This column by Steve Smith was first published in The Daily Herald on July 24, 2020. With the recent heatwave, “The Whistling Gardener” requested The Herald republish this one on planting in the summer because it is timely and important information.
Now that the summer weather has arrived, it never fails that a gardener will ask me: “Can I still plant now, or should I wait until the fall?”
For the record, when I was a landscape contractor in the Sacramento Valley, where it was routinely 85 to 105 degrees, I planted all summer long and never lost a single plant. You can have the same success rate by following my step-by-step directions.
Step 1: Never put a plant into dry soil.
If you surround a root ball with dry soil, it will suck all the life out of the tiny feeder roots and quite possibly lead to failure.
Step 2: Pre-soak the planting hole.
This is so critical to a successful summer planting. Fill the hole with water and let it soak in until all the water is gone — this could take some time. This process will also let you know if you have any drainage issues. If there is water in the bottom that just won’t go away, fill the hole up with soil just enough to get above the water.
Step 3: Dig a hole.
The hole should be just as deep as the root ball and twice as wide.There is no need to dig a grave. Roots move laterally, so the wider the hole the better.
Step 4: Rough up the root ball.
Some plants can be extremely root-bound and will need aggressive action to loosen them up. Others may only need a gentle scratching.
Step 5: Set the plant in the hole.
Makes sure the soil level of the root ball is the same or even a little higher than the surrounding landscape.
In other words, don’t bury the plant up to its neck.
Step 6: Give it some “plant insurance.”
Work in some compost and organic fertilizer to help the root system get established. I call these ingredients “plant insurance,” because they can really make a big difference.
Once you’ve placed the plant in the hole, replace half of the soil (with some fertilizer and compost blended into it) and firm it up by stepping on it with your feet, if it is a big hole, or with your hands, if it is a small hole.
Step 7: Make a water well for the plant.
Now add several gallons of water to the hole and let it soak in (less if it is just a 1 gallon or smaller plant). Replace the rest of the soil, firm it up like before and make a moat (we call them “watering wells”) around the plant that you can fill with 1-2 inches of water.
Fill the well once, let it soak in and fill it again — if it soaks in really fast, fill it once more. The concept here is to saturate the soil surrounding the new root ball so that the plant has enough water to draw from for several days. When this is done properly, you should only have to water once or twice a week and after a month you can remove the watering well, grade out the dirt and finish off with some compost or bark mulch.
If you follow these seven steps you should be successful — I don’t care how hot it gets. Plants that are properly planted will not wilt and they will not drop any leaves. If your plants are wilting or dropping leaves, either they are too dry or they are drowning. It is almost always a water issue that results in failure of a plant.
So, don’t worry about planting in the heat of the summer. Stay safe and keep on gardening.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two free classes
Sunnyside Nursery’s free gardening classes are online for now. A “Perennials & Pollinators” class is scheduled for 10 a.m. July 31, followed by a “Go Native or Go Nativar?” class at 11 a.m. Aug. 1 via Zoom. With registration, you’ll receive a Zoom link to attend the online class. For more information or to sign up, visit www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.