Thursday 5 June 2014

Tips on planting and sowing

The best practical gardener I know
My own methods  of gardening are somewhat unconventional and my none digging policy negates the need for much standard advice such as not working on wet soil and the need to undertake detailed soil preparation. I thought today for a change I might adopt a different tone and provide information generally useful to more orthodox gardeners. I have known in my life many wonderful gardeners and I hope that some of their knowledge has rubbed off.

In the vegetable garden

Gardeners dig their allotments in Autumn for many reasons but not least to break up the soil by exposure to Winter cold. To this end, having thoroughly buried weed, debris and bulky manures they leave the surface covered with unbroken clods over Winter.

a) Do NOT dig the soil again in Spring. Do not bury again all that beautiful frost-mould made by the winter cold. If necessary gently fork through. A further reason not to invert the soil again is if the soil is dry at the surface and you bring up wet soil  you will lose precious moisture by evaporation.

b) Do NOT make a seedbed if the soil is very wet after heavy rain. Nor when it’s too dry!

c)Your boot is the most useful tool to create a suitable seedbed. A few well aimed kicks and shuffles will knock down the clods and carefully treading will ensure it is suitably firm. Gentle forking will usually be sufficient but with stubborn soils you may need an occasional thwack!

d) Most gardeners make their seedbeds too fine. If you must use a rake at all, do not work the soil excessively. Many soil textures are prone after heavy rain and subsequent drying to ‘cap’. This is the formation of a very thin layer of hardened surface soil which seedlings cannot penetrate. A slightly lumpy seed bed is not necessarily a bad thing. Do not be afraid to tread down your seedbed after you have sown.

e) My own sandy soil can become quite dry at the surface. We get persistent dry de-hydrating Spring winds. I frequently heavily water my seed drill or planting hole a few minutes before sowing or planting. I might use several cans of water carefully directed to my drills or holes on my patch.

f) All soils are different. Gardening tips are only given for guidance. If you find your own methods are better than mine in your own garden please ignore me and carry on!

I normally protect my young vegetables against the pigeons with fleece. This year I have tried enviro-mesh which seems to be much better. The debris on the surface is fallen blossom from my nectarine which has yet again failed to pollinate. I think it will have to go!

Permanent planting of shrubs, trees and herbaceous perennials.

It is difficult to advice on this as there are so many variables. Existing soil structure, texture, drainage, season, soil wetness, plant species, size of plant, whether the plant is container-grown or is from the open ground and many other considerations are all relevant to how to carry out the task of planting. Garden books tend to give recipes and precise instructions, experienced gardeners make it up as they go along! I am not being entirely jovial about this as each circumstance is quite different.
Many gardeners tend to work the planting-zone soil excessively. Sometimes breaking up surrounding soil may be a good thing but frequently not.

In general I am against ameliorating the soil by adding bulky materials in the immediate root zone. You expect the plant to succeed in your actual soil and not in some special concoction. Some gardeners give the new plant such wonderful planting conditions that the roots never grow beyond them.
It is not necessarily wrong to mix in planting compost, what is wrong is to put the plant entirely in a pocket of foreign material where it will be very confused! A deep planting hole exclusively filled with compost on a heavy badly drained soil might in Winter act as a sump! I despair when I see some amateurs planting in layers of dark brown or golden rubbish from the garden centre. I want to plant in real soil. Mixing in a little real compost from a compost heap is an exception!

In general I tend not to add fertiliser to the planting hole. I am afraid of scorching exposed roots. In general a new ornamental plant is not going to need extra nutrition for several weeks - if at all. If necessary, top dress with a proper general fertiliser soon after planting. Some gardeners need the crutch of adding bonemeal to the planting hole. This toy fertiliser is utterly useless but might make you feel better and will do very little harm!

  1. Never let the bare roots of trees and shrubs dry out by carelessly leaving them on the surface. Even ten minutes of dry windy conditions is fatal.
  2. Plant woody plants at the same root/stem/soil junction as they were planted before lifting. This includes containerised and container-grown stock. If the nurseryman has potted his container grown plant too deep, scrape some soil away. It is the same principle as not piling soil around the base of established trees, it will kill them!
  3. Beware leaving string labels around the root or trunk or main branches of woody plants. They will strangle the plant in future years.
  4. Often, but not always, I like to plant herbaceous plants a little deeper than before. Where I intend to leave frost tender plants such as dahlias, ‘hardy’ fuchsias and gladiolus corms in the ground overwinter, I plant really deep.

Last year I planted my Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff' deeply.
It has survived the mild winter and is growing again
  1. It has been recently demonstrated that if roots of woody plants have been torn or otherwise damaged it is best to cut them back cleanly to undamaged root.
  2. If moving a larger established plant within a garden it often helps to reduce a portion of the top by pruning,
  3. Often a container grown plant will be in very dry compost. Thoroughly wet it by soaking in a bucket of water for up to a minute before planting.
  4. Not all sites are level. It may make the difference between success or failure in future years if you plant in a dip or a hollow. In very wet periods waterlogged conditions might kill your plant. Of course a depression might be the best place for a plant that likes boggy conditions!
I have planted at different levels in my bog garden to satisfy the needs of different plants

Six years ago Peter Williams gave me a large container-grown ‘Dawyck Beech’. In a wet part of my garden I planted  it on a mound. The beech has thrived but as 99% of its roots are now in the wet soil I have no idea whether its ‘good start’ made any difference!
  1. Sometimes hard surfaces such as paving near a border may cast off water in heavy rain. Depending on the plant and your own conditions this might be very bad or a very good thing!
  2. Where drainage is suspect consider planting on raised beds. On some wet soils I would plant on a slight mound. Not usually the latter on my own sandy soil which when very dry is difficult to rewet as rain or irrigation runs away!
  3. A huge determinant of eventual success is proper management particularly with regard to watering. Container grown plants with a large top will dry out very quickly if planted in Summer. Give a well directed can-full of water in dry weather. The rule is generous but infrequent watering through the establishment period. I remember a lady who heavily watered her new hedge every night and killed her plants by saturating the soil!

My toad lily, tricyrtis was doing very well but was becoming overgrown by my hosta

Elsewhere in my garden an existing clump of toad lily needed a gap to be filled. It is a little retarded because the wet soil is cold

It was early May when I lifted some of the overgrown plant…

...and with minimal soil disturbance immediately planted it on the new site

Don’t work the soil too much
You might  expect me, as a no dig gardener to say this. I suspect many gardeners regard planting as a major operation rather than a rapid routine process. If your soil is in fine fettle the procedure involves a slit or a hole to accommodate the new plant, return of the soil and perhaps a gentle stamp to firm the plant in. For a small herbaceous plant it is the work of seconds, for a larger shrub or tree somewhat more and perhaps soaking the hole if conditions are dry. Your eventual success will depend more on putting the plant in the appropriate place and after-planting care, rather than how you stick it in!
I must confess my progress in planting is just a little slower in my two cemetery gardens. Thick tree roots and at Worsbrough soil that is 60% rubble rather slows my progress and almost breaks my wrist!

There are some pictures of my methods of planting I dare not show you.

I am reminded of a story about my dear friend and former student Alan Mason. Twenty five years ago Alan was well known for his TV programmes. A surprising number of folk remember how he was one of the first to do a garden makeover. It was at his dilapidated manoir in Porte-de-Roche, France. Ten students were invited over in their Easter vacation with their tutor, me! We were there for three weeks to completely redesign and develop the overgrown and previously neglected seven acre garden. Alan had accumulated perhaps two thousand plants that he held in his nursery. There was much work to do preparing the site and the TV crew started to fret that by the start of the last day of filming nothing was planted! Miraculously by that same evening there was a magnificent new fully planted garden! We did not take much time shoving each plant in!
On the subject of the television, I flicked to a premier gardening programme the other night. It was an accident and was between the ads on the football. A well known gardening guru was demonstrating how to plant and of course did it perfectly. As ever the BBC soil had a beautiful tilth - I wonder why they never find roots or stones? After completing the planting the gardening sage gave the plant a little shuffle. It was almost as if he was giving the plant a pat on the back as it was released into the cruel gardening world. The look on his face said ‘Good luck son’.
Such is the way of broadcasting stardom.

Between you and me that faint final flourish was not strictly necessary!


  1. We need to try and move a camellia that after 13 years has outgrown its position. How do you rate out chance of success?

    1. No idea without seeing it!
      You can perhaps increase your chances by a little root pruning now. Sever some of the more distance lateral roots (Digging?!) and cut down into the soil perhaps fifteen inches away to a spit's depth or so. You could reduce the top now with a little tasteful pruning. I would move it in early October. Earlier if it has turned very wet.

    2. Hi Sue, when I was away I had trouble working my i pad and inadvertently put a link to your excellent site on. I am sure you do not mind! Can't get my head round these things!

    3. No problem. I find doing any amount of 'typing' on my iPad to be frustrating.

  2. Most useful information - you have enough material for 5 posts in there!
    I always felt a bit guilty because my seed beds are usually quite rough. I am glad to hear it is not a problem. I new it was not but felt I was not doing it properly.
    I agree with planting shrubs in the soil they will have to grow in, without improving it. I think here this is now the official methods (there has been quite a few different ones over the years).
    Thank you for all the information.

    1. I think too much gardening advice is given in black and white terms where in reality there are many shades of grey

  3. I find a factor in the success of planting is the potting medium, I have recently planted many hundreds of plants in my son’s garden in very dodgy conditions that you would thoroughly approve of! There were one or two failures, each time from a plant from a garden centre in a peaty (or substitute) medium, my own plants – hundreds of them - were in my soil based potting medium mainly in undersized pots and had hardly been watered since Christmas. I sell a lot of plants on NGS Open Days and often hear reports of the plants romping away. The trouble with garden centre plants is that they are at their peak and only have one way to go – down.

    1. Very true, your downhill remark. I will be posting about the advantages of loam based compost soon!

  4. Wow! I've read all of it! This was very interesting, I even noted down a few things.

    I'd like to read something like this but on fertilizing :)

    Greetings and keep writing! You're good at it :)

  5. Excellent advice as usual Roger, plants do not thank you for mollycoddling them, the way that commercial crops are handled mechanically and the type of rough cultivation the ground receives prior to seeding or planting would have most gardeners wondering how the plants ever survive. I am following your "love affair" with bonemeal with great interest and am awaiting your final critique with bated breath. Just one thing, who on earth would want to dig in the autumn AND the Spring?

    1. Sorry my reply has been delayed Rick. I have been away - gardening at Brenda's son's in France. My i pad kept freezing when I try to reply! Apologies everyone else for very brief or none existent replies.
      The 'bones' of my next myth about bonemeal is written in 'skeleton' form, is third up and will be published in about three weeks time.

  6. The post is definitely brilliant! It is incredibly useful for me to know all these things! Thank you so much for sharing, Roger!

    1. It's comments like yours Natalie that is my reward for writing my posts.

    2. on the other hand your gushing praise might be because you are selling a service!


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