proper planting of trees and shrubs, with lee reich
IT’S OCTOBER and even in my Zone 5B location, where frost can come from late September onward, October and the first portion of November are prime planting times for many things—not just flower bulbs, or garlic. Lee Reich and I both consider this prime time for planting trees and shrubs. The trick is knowing how to do it right.
On the other end of the equation, Lee and I are both un-planting some particularly un-loved weeds this autumn, and he joined me on my public-radio show and podcast to talk about planting trees, and also fighting weeds.
I often refer to Lee Reich, a longtime friend and fellow garden writer, as the unusual fruit guy, because one of the first books of his I read was called “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention,” and he grows medlars and pawpaws and figs and more at his New Paltz, New York, farm-den—that’s half garden, half farm. His other books include “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Weedless Gardening” and “The Pruning Book.”
Lee and I have another trait in common: We’re both old-fashioned in our approach to horticulture, leaning heavily toward the science.
Read along as you listen to the October 3, 2016 edition of the show using the player below (or at this link). A copy of your choice of one of Lee’s books is up for grabs; enter to win it in the comment box at the very bottom of the page.
fall planting and weed removal, with lee reich
Q. I know everyone gets excited about early spring planting, because the nurseries have just opened and the catalogs have been tempting us for weeks and weeks by then. But you and I both also use the fall. Why do you like it?
A. There are a lot of reasons—and I’m talking about for trees and shrubs, woody plants. In the spring, especially if you have bare-root plants, sometimes they start to grow before you get them in the ground. The soil can be very wet; it’s too wet to dig holes. There is this rush because the roots want to be in the ground because the stems are staring to grow, but you can’t get them in the ground.
Whereas in the fall, the stems have shut down and really won’t start growing again until they get a signal—which is a certain amount of chilly weather—that tells them that winter is over.
So the stems won’t grow [in fall] but roots don’t have that restriction—roots grow whenever the soil temperature is about 40 degrees F, which it often is going on into fall.
A. Even in our cold Zone, the soil is insulated enough that it may be 40 or more.
And if you happened to plan ahead because you knew you were going to plant something, and you threw some mulch on the ground, that would insulate the spot even more, so you still have summer heat in the soil.
Another reason is I feel like I have so much to do in spring, that anything I can do in fall is good.
And the plants are in place already in spring, ready to go, and you get the benefit of winter wetness. You don’t have to water them till sometime when the soil starts to dry out a little for that first season—not even in early spring.
The other thing is that as I said the soil is slurpy-wet in the spring, and digging ruins the soil structure, whereas in the fall (though I don’t know about this fall around here) it’s usually just moist, which is perfect.
Obviously it’s dry here now.
Q. Generally speaking, in our region, the Midwest and various other places, that would be the case.
There a lot of myths about planting trees and shrubs, and I am always surprised when I look at some of my older gardening books—ones I still love in one way or another—but in which I also see things that seem very dated. Like we used to excavate these huge holes, and amend the holes. Let’s talk about the good sense. Digging holes is a lot of work—so how much do we have to do?
A. Two things: I happen to enjoy debunking myths, even if it’s traditional gardening myths, and there are a lot of them. And the nice thing about in tree planting, most of these myths when debunked make for less work by you and me and other gardeners.
Q. I know; it’s great.
A. The first one is that giant hole. It used to be said that it was better to plant s $5 in a $50 hole than a $50 tree in a $5 hole, and the dollars indicate the size of the tree or hole. There actually has been some research on this, which shows that trees grow best if you dig a hole maybe twice as wide as the spread of the roots or rootball (if it’s a potted plant) and no deeper than it takes to set the tree at the same level it was in the nursery, or its pot.
If you’re going to loosen up the soil, the roots obviously have to go beyond that hole at some point. If you can’t get the soil right right at the planting hole, without loosening it up beyond there. you probably shouldn’t be planting there. As far as the depth, if you loosen the soil too deep, the soil will settle, and then the plants will be too deep in the ground and probably rot away.
Q. I think the failures I’ve had over the years with trees and shrubs—and it hasn’t been that many that have not “taken,” so to speak. Obviously sometimes an ice storm comes, or wind comes and break off branches—but I’m talking about ones that didn’t thrive after plant. Those have typically been when what you just said happened: when I didn’t gauge my preparation right, and get the right level, and it kind of ended up in a hollow. I think the root suffocated—in a low, wet spot.
A. It’s interesting that some of these myths were debunked many, many years ago. I have a book, one of my favorites written many years ago, called “Science and Fruit Growing.” It’s written by the Duke of Bedford and Spencer Pickering in England [in 1919].
A. The Duke decided to have a kind of agricultural experiment station, and they tried all sorts of things, like among them there was something called the Oklahoma planting method. Basically with bare-root trees they would strip off all the side roots, take a crowbar, wedge out a hole in the soil, wedge the tree in and that was it.
A. They got great results from it. I’m not saying it would work everywhere, or suggesting it, but mentioning it as far as saying that the bathtub-sized hole for a tree is not necessary.
Q. You mentioned that the hole should be twice as big as the plant, right?
A. Twice as wide.
Q. So it I have a 5-gallon pot, I’d make a hole twice as wide as the lip of that pot, and leave half as much room on each side of the plant—like a ring around it of space.
A. And it’s nice if the hole is conical, and starts full width at the edge and then slopes as it goes down. [Below, a well-dug conical hole at Lee’s.]
Q. I just mentioned container plants, in nursery pots. They have been in the pots awhile—and I feel like they can be planted at any time. You mentioned bare-root things—do you get them in the fall, or just the spring?
A. I’m a big fan of bare root because first, you can get a really good selection. They can be shipped from anywhere easily, because there’s no soil—weight’s not a problem. I meant to mention: Sometimes the bare-root tree will have a long, lanky root, and that doesn’t mean you have to make the hole twice as wide as that root reaches. You just take a pruner and cut the root back.
Q. You like bare root, both for selection, and as you just said if we use the “Oklahoma method” we could…[laughter].
A. I don’t use it.
Q. I’m just teasing.
A. I’ve had really good results with bare-root plants. I probably plant more bare-root plants than container plants.
Q. And the third choice is balled and burlapped—things that have been dug out of a nursery field, and those can get a little unwieldy for an individual if they’re big. They can be really heavy.
A. Plus with something like that also—and with all these things—the quality of the nursery is important. Also If a bare-root plant isn’t dug at the right time, or stored correctly, or is just ripped out of the ground, it isn’t going to do well. If a container plant is kept in the container too long, it isn’t going to do too well. With a balled-and-burlapped plant, you really have to have good soil to ball-and-burlap something, and the plant has to be handled carefully. The root ball, if you throw it on the ground, will just break up, and it ruins the benefit of it.
Q. Awhile ago on the program, we were talking with Linda Chalker-Scott of Washington State, about what she does when she takes a tree or shrub out of the container, and what she does if there is a big root mass in there. She really has at it. How do you get your confidence in doing that, in root pruning?
A. I was mostly referring to bare-root plants, when one lanky root is out of place. But as far as container plants that happen to be in the container to long and are pot-bound, what I’ve always done is either called butterflying them—where you make a horizontal slit at four places around the rootball, and then you sort of open them up a little. Or sometimes I take a cultivator and tease out the roots and cut them back. I was reading some research that shows that basically if you do nothing it’s better—but this is one time I cannot bear to do nothing. I guess I sort of feel in this one case that I have to do something with this pot-bound root ball, even though research has shown otherwise.
Q. And I’ve read the opposite—so I don’t know. And sometimes it’s particular to certain plants, and you have to read the fine print. But I feel like I have to rough them up a little bit—and again, this is based on the times I have had failure. When a woody plant didn’t thrive, and I had to dig it up—or I just got so disgusted at it not doing well, and I lifted it out and saw that the roots really hadn’t gone anywhere, and I felt bad that I hadn’t really roughed them up.
A. I’m going to go with your research.
Q. Good; I’m in charge of that and I’ve made the decision.
So we’ve dug this hole, approximately twice as wide as our plant’s root ball, and the hole is roughly conical, and we put the plant in the center—but what are we using to backfill the hole?
Q. That’s another myth, that people often say, “I’m going to make the soil in that hole really good.” They mix in some peat moss, compost, fertilizer. Basically the idea is not to put anything in the hole except the soil you took out of the hole. If you make the soil too good in there, too loose with peat moss or compost, basically you’re making like a container in the soil, and there is little inducement for the roots to spread beyond that.
You don’t want to make the soil in there too different from beyond the soil.
And again: If the planting site isn’t good for the plant, and you need all that compost for the soil to be loosened up, the plant’s not in the right place anyway. You want the roots to spread way beyond the planting hole after the first season, even. Fertilizer will burn the young roots.
The idea is to put everything on top of the soil and let its goodness work its way down eventually. And there are other benefits to putting various organic materials on top of the soil, as far as moderating soil temperatures and keeping moisture in.
Q. You mentioned peat moss, and I have to say going back 30-something years and making my first garden beds here, I remember bales of peat moss were something I’d buy regularly. It has been decades since I have bought peat moss. I buy some peat in the bales of potting soil I use in my container plants or houseplants—there is some peat in those—but I haven’t bought a bale of peat moss in so many years. Do you use it for your blueberries?
A. I make my own potting mix, and peat is one-quarter of that. And when I plant blueberries, I mix peat moss into the planting hole, and that’s it—that’s the only other time.
Q. You’re using the native soil to backfill when you’ve dug this twice-as-wide hole for the tree. So we’ve got our tree in the hole, which is not too deep so it creates like a swamp. I think sometimes the reason people put things too low is that they like having a water reservoir—I do. But I try to make that afterward, sometimes with my mulch, like a little bit of a ring or basic for watering, that I shape with my hands. But I don’t want the plant to be low.
A. One thing about the planting hole, there is another thing in old books and hopefully not in new ones: If you have a poorly drained soil, people suggest putting some coarse material in the bottom of the hole to improve the drainage—and even in the bottom of a pot, to put gravel or shards.
But that is actually my favorite pet peeves among bad recommendations. Your gut tells you this is good; it will improve drainage. In fact what happens though is when you have a discontinuity in the soil whether from coarse- to fine-textured or vice-versa—anytime you have a discontinuity, right at that interface you get is what’s called a perched water table. The water has to build up a certain hydraulic pressure before it can go down through it. Everybody will just have to take my word for it.
Q. Discontinuity—word of the day; I love it.
A. Right at that interface of gravel and finer soil above it, the water can’t get down until there is a certain hydraulic pressure to push it into the gravel. You get this water layer that actually forms there, so instead of increasing the drainage, it has the opposite effect—it makes the drainage poorer.
Q. Just say no to that idea. I always put a good-quality mulch from an organic material on top.
A. Mulch is always good. There is some research that says that an organic mulch makes trees and shrubs grow more happily. In the fall, it’s especially important—because there are only two downsides to fall planting. One is that freezing and thawing in the soil in the months following planting can actually work a plant up and out of the soil, by the changes in temperature. So if you put a layer of mulch it insulates the soil and you don’t get these wide swings of temperature, and you don’t get that heaving of the plants.
The other downside of fall planting, when you put down that mulch, that’s really heaven for rodents—they can burrow in the mulch, and can eat the bottoms of your trees and shrubs also. You have to protect the tree with some sort of barrier and don’t put the mulch right up against the tree.
Q. We’ve been talking about tree planting, but before we run out of time: I want to confess we don’t have entirely weed-free gardens, despite the fact that you wrote the book, “Weedless Gardening.” And we’re both fighting weeds right now.
You have two I think right now. What are you fighting?
A. Hog peanut, and groundnut—and they are related and both in the pea family. And they’re both somewhat edible, so permaculture people are big fans of them, especially the groundnut. [Above: Hog peanut, Amphicarpaea bracteata, by yellow arrow; groundnut, Apios americana, by red arrow.]
Q. Apios americana, a native plant.
A. They’re both native.
Q. So what are you doing? I know they have infested your flower bed, your perennial area in front of your vegetable and fruit areas. What’s your tactic?
A. I’ve been fighting both these plants for decades, literally. I’m about to give up because they both insinuate themselves everywhere, and then they overwinter, and pop up. I’m really thinking this fall of digging up the whole area, and clearing it out.
Usually I frown on digging up the soil, but I don’t know how I am going to get to them otherwise. [More on Lee’s usual no-till method of gardening.]
The Apios makes tubers that you can actually see, and eat. I’m thinking of clearing the area and maybe just growing a cover crop for one season or maybe—I shudder to think of it—even bare or mulched soil, so I can really keep an eye on it. Hopefully one season would be enough to get rid of them, and maybe I’ll dig up all my favorite plants there and put them aside somewhere, and move them back after a year.
Q. And I’m going to confess I am doing the same thing. I have the chameleon plant, Houttuynia cordata [below], that was favored as a groundcover with showy leaves. A disaster; I’ve been trying to get it out for 15 years.
A. Also edible.
Q. Yes, but forget it; it’s an outrageous plant.
A. A very strange taste.
Q. It is. What I am trying to do is the same thing you’re doing, and I wanted to end on this as a thought for people:
If you’ve got a really tough invasive going sideways and setting tubers or rhizomatous: It may take what you just said. Dig it up and let the area lay fallow, and then maybe in the spring when it sprouts again, dig it up again. It may take that to clear it away.
We all have to have maybe an empty bed that’s perhaps unsightly sometimes to get ahead of one of these tough weeds, right?
A. Especially if it’s a perennial flower bed where it’s really hard to weed, even if you do it slowly, where things aren’t planted in rows.
more from lee reich
- Visit Lee’s blog
- Making compost and a no-till garden
- Growing blueberries
- Native paw-paws and persimmons
- Raspberries, gooseberries and more
- How to grow a fig
- Sowing seeds and growing vegetables
win your choice of book by lee reich
All you have to do to enter to win one of each is answer this question, entering your reply into the comment form at the very bottom of the page:
Are you doing any fall planting, and if so, what, and how late in the year can you plant in your Zone (please tell us where you are)? If not, any big weed eradication over at your place?
Me: I’m tackling some beds that have too much Lamiastrum, another old-style groundcover that turns out to be a thug (and of course the Houttuynia issue). I have three shrubs and two trees waiting to go in the ground.
Feeling shy, or have nothing to share? Just say “count me in” and I will include your entry–again, put it in the box-like form at the bottom of the page! Good luck to all. I’ll choose a random winner after entries closed at midnight Sunday, October 9, 2016.
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