Originally Published: April 10, 2004 7 a.m.
The rain this past week has been exactly what the forests have needed. When the storms finally clear and the sun begins to warm the soil, watch out, because the entire countryside is going to spring to life. Even those slow-to-leaf-out plants such as Russian sage, desert willow, Virginia creeper and the rest will want to leaf or blossom.
I can't believe how beautiful the forsythia, forsythia x intermedia, are this year. They have been in bloom with their golden sunshine blossoms for a month and are still going. If you haven't considered one of these Prescott naturals for your yard, you should. They are a moderate water user that love to be on a drip system, and are easy to care for. They grow to about 6 feet tall and love full sun exposure. Minimal pruning is needed and the wind will carry most of the leaves away in the fall.
They truly are in all their glory as they announce the arrival of spring every year with branches that are covered with golden yellow blossoms just before they leaf for the year. Nurseries stock them in the spring of the year when they are blooming, but can be difficult to find as other summer bloomers come into season. If you are thinking about buying one of these springtime favorites, do it now through about May.
OK, some of you chewed on me for not giving you enough notice on our last event here at Watters Garden Center. Each March we have our spring open house and invite vendors, manufacturers and growers to show off their plants and talk to customers. A band was playing and it's a pretty festive time. We announce it on the radio, in newspaper ads, and we even sent out postcards to our preferred garden card members, but some of you still missed the announcement.
Next Saturday – the 17th – we will be holding a similar event here at the garden center. We call it our Spring Fling, but growers and vendors from the gardening industry will be here to answer questions and show off their product lines. It is very festive and a lot of fun. It may be a bit crowded in the greenhouse if the rain is still coming down, since that is one of the few dry spots when it rains, but I always learn something new and see the latest, greatest garden items for the current year.
I told you last week that I would give you my thoughts on how to plant in the tri-city area. This is a controversial topic with gardeners because everyone adds their own little caveat to the planting process. The suggestion I have for any gardener is: "If you have found a garden technique that works for you, don't change it." Someone always has advice to give you, especially gardeners. If you know how to plant in mountain soils at this altitude and have had success doing so, then there is no need to read further.
There are three basic mistakes I find that people make when planting in the tri-city area. They dig too deep, plant too deep and don't moisten the surrounding soil enough when done.
The planting hole should look like a cereal bowl when complete, and the root ball should rest at the bottom of the hole. For some reason everyone wants to go down to China when digging a hole for a plant. A hole that is too deep will cause the plant to sink in the loosened soil and end up below the soil level of your yard. This will cause water to pool around the root system and promote root rot when the rainy season starts in July, or in mid-winter.
Drainage is important. There are caliche layers in some parts of Prescott and along the Highway 69 corridor. If you hit this band of very hard soil laced with calcium, usually about 4 to 18 inches thick, punch a hole in the band of soil to the next soil type and your hole will usually drain well enough.
If in doubt about the drainage of the planting hole, simply check it. Fill the hole with water until overflowing. If you still have water sitting in the hole 12 hours later, you have a drainage problem that will affect your plant.
Prescott Valley and the newer parts of Chino Valley have very heavy clay soils. We find that in these areas the mortality rate of plants is greatly reduced when a portion of the root ball is left out of the ground by two or three inches, and soil is mounded up around the root ball. This ensures that at least two to three inches of the root ball can breath during a prolonged wet spell or in cases of over watering or water runoff. When water sits around the root ball too long, especially with a heavy soil, the plant is prone to root rot. The symptoms on the plant look like the plant is drying out, but instead the roots are rotting off and more water will simply compound the problem.
I don't know if you've noticed, but we have really crummy soil here in the mountains of Arizona. There is little organic matter or food available for the plant. You need to add both. I personally like to add about 25 percent compost to the soil I have just excavated from the planting hole. Don't use manure, as it will be too hot for the newly forming roots. Compost will aerate the soil while the plant is forcing new roots. Make sure you blend the compost in with the soil. Don't layer the soil and then compost, as the new root hairs that will soon form will not like this layer of mulch as much as a blended soil. Also, throw away the rocks that are bigger than a large marble or silver dollar – they are bad for your plants.
The root ball should be level or above the soil level of the yard and packed down firmly with your foot, thereby eliminating air pockets around the root ball. I like to add a slow release or organic fertilizer on top of the planting. These types of plant foods will release a little food every time you water and promote more vigorous root growth.
One of the most important steps I find individuals under-do, or even overlook, is to add a layer of compost on top of the new planting. A two- to three-inch layer should be added to reduce weeds, regulate soil temperature, and retain moisture during summer. You should end up with more compost on top of the planting than you do blended in with the planting soil, and you should never have any compost left in the bag when complete. Use it all up as a top dressing for the plant.
You should add some sort of rooting hormone to the first watering of the plant and every two weeks thereafter until the sign of stress has passed. The two most recognized are 'Superthive' or 'Root Stimulator'. Both are added to the water as you hydrate your new planting. I don't care which one you use just as long as you use one. Miracle Grow is not a rooting hormone but simply a water soluble fertilizer. I think it's too strong for a new planting.
You need a lot of water that first week. You are not just watering the plant, but also the surrounding soil. Drip systems are great, but hand watering every once in awhile to saturate the soil surrounding the plant is necessary during hot dry spells.
This is as simple as I can make planting. If you need pictures and even more detail, visit us here at the garden center. There is an entire handout on just this topic and we can show you the individual products and how to use them. Now go out, and enjoy the garden.
Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.