In our southern soils, temperatures permit and encourage roots to grow for most of the fall and winter. With the arrival of spring, quickly followed by an early summer, the plant has a good root system and is ready, with a little watering, to take care of its own needs. Possibly a little fresh mulch and a kind word or two to make you feel better is all the attention that is needed.
The reason for offering this Hort Short is that sometimes things go wrong and Extension gets a call to diagnose why the plant died after the caller followed all the established planting protocols. I had two calls this year that mimic similar calls of repeated mysterious plant fatalities of years past. When you ask the bereaved gardener what happened, they explain that they followed the textbook procedures for planting and can't understand why nature took the life of their sometimes very expensive plant. The Extension Horticulturist "Sherlocks" the situation by checking the facts. First they move the trunk of the plant and listen/feel for squishy wet sounds; then note if there is enough root growth to verify establishment. They scratch the bark to see if there are any signs of life by the presence of green tissue. They look at the internodes to note how much growth occurred during the season and scan for any obvious disease and insect problems. They note the soil level around the base of the trunk. Was the plant buried so deep in a wet, oxygen depleted soil that the plant coughed, gagged and gasped its way into summer with little or no root growth only to be slapped with 100 degree temperatures with no way to get water relief due to suffocation of the roots? Or, was the plant grown at the nursery in the container so long that the roots circled the container so many times that they became so knotted, kinked and confused that they could not find their way to the freedom of the new, well-developed planting hole? In either case Sherlock Horticulturist quickly determines after seven or eight months of growth or non-growth, there are no roots extending into the surrounding soil. Irrigation on the container roots prolonged the inevitable but could not overcome the heat. The plant died a slow death of water stress or by the perfect environmental conditions to be taken out by opportunistic disease pathogens or insects looking to attack the weakest of the plant herd.
Pot-bound azaleas with no roots after 7 months
These are the most common causes of plants not surviving through the first year. The answer to the first problem is simple, plant no deeper in the soil than the plant grew in the nursery. If you are planting in a tough, poorly drained soil, pick a plant that tolerates/thrives in low oxygen/wet soils, amend the whole planting area with compost, create a raised bed, or plant a few inches high to improve drainage and oxygen to the roots. The second problem involves knocking the plant out of the container and being sure it is not root-bound. Many times a plant will overcome its poor sense of direction and find its way out of the container maze to freedom and the good prepared soil. For trees and some shrubs this may be a temporary escape. Interior roots will continue to grow, expand, and possibly girdle the tree five to ten years later. In Florida, a standard for nursery stock has been established to evaluate container roots. If a large root greater than one tenth of the diameter of the trunk extends more than one third around the perimeter of the upper part of the container, it is considered a cull and one that should not leave the nursery or be planted.
Some nurseries grow plants using root-pruning containers or other systems to assure roots are ready to grow out instead of in circles. Roots in these containers are directed to grow out holes in the side of the container rather than circling.
Root pruned and traditional containers
Roots hit the air, desiccate, die at the tips (root pruned). When you prune a shrub, adventitious buds break and branching occurs 4 to 5 inches down the stem. The same effect occurs when you prune roots. This prevents root circling. When you spend a few hundred dollars on a Japanese maple or other exciting plant, think first that roots need oxygen and second that roots should be facing the direction of unlimited space and resources and not poised like a dog chasing its tail.
If you or your contractor plant large B&B (balled and burlapped) plants, the upper ring of the basket and burlap should be removed.
B&B burlap not removed contributing to tree death
Exposed burlap wicks away water and serves as a barrier for root growth. Research has shown that if the upper burlap and wire basket is removed, establishment is not restricted. Fall is great for planting if you DO IT RIGHT. Don�t forget to add water if nature gets a little slack in her duties. A final note that purchasing and planting a plant is still one of the best long-term investments you can make for your happiness and enjoyment as well as that of generations to follow.
Please come back often and enjoy HortShorts as much as I enjoy posting them for you. Your enthusiastic plant response is always encouraged and welcome.