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The Charleston Gardener: Spring planning and planting

By Louisa Cameron

It’s the season for a stunning garden. Photo courtesy of the author.

I usually plan ahead of time to make the effort to get all healthy, just-purchased plants out of their pots and into the ground the day they are brought to their new home. But there are so many unexpected opportunities. It’s like dieting … I make the same resolve over and over, year in and year out. And the result is that I have lost plants, not pounds!

Here is what I SHOULD be doing. First, I need to assess the entire garden and write down a list of what to look for at the nurseries and garden centers, as I often visit more than one on a big day’s outing.

Then, I need to set aside time to dig out the roots (there are always roots from the trees surrounding our walled-in city garden), put in soil amendments and carefully prepare each area before my shopping day. It’s so easy to pull out my phone and take several pictures to help with choosing plants while at the nursery that I am not sure why I don’t do it more often. One of our most successful plantings occurred several years ago in late winter when I took a picture of a forlorn bed that gets morning shade and baking afternoon sun and showed it to the staff at Hyams Garden Center on Folly Road.

I had never planted foxgloves en masse, but those are what the staff suggested would work well as annuals in that location. Not only did the foxgloves bloom all spring, they dropped enough seeds that a few plants popped up in the bed the next year. Now we plant them each spring, and not always in the same place. Foxgloves mix well with larkspur, roses, stock and tall spring bulbs. I do have to pull the foxgloves all up by mid-June, as the leaves predictably get rust and the plants wilt pitifully in the summer heat and humidity. Most of our nine-foot brick and stucco walls are covered with fig vine (Ficus pumila) which gives a good medium green background but admittedly is a chore to keep trimmed. The fences surrounding the back of the garden are painted a medium green, which also makes the area look larger and much softer without the need for constant shearing.

So now pictures on my iPhone are essential to planning the garden each season, including winter, when the structures or “‘bones’” of the garden stand out. Sometimes, for instance, photos can help me see that a new pots or a small flowering tree could enhance an area that needs a boost or a focal point.

My grandfather taught me to “mud in” new plantings with the hose, meaning to well-water the plant and the hole, especially when putting in shrubs and trees. A gardening friend who often shares his bounty taught us that when we’re given “pass along” plants, let them sit in the shade for a week or so and keep them evenly watered until they look healthy and established. Have you ever turned over a flimsy six pack and had the plant fall out, leaving the delicate roots in the bottom of the cell? If I cannot tell that the roots are well established, I now either let the cell pack sit in the shade in a shallow pan of water for a few days (breaking my rule of planting immediately), or I use scissors to cut open the plastic and carefully ease the plant into its allotted space. You can always ease them out a bit from their containers to check on the root growth. Be sure to plant your new purchases at the level they were growing at the nursery and be generous with the size of the hole. It’s almost always beneficial to add some compost and then mulch after planting. Most new transplants need to be monitored carefully for moisture. Newly planted shrubs and trees need to be watered almost daily for a good three weeks, especially if it is hot and dry weather. It’s difficult to tell how much water is too much water, but a quick dig with a trowel will tell you a lot, and overwatering is much worse than underwatering.

Sometimes the season just isn’t right for optimum planting and you have to “heel in” certain plants. “Heeling in” is a term used in the nursery trade. It simply means to dig a V-shaped trench larger than the roots or the pot that the plant comes in, lay the plant on its side with the top leaning out of and against the side of the trench, cover the roots well with soil and keep it watered until you are ready to move the plant. The trench should be in a shady spot, especially in summer. A good example would be the bargain purchase of a good-sized hydrangea that’s in bloom in July. Midsummer is not a favorable time to be planting shrubs, so the hydrangea might benefit from being pruned and heeled in in a very shady spot until fall. One word of caution, though. Be careful not to let the plant become root-bound if it is left in its pot. Your local nursery staff can advise you whether a midsummer purchase or a winter purchase should be heeled in until it’s the best time to plant. Bare-root plants ordered from online nurseries will often benefit from this treatment. Be sure to first soak them in water for a few hours or even overnight.

Speaking of pot-bound, sometimes you can gently tug on a nursery specimen and see if it’s badly encircled by its own roots or if the roots are spilling out from the bottom of the pot. If the plants are in biodegradable pots, be sure to completely cover the pot with soil or it will dry out quickly. A serrated knife is my favorite tool for slicing through a mass of roots to spread them out a bit when planting. It may be best to just select a similar plant or try another seller if the offerings look weak. I often rescue plants from sale racks if I am pretty sure that they can be revived or rejuvenated and they show no signs of disease. They get isolated in my semi-shady “nursery” area and watched for a week or two.

It has taken me years and years to train myself not to buy plants in August, but just the other day I visited a roadside stand and found a mislabeled fern that has soft broad leaves — a lovely, full pot of the Verbena bonariensis that I have been keeping on my radar for over a year. I can grow this tall, loose purple variety of verbena in North Carolina; it pops up in sunny spots on the gravel drive in front of the house, but it has died each time I have brought it back to Charleston. Both August finds are thriving now.

Back to bringing plants home: Check several times to make certain you are not importing scale, mites, fungus, weeds or harmful insects. It’s a good idea to have a staging area where you can examine some plants closely before putting them in the ground, especially if they have not come from a known source or if you have dug them yourself. If it’s not too hot, you might want to spray certain plants with organic oils such as neem oil or dormant oil if you suspect there may be a problem. We are still pulling weeds that spread rapidly from a truckload of small shrubs we purchased from a local wholesale nursery and we had to destroy several young cercis trees and cherry trees due to the borers we did not realize were killing them from the inside.

So get excited about the season, make a plan, prepare your planting areas, take photos, take care of your new additions and have a wonderful time gardening.

Louisa Huger Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to Price Cameron, a retired plastic surgeon. She is the author of three books on the gardens of Charleston, enjoys duplicate bridge and is a proud grandmother of three.


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