This spring my wife and I started to convert the expanse of lawn around our newly purchased ranch house into gardens.  While we focus on renovating the insides of the house, the focus for our garden is its infrastructure and bones.  To that end, we’ve been smothering several hundred square feet of lawn under cardboard, newspapers, and compost; planting young shrubs to create screens; carefully carving specimens out of overgrown trees; and generally preparing the soil for future garden spaces.  Last week we installed several hundred perennials and grasses on the side of our house.  During that planting, I remembered the best planting advice I’ve ever received.

This advice came to me by way of a representative from Monrovia Nursery.  Monrovia is one of the sleeker national nurseries with big ad budgets and relentless branding strategies.  While I’m typically turned-off by glossy national nurseries and their patented plants, I must admit that Monrovia knows their stuff when it comes to installing plants.
The advice focused on techniques of installing container plants.  The big problem with container plants is that they get root bound.  Roots naturally grow out and down (mostly out) away from the plant.  When the roots of a plant in a pot reaches the wall of a pot, it has nowhere to go and will begin circling the perimeter of a pot over and over again.  Almost any gardener who has brought home a new plant from a nursery has seen how a container plant can get root bound.  It’s best to avoid plants in this condition, but often gardeners don’t have that option.

I had known how to direct the roots away from the plant using a root hook, or by scoring the sides of the roots with a sharp blade.  However, what I did not realize was that root bound plants often become so dense, they will not absorb water.  The density of tangled roots in a container plant can make the plant hydrophobic—it literally sheds water.  Think about a dry sponge.  When you first stick it under the faucet, water bounces off of it.  So if you simply place that root bound plant in the ground and water it, water will more than likely run off the root ball and move toward the less dense soil around it.  Even if you water it, the plant may not be getting the water.

How do you deal with this problem?  The idea is to soak the plant for several minutes in water prior to planting.  When you plant, fill up a large bucket with water–preferably rainwater since it does not have any of the chlorine or other chemicals of municipal water.  Take the plant out of its pot and gently pull any encircled roots away from the plants.  Then set the root ball in the bucket of water.  Let it soak for anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes—or until air bubbles stop coming out of it.  This deep hydration actually reverses the plant’s hydrophobia.  When you install a sopping wet root ball into the ground, the dry soil around it actually clings to the root ball by osmosis, creating a better soil to root contact.  This technique is especially good for container trees.  If the plant is that large, consider filling a wheel barrow full of water.

Want to really baby that plant?  Here’s my own little spin on this trick: soak the root ball in a bucket of freshly brewed compost tea.  Compost tea is essentially compost-brewed water that is aerated for 24 hours and mixed with a bit of molasses (or other sugar).  Compost tea takes the beneficial bacteria and fungus present in compost increases them exponentially by aeration and sugars.  These bacteria and fungus are critical in root establishment.  Soaking your new plant in compost tea literally loads the root ball with beneficial soil microorganisms right before it gets planted.  More on compost tea later.

Next time you plant, have a bucket of rainwater or compost tea by your side.  I promise, you’ll notice a difference.
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