By Urban Harvest
The month of March ushers in the spring season, and with it new beginnings, especially in the garden. Now is a good time to take a fresh look at your original plan to see what has been successful and what has missed the mark.
Begin by evaluating your plantings to determine their suitability to the garden you want to create. That plant that looked just the right size in the container when you bought it last year may have outgrown its space, blocking windows, paths or views.
Note the physical condition of plants and make sure they are still appropriate to current conditions in the garden. Are sun-loving plants now struggling under the shade of canopy trees? Are shade-loving plants suffering from sun exposure after the loss of a tree? Remember that plants in stressed conditions are more susceptible to opportunistic diseases and insects that could wreak havoc on the whole garden.
Taking an assessment
After taking an assessment of your garden's existing plants, it is time to decide what will stay, what can be moved and what needs to go straight to the compost pile.
Overgrown shrubs may be too large to restore as hedges, but they may be perfect candidates to be relocated and reclaimed as small trees. Removing the lower foliage and some of the upright branches can create a multi-trunk tree, with an attractive sculptural branching habit.
If moving things around is in order, be sure you have an appropriate location to move the plant to in order to give it the right cultural conditions. If the plant under consideration is in poor condition, you should consider removal as opposed to relocation. The plant's poor condition immediately makes it a bad choice for the stress of transplanting.
Ideally, the dormant season is the best time for transplanting. Spring is an acceptable time, if it is done early enough that the plant has time to flush out and establish some new roots before summer's heat sets in.
To transplant, dig a solid root ball; the bigger the better. Take care not to crack the root ball during the move. Large root balls are very heavy, so get some help from friends with strong backs. An old blanket or burlap bag can be useful as a sling.
Do not dig and replant if the soil is too wet. You will compact the soil during the process and remove the oxygen available to the surrounding plants. Also, be careful if the soil is dry. Root balls that are too dry are most susceptible to cracking. Water the day before you dig so that the soil is moist but hasn't made the root ball so heavy it can't be moved.
Prune about a third of the plant's foliage to compensate for the loss of roots. Many gardeners hate to cut anything back, but it is necessary since the plant has lost much of the root system that previously supported what you are cutting back. Remember that reluctance to prune probably got you to the point of needing to move things around.
Make sure you plant the root ball at its previous level. A lower level would prevent oxygen from getting to established roots. A higher level would dry up exposed roots. Water the transplant and stake if necessary. Apply a two-inch layer of compost or shredded native hardwood mulch. It’s best to purchase from local nurseries and not big box stores. There are no laws saying what can or cannot go into mulch (such as palettes and building supplies), so buyer beware.
Think before you buy
Our temperate climate allows for a nearly year-round growing season with an extensive plant palette that includes many fast-growing shrubs and perennials. It may be more cost-effective to purchase a plant in a small container than spending hours of your time attempting to move a large, leggy one. The containerized plant will mature long before the stressed plant recovers from shock, if it ever does.
Before rushing off impulsively to the nearest garden center to buy something that catches your eye the moment you walk through the gate, determine what you need. Is it color, texture, fragrance or screening? Does the area get sun or shade? You may need or want plants that attract birds and butterflies.
Lastly, don't forget to consider your overall goal for the garden. It may need to be re-evaluated as well. Do you still have time to tend to extensive plantings of seasonal color? You may consider replacing some areas with perennial color. Now may be a good time to establish a patch of the garden for edible plantings you've always wanted to incorporate.
Whatever your decisions may be, formulate a plan so that you don't find yourself doing the same thing next year.
This column is produced by Urban Harvest. Learn about gardening classes, community gardens and orchards, farmers markets and more at Urban Harvest website. Article written by Suzy Fischer, who is a registered Landscape Architect and principal of Fischer Schalles Associates, a landscape design/build firm.