Plant Installation Tips

Gardener’s Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts

By Dan Songster, 2015 September

This column is a regular newsletter feature offering chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. Our question is: What advice regarding installing a new native plant would you give to a new native gardener?”

Nancy Harris – ”First, make sure the plant in black pot is totally hydrated or moist. If the soil is difficult to penetrate make a small well in the soil and wet it enough to make it diggable (new word?). Dig the hole (placing back-fill in one spot so it is easy to replace in hole) no deeper than the plant’s crown or a little less so the plant’s crown sits slightly above the soil line.  Fill the hole with as much water as possible (3 times if possible) and let it drain. This will give you an idea how good the soil drainage is. Remove plant from pot and check and carefully loosen roots at bottom and sides of plant to be sure no root is circling the root ball, which will eventually strangle the plant. Replace the back-fill into hole and tamp down carefully to remove air pockets (watering will also help with this). Water plant again.  I like to place newspaper around the plant a few inches from crown and cover with mulch, but just mulching is good. Use a hand-held water meter to test hydration of plant before watering again.”

Leon Baginski-“If you are compelled to plant in the summer, use a shade cloth over the plant or plants so they don’t get roasted by the summer heat while trying to set root. It also allows for less frequent watering and thus less potential for root pathogens.”

Barbara Eisenstein – “Simple but important advice on putting in a new garden includes: Getting the hardscape right with paths, seating, irrigation (if you feel like you must install a permanent system), focal points, mounds and gullies, rocks, etc.  Plant in late fall to winter and be careful choosing the right trees, but be more adventurous with short-lived perennials and annuals. Take your time and don’t stress.”

Ron Vanderhoff – “In this respect natives are no different than any other plant: 1) Have a plan. 2) Resist temptation. 3) Read the label. 4) Cheap is not necessarily better. 5) Have fun, lots of fun.”

Thea Gavin – “1. Dig a hole just a bit bigger than the plant pot and then fill the hole with water and let it drain at least 2-3 times (especially important in dry season planting). 2. Remove the plant from its pot, knocking off as much of the non-soil material as you can (the woody planting mix). 3. When you refill the hole, use your fingers to poke the soil firmly around the root ball so there are no air pockets. 4. Create a shallow watering basin by mounding up the extra soil in a circle a foot or so away from the plant. And water gently but thoroughly. 5. Mulch with rock chunks, gravel, or shredded bark (but keep it from touching the stem).”

Rama Nayeri – “Get the spacing right. Get some newspaper or cardboard and cut out a circle the width the plant will be when mature (say 3’ wide assuming the plant you are using gets that wide).  Then set that on the ground and you will have a good visual on the eventual size of the plant and know how much space to leave when planting.”

Dan Songster – “A few additions to what has been said. In the clay soils of Golden West College Native Garden we create a hole much wider than the root ball, then attempt to fracture the sides of the hole with a pick or bust bar to allow roots and water a future pathway. We seldom add organic amendments unless it is a riparian or grassland plant, but as far as using small rock and decomposed gravel as part of the back fill, we are not shy. Since we are planting in clay soils the use of such inorganic amendments (especially up around the root collar) can be quite helpful for plants sensitive to off season water such as manzanitas and woolly blue curls. Even pure decomposed granite can work—simply look at the huge mound of DG that the Arctostaphylos‘Lester Rowntree’ at Tree of life is planted in. It has been doing wonderfully for years.

“Finally, we at GWC Native Garden have begun to experiment with gently stripping away much of the “wooden” soils from the root ball, not quite bare rooting them, but close. This means that the roots have immediate contact with the backfill of onsite soil rather than sitting in a bunch of woodchips and green waste that decompose and leave an unstable and poorly rooted plant (which in our experience is also prone to disease). It should be done quickly and once planted, watered immediately. Plants that are known to be sensitive to root disturbance (Romneya sp, etc) should be planted without the root ball being disturbed.”

Sarah Jayne – “Watch the videos of Mike Evans planting a shrub at



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