Small landscape plants need to be watered on a regular basis. Too much water can and will kill just about any landscape plant. This is the most often misunderstood element of landscape gardening. We are all limited by the amount of experience we have in a given field. Through years and years of experience I have gained a great deal of knowledge about landscape plants.
Many people have very limited knowledge of landscape plants because it was probably never and interest of theirs. Then all of a sudden they find themselves in a situation where they need to become landscape gardeners almost overnight, usually when they just purchased their first home.
They visit the local garden center, buy a few plants, take them home and plant them. Everything goes well and the garden they created looks great. They are extremely proud of what they accomplished. However, in a couple of weeks some of the plants don’t look so good. “What could be wrong? I’ll bet they need some water” says the new gardener “Or maybe they need some fertilizer.”
It is possible that water is all they need, but it is highly unlikely that they need fertilizer. If this new gardener has watered these plants at all since they were planted, then water may not be what they need. In so many situations the plants have either been planted too deep, watered too much, or planted in a wet area.
Landscape plants need oxygen just like people. They must be planted in soil that is not too heavy, and is well drained. Landscape plants must be able to get oxygen to their root system. If you plant them in soil that does not drain well, the plants are likely to die because the moisture cannot escape and the plants suffocate do to a lack of oxygen. Yet, most novice gardeners do the only thing they know to do. They give the plant more water! Yikes! The plant dies. It’s not really the gardeners fault. He or she only did what they thought was right.
Planting a tree or shrub too deep is going to cause the same problem. If you are planting a balled and burlaped plant you should plant it so that about 1-1/2″ of the ball is above the ground level. Cover the top of the ball with about 1-1/2″ to 2″ of soil, creating a mound over the ball. This will allow the transfer of oxygen to the root system, and will actually shed excess water away from the plant.
The same applies to container grown plants. Plant them so that the soil level in the container is slightly above the level of the ground. Make sure you place a layer of soil over top of the soil from the container so the plant does not dry out too easily. There is a very fine line between a plant having enough water, or too much water.
The best way to make sure your plants have the correct amount of moisture in the soil is to raise your planting beds at least 8″ with good, rich, well drained topsoil. By planting your trees and shrubs in a raised bed you can water with confidence knowing that excess water will drain away from your landscape plants. Make sure the soil you use to raise your bed does not have a clay base. Clay soil does not drain well at all.
How do you know how wet the soil should be? The easiest way to check the soil for moisture content is to grab a handful of soil from around the root system and squeeze the soil in your hand. If any water at all runs out, the soil is too wet. The soil should be damp and cool to the touch, but not wet.
Be careful about following the advice of so called gardening experts. In my opinion, the only person who qualifies as an expert is the person who has planted thousands of landscape plants in every kind of soil imaginable, has guaranteed those plants to live, and has backed up that guarantee with his or her grocery money. That person is an expert! I say that because I see so many people following the advice of the salesperson in a garden center, or following the planting instructions on a plant tag and I know what they are doing is likely to kill the plant.
These so called experts recommend that when planting a tree or a shrub you should dig the hole wider and deeper than you need, and filling the bottom with loose stone for drainage, and filling around the sides with a loose organic material. Sounds like a good idea, but if you are in heavy clay soil, you have just created a bathtub for your plant to drown in. You have provided an excellent way for excessive water to get into the hole, but no way for it to drain away. Sure, you put some loose stone in the bottom of the hole for drainage, but what’s below the stone? Heavy clay soil, that’s what. The water is trapped, and the plant will suffocate.
How to plant depends on the soil you are planting in. If you are planting in sandy soil, or a gravel type soil, then you can dig the hole deeper and wider than you need and use some type of organic material in the bottom and around the sides. If you are in clay you have two choices, either raise the bed 8-10″ with good rich topsoil before planting, or plant directly in the clay and back fill around the plant with the clay soil. This will keep excess water from leaching in. In this case, make sure you put the plant in so the root ball is higher than grade. Raising the bed with good rich topsoil is the best solution.
When you start growing your own landscape plants from scratch you are going to root them in a bed or a flat. Once they have established roots you should transplant them to a bed or garden area. The same rules apply. Plant them in a raised bed and don’t plant them too deep. Keep them watered, but be careful about over watering.
There is only one thing you need to know about fertilizer. “Not enough is always better than too much.” Landscape plants are not like the grass around your home. The grass around your home can grow as much as five inches in one week or more, therefore using up a considerable amount of nitrogen. Many landscape plants don’t grow five inches in a full growing season. You must be extremely careful when applying a fertilizer containing nitrogen to your landscape plants. If you apply more nitrogen than a plant can use, you will burn the plant and likely kill it.
Every fertilizer should have an analysis printed on the container. Such as 12-12-12 , 26-3-3 or 5-10-5. These numbers represent the amount of active chemicals in the fertilizer. The first number represents the nitrogen content, the second number represents the phosphorous content and the third number represents the potassium content.
A fertilizer with an analysis of 26-3-3 would contain 26% nitrogen, 3% phosphorous, and 3% potassium. The other 68% is just filler material that is neutral. A 26-3-3 fertilizer is very high in nitrogen and should never be used on landscape plants. This formula might be all right to use on a lawn during the peak growing season, providing the lawn has an adequate amount of water. Most nurseries fertilize their landscape plants with fertilizers that have slow release capabilities. Some of the fertilizers take up to nine months to completely release. This allows the plants to use the fertilizer as it is released.
When fertilizing at home I highly recommend you use organic fertilizers that will not burn. Read the labels carefully. As much as you would like to speed up the growth rate of your landscape plants, fertilizer will help, but it is not a magic wand. The best thing you can do for your landscape plants to keep them healthy, happy, and vigorous, is to plant them in a raised bed of good, rich, well drained topsoil.
Proper pruning is an extremely important factor in raising beautiful landscape plants. If you’re like most home gardeners, you have a difficult time bringing yourself to prune your plants as they should be pruned. For one, most people don’t understand the mechanics of pruning.
Landscape plants primarily have two kinds of buds or branches: terminal and lateral. The terminal bud is the bud located at the tip of the branch. Lateral buds are located along the branch, or on the sides of the branch.
If you are raising evergreen shrubs or deciduous flowering shrubs, it is extremely important that these terminal buds be cut on a regular basis in order for the plant to fill out properly. (A deciduous plant is a plant that is not an evergreen. Deciduous shrubs lose their leaves during the winter months.) A shrub that has been properly pruned will be nice and tight and full. You cannot see through a properly pruned plant. If you do not cut off the terminal bud, the plant just keeps growing in that outward direction with very little development taking place inside the plant.
On the other hand, if you clip that terminal bud, the plant usually sets three or more buds just below where you cut. Allow these buds to develop and grow about four or five inches and cut them again. Just keep doing this until the plant has reached the size you desire. This really does not increase the time it takes to produce a landscape plant. It just assures you of a much nicer plant.
The best time to prune most landscape plants is when they need it. It does not harm plants to be pruned during the growing season. If you wait until fall to do your pruning, the plant will have grown considerably and most of that growth will have to been pruned away. On the other hand, if you clip that terminal bud during the growing season, the plant will set three more buds within a matter of weeks. These buds will begin to grow and the plant can be pruned again before the end of the growing season.
If you plant a shrub in the spring with three terminal branches and don’t prune it at all, at the end of the growing season you will have a very tall shrub with only three branches, but if you prune that shrub at the time of planting, and at least once more during the growing season, you will end up with a smaller shrub, but much nicer. That smaller shrub will develop into a beautiful plant and be an asset to your landscape for many years to come.
If you’re raising a tree the rules are different. With trees you want to leave the terminal bud intact until the tree has reached the height where you would like the branches to start. So basically, just let the tree grow straight up like a whip until it reaches a height of about five feet.
At that point, cut the top of the tree off where you would like the branches to start. Then as the head of the tree begins to develop, prune it much the same as you would for the shrubs we discussed earlier. This young tree is going to have leaves and small branches developing along the lower portion of the stem. It’s all right to leave these on the stem until the tree has developed a small head. The plant needs these leaves for food development.
Once the tree has established a small head go ahead and remove any leaves or branches along the stem of the tree. Keep pruning the terminal buds on the branches of the tree, in order to form a tree with a tight, compact head. The final word on pruning is Just do it! Don’t be afraid to trim those plants. It will not hurt them.
The best time to trim Rhododendrons and Azaleas is right after they bloom because they quickly start setting flower buds for next year. If you wait until fall or spring, then you will cut off some of the flower buds. This will not harm the plant, it just won’t be as pretty when it flowers, but if you forget to prune right after they bloom, don’t wait until next year, go ahead and trim even if it does cost you a few blooms.
The ideal time to trim most other plants is late fall or early spring, but anytime is better than not at all.