2018, May 2018, What to do in the garden

Planting Perennials

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Memorial Day Weekend is a great time to plant perennials since, for most of us in the Northeast, the threat of a frost is over. It’s time to go to the garden center and spend a little money. Or a lot of money! Regardless of the amount spent, we all want to protect that investment, and one of the ways to do that is to make sure the plants are planted correctly. The small amount of extra time that it takes to plant a perennial correctly pays off generously in the long-term health of the plant. And it’s very simple, once you know how.

 

Basically, what you are doing is creating an ideal environment for a new plant to grow in. This means making it easy for it to put out root growth, and giving it enough water deep down so that the roots to grow down, not up. Because if you have a good root system, the plant is much more likely to thrive. Here’s how:

 

1)     Dig a hole about twice as wide as the plant, and maybe 1.5 times its depth. The reason for this is that the soil that you put back in will be looser and it will be easier for the plant to grow roots into. Save the soil that you took out. Once upon a time, it was thought that putting back fresh, enriched soil was the thing to do, but studies have found that it makes such a pleasant place for the plants’ roots to be that they don’t venture into the adjacent soil, causing the it to be less stable. So the soil that you took out should go back in again, except for exceptional circumstances.

 

2)     Take the plant out of its pot and inspect the root system. If the roots look like they are densely packed, or are circling the bottom or sides of the pot, then they need to be loosened up. Scratch all the way around the root area, allowing the roots to spring free from the shape of the pot. If they are really stubborn, use your garden clippers or even a knife to slice them.

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3)     Backfill some of the removed soil into the hole, and check to make sure that the soil level around the plant is the right height. Place the plant in the hole, and backfill around it until it is about halfway up the sides of the root ball. Water deeply. This ensures that there is plenty of water available at the bottom of the plant, and gets rid of any air pockets that may be lurking in the soil.

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4)     Backfill the rest of the way. If you can, make a shallow ring around the plant with a little bit of soil so that water gets trapped there and can sink in. Water deeply again.

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And there you have it! Your plants’ roots will have an ideal place in which to grow and be well watered. Mulching will help retain water loss, so that’s a good idea as well. Just keep the mulch away from the place where the plant meets the soil, or moisture could settle in and the plants could rot.

 

So now, you know. Happy planting!

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The Tree Strangler

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I was going to write this blog entry about a gardening tool that I am particularly fond of, but I have become obsessed with the Strangler Fig lately and so I’m going to write about that instead and will leave writing about my favorite tool for another time.

 

Once, I read a book whose first line read, “My earliest ambition was to become a missionary-bishop and in due course to be eaten by cannibals.” The rest of the book was rather anticlimactic in comparison to that intriguing statement, but how could you not keep reading a book which begins in that way? I was similarly drawn in by the Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea), but in contrast, its story is just as interesting as its name. It begins life as an epiphyte, a plant that lives on a host plant but gets its sustenance from the air, rain, and airborne debris, rather than feeding on the host itself. Quite a benign start – but one that quickly becomes rather sinister. After attaching itself to the host (usually a tree and often a palm because of the grooves in the bark), it begins to grow. Aerial roots grow downward to attach to the soil and thicken. Others grow upward and tangle themselves around the leaf buds, preventing them from opening. Still others wrap themselves tightly around the trunk, keeping it from increasing in girth. As the Fig gets bigger, its thick canopy of leaves covers the host tree and blocks out any light. The host tree eventually weakens and dies, leaving a hollow centered, self supporting “tree” that is largely made up of Strangler Fig roots.

 

Since it starts its life near the top of the tree – its seeds having been deposited there by a bird – the Strangler Fig  has the advantage over trees growing directly in the soil, as it starts out much closer to the light. Being able to survive on air and rain means it isn’t dependent on the soil except as an anchor when it has become bigger than its host. It is not unusual, where these plants are found, to see a perfectly healthy tree with a strange growth of Strangler Fig clinging to the side, perhaps shooting out an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque” appendage to grapple onto a nearby limb and hold it in its clutches. And we already know how the story will end, with a big knotty tangle of roots, some perhaps two feet in diameter, squeezing the life out of the poor tree that the Fig has landed on. No wonder it is sometimes called a “vegetable octopus”, or the “boa constrictor of the plant world”.

 

The strangling of a tree can take decades, if the host is big and strong, a lot less time if it is smaller. But it will happen, and the tree will eventually die and rot away, the rotted trunk then fed on by the Fig. The host has, in effect, been eaten by a vegetative cannibal. The only way to stop it is to get the Strangler Fig while it’s young and cut it out of the tree. In fact, that tool that I was going to write about would be just the thing for that job… But that’s for another time.

 

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If you look at the top of the picture, you will see the palm tree that is being swallowed up by the Strangler Fig.

 

 

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What it looks like at the bottom.