Planting flexibility comes in containers

Times have changed since the days when a homeowner would walk the rows of field-grown nursery stock in the springtime, select his plants, and have them dug to take home.

Containerization is the rule today and has changed much of our gardening from a seasonal activity to a year-round pursuit. In the milder parts of the country, for example, you can plant a shrub or install an entire garden 12 months of the year. Even in the coldest areas of the North, you can plant containerized trees and shrubs any time the ground can be worked.

Since plants in the nurseries are grown in containers, it behooves all of us to learn how to handle them well. It's clear that many of us don't know how to handle them when a nursery guarantees all the plant material its staff plants, but none which the homeowner installs.

The simplest form of containing the root ball is the old ball-and-burlap system.

In Michigan, a neighbor decided to transplant a viburnum in his yard. The plant had not grown or bloomed for three years. When he unearthed the rootball, it was quite apparent why the shrub had not made any progress. The roots were still tightly encased in the burlap wrappings. While burlap fabric of jute will decay, allowing the roots to penetrate the surrounding soil, a plastic burlaplike material will hold up for a long time.

Another neighbor, while moving a shrub, found the roots of his plant still tied with nylon rope.

So pay attention to the packaging of the nursery plants which you buy. If the wrapping is plastic or the string nylon, eliminate it completely.

Even with natural burlap packaging, either remove it or slash the burlap several times before setting the plant in the ground. Because I like to see the root system of any tree or shrub I buy, I tend to remove coverings completely unless handling a huge tree.

Metal cans are another method of containing plants. If you buy shrubs in metal, ask your nurseryman to cut the can for you and be careful not to cut yourself when handling the plant in your yard.

The pressed-paper containers are easy to slice open with a sharp knife.

Most plants you buy today will be in plastic pots and range from a two-inch minipot to a large 10-gallon size. The plastic pots have sloping sides and are meant to be slipped off rather than cut off. Small ones are easy to handle, but it's really a two-man job to wrestle an eight-foot tree out of a 10-gallon pot and into the ground.

When you're preparing to plant your containerized material, keep in mind the old saw about digging a $5 hole for a 50-cent plant. It's still a good idea. Before planting your tree, vine, or shrub, dig a generous hole and prepare the soil.

Whether you are dealing with clay or sandy soil, improve it with liberal amounts of peat moss, compost, or other organic materials.

Before you put the canned material in the ground, check the root system. Ideally, any container plant is brought to market just as the fibrous roots fill the pot and make a solid root mass. However, if the plant has been in the container too long, it may have roots going round and round.

Jerry Mailman, a horticulture instructor in California, will routinely take a sharp knife and make four vertical cuts on the outside of a root ball from a can. I often use his method. Sometimes I just unwind the circling roots and prune them off.

Root pruning encourages good growth of new fibrous roots to support the plant.

Traditional advice is to prune back the top of your shrub the same amount that you have pruned the roots. Keep the plant in balance. A recent study, however, suggests that leaving more top growth on a newly planted tree or shrub is desirable.

Water your new plantings frequently and faithfully the first season so that they will become well established. If you have planted and maintained your shrubs and trees properly, it will be obvious next year.

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