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Be Prepared – Get the Groundwork Done Early

This is the classic “do as I say, not as I do” article. When you know that you are going to the nursery to get a tree, a shrub, whatever, to fill a spot, consider preparing or amending the soil beforehand.

There’s a fair deal of work involved, and it’s a kindness to both you and the plant to get the grunt work out of the way. Then you can come home with your plants, and just pop them in.

Take it from one who’s learned the hard way. My whole patio and around one side of my house is filled— granted, some things are my house plants out for the summer, but most are larger, outside things I got in fits of acquisitiveitis, and have stood out there reproaching me ever since. Plays hob with your water bill, too.

In my own particular case, my soil is solid clay. To plant a tree, I need to dig a crater, lug in amendment stuff (compost, manure, sand if that is what the plant needs, peat moss ditto), and dig it in. Not according to the size the plant is, oh no! but to the size that the plant will grow to be.

Not that we want you to stop impulse buying! Impulse purchasers are our dearest friends, our bread and butter. But what seemed so easy a job when you bought the plant often turns out to be more work than you have time for upon return. And you usually will have forgotten something, peat, mulch, whatever. The plant will fare far better with us, where we will remember to water it daily, than with you for a week, which seems to be the period between available labor times for most people.

It helps to have a checklist. Will the plant need staking? Will it need peat? Compost? Do you have Plant Starter? (Note: Plant Starter is a weak fertilizer solution which essentially tells the plant, “Shut up, suck up water and put out roots.” It virtually eliminates transplant shock. There shouldn’t be much anyway, just popping a plant out of a nursery pot, but use it anyway, when you plant something and water it in. Once suffices.

Where the stuff works wonders is where you have to dig something up by the roots, or separate things that came six-to-the-same-soil-ball; you hardly even see leaves drooping, and the plant usually thrives thereafter, even if you move it at a bad time of year. And, checklist or no, I tend to forget things.

So, if you have room, it is a Good Idea to keep an extra stash of plant starter (big bottles are cheaper), peat moss and fine pine mulch (as you have room) to dig into the soil & increase acidity, a bag of sand for those plants as need it, an extra bag of whatever-mulch-you-use-on-top. Lay in a supply of stakes of various sizes, especially some large, heavy stakes. If you have the space, get BIG bags of fertilizer. Put bag and all into a watertight container and use as needed.

Keep a supply of twine for tying things up. I suppose you should keep a bag of compost, too, although I tend to use everything I get, on the spot… And keep some of the plastic pots that things came in. Over time they are quite useful, and if you cram things onto your windowsills as I do, you will find that the square pots perennials come in fit more tightly than round ones into a tray or into a cold frame.

And try to keep your storage organized, so that you don’t have to break your neck every time you want something. I said, this was “do as I say”…. For those that have no storage space, and many and many in the Metro area do not, I do apologize. But for those who do, you can save yourselves time and aggravation by being prepared.

by Jim Dronenburg

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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