About the author: Jacqueline Houston is a member of the Wedgewood Garden Club and a Master Gardener of King County. She has been gardening in Seattle for over 30 years. Wedgewood Garden Club always welcomes new members – contact Jacqueline at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on our monthly meetings.
How can you get your freshly-bought nursery plants off to the best possible start? These two simple steps can make a big, big difference to whether they thrive, or merely survive.
Let’s assume you have already enriched your soil with some compost, if needed, and dug a nice hole. Now fill a bucket with enough water to submerge your newly purchased plant till all the dirt is under water, and watch the air bubbles rise to the surface. These come from all the air pockets that the nursery’s conscientious watering has failed to reach in the depths of the pot, and your rootball should now be thoroughly wet. (This was a hot tip from legendary British gardener Beth Chatto, who always submerged every plant before planting it.)
Next, remove the plant from its pot and loosen the roots. (I am talking ornamental plants here, not little vegetable starts.) Some people (my daughters!) are taken aback by how energetically I lay into the roots of a new shrub, for example, especially it is root-bound, loosening and soaking, lossening and soaking, until I have located the main woody roots and uncurled them from their cramped adaptation to a circular pot. Time and again I have dug up a plant that is failing to thrive and discovered the roots are still circling around in their old pot-bound pattern, and not moving outward into their expansive new quarters in the ground.
Don’t be afraid to cut off a root that stubbornly resists uncircling itself. If it remains in that position, it can end up “girdling” the woody plant and basically strangling it, so the plant limps along for years without really growing (my coral bark maple! my evergreen huckleberry!). Roots are tough. I once bought a 7 foot tree from an excellent nursery, that had been field grown, dug up, and its roots encased in clay and burlap and then put in a big pot. The clay all had to be washed away before planting, and to my enormous shock this revealed that the thick woody roots had been chopped off at about 9 inches the year before, with hundreds of new rootlets growing from the stumps. Five years later that tree is 15 feet tall and shows no signs of stopping.
So soak your plants, loosen those roots, and your plants will be off to as good a start as you can give them.