Monday, September 7, 2009

Planting Time & Conventional Wisdom

I visited a nearby garden center a few days ago. The plants were of excellent quality, well-maintained and attractively arranged. Most were atop black ground cover fabric. While waiting to speak to the salesperson, I overheard a conversation between him and an inquisitive buyer who was purchasing some Aztec Grass in 1-gallon nursery containers. The exchange went something like this:

Buyer: "I want to plant some of those Leyland Cypress in 15-gallon containers. When would be the best time to do it? I'm thinking it might be too hot right now."

Salesperson: "Uh. Well, it is a little too hot right now. Wait 'til the weather cools off. Then anytime until the first of May would be okay."

Buyer: "Okay. Thanks. I'll be back."

I hope the buyer will return. If he plants his Leyland Cypress anytime between October and the first of May, he'll be okay. But he could have bought and planted them that day!

The buyer's question was one that I often hear. So was the salesperson's answer. Both were relying on conventional wisdom regarding "the right time" to plant. Both needed help. I wanted to step into the conversation and ask the following:
  • "Excuse me, but why is it okay to plant the Aztec Grass today, but not to plant Leyland Cypress?"
  • "What is the surface temperature out there under those plants?" Since they were displayed in full sun atop black plastic, my guess is that it would have been way over 100 degrees F.
  • "Do you think normal soil temperature is cooler than that material?" Answer: Yes.
  • "Do you think the plants will need watering more or less frequently if planted?" Answer: If not planted, they may require water more than once per day. If planted, they may need water less than once per day.
  • "So, do you think the Leyland Cypress would be better off in the ground, or on top of it?" Answer: In the ground.
But I didn't interrupt.

The fact is that anytime is a good time to plant container-grown shrubs, trees and perennials that are hardy in your area. What more is involved than preparing the site, digging some holes, watering them in their pots, lifting them from their containers, plugging them in the ground, watering some more, and adding a layer of mulch? As long as the soil isn't shaken from their roots in the process, the plants will do well. They will require maintenance whether planted or not, but less maintenance if planted.

Shrubs, trees and perennials planted in fall should not succumb to cold temperatures if planted in winter, provided that they are in good health to begin with and cold hardy in your area.  The roots are better protected in the ground.  Though the branches and foliage will not grow during cold weather, the roots will establish themselves.  As a result, they will be ready to get growing the following warm season.

The successful gardener will often question conventional wisdom. Sometimes wisdom is conventional because it's true. But it may be bad information that has been accepted as true and passed along.

Ask questions. Consider answers. Think again.

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