After the drought, take stock

Garden:The summer's many dry spells may mean gardeners should reconsider their planting schemes.

In The Garden

September 19, 1999|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

To paraphrase the Chinese, a time of change is also a time of great opportunity.

If you are like me, you have been taking stock for several weeks of what fall planting and transplanting needs to be done in the yard. We know that, whereas grass will green up with the rains of autumn, many trees, flowers and shrubs will call for a different kind of intervention.

This year, for many gardeners, the autumn transplanting season will be more than a merely routine lifting and splitting of perennials, or minor redecoration within the landscape. In some cases it might even be called horticultural triage, as worried gardeners assess the impact of the past summer.

The summer drought has wreaked havoc upon almost every garden. However, this also creates an opportunity to take a fresh look at your garden and see what can or ought to be replaced, or moved to more congenial surroundings. Perhaps a new paradigm is even in order -- a wholesale rethinking of your landscape approach.

For example, gardens based on the British model have been especially hard hit this year. The model was developed for a milder, much moister climate and is nearly always unsuited to our mid-Atlantic extremes of heat, cold and recurrent drought. Even in congenial weather, these gardens frequently require coddling.

Plants that were marginally adapted to certain microclimates, such as azaleas in full sun positions, are also showing signs of grave distress -- if not death.

Plants that survived the drought may yet succumb over the winter or in the spring. Many overstressed trees and large shrubs may leaf out and flower next year, only to die after the effort. This is especially likely if the level of moisture in the subsoil remains low during the winter.

Recognizing these conditions will go a long way to helping the gardener decide on transplanting strategies this fall.

Although most plant selections are made by design or appearance criteria, there are other important considerations to take into account:

* Is the plant genuinely well-adapted to its current position? For ease of maintenance, is it located with plants of similar cultural needs?

* Would it do better in another place? A spot with more or less sun? Sheltered from wind? In a wetter or drier place? Or even just closer to the house, where it may get more attention?

* If the plant is showing visible signs of stress or impending death, should it be replaced entirely? Are you intent upon replacing it with the same kind of plant? Are improved varieties available that are more tolerant of heat, drought or pollution? Would another kind of plant do better in this situation?

When replacing plants, consider buying new ones originating in climates similar to or more rigorous than ours, as well as low-maintenance native flowers, trees and shrubs.

South Africa, central Asia and parts of Texas, for example, offer a variety of plants that are winter-hardy, and drought- and humidity-tolerant. The Mediterranean basin also has a wealth of flora to choose from, although cold-hardiness must be checked.

Fortunately, the milder weather of autumn is at hand, and it is the perfect time to act.

The most important thing, Rosemary Easley from Garland's Gardens reminds us, is to think of each plant you transplant as a baby. No matter how hardy the adult specimen will be, it needs care and attention while it is getting established.

When transplanting:

* Be alert. Many shrubs and flowers will enter dormancy early this year, due to the drought. In the case of perennials, they can be cut back and transplanted after this occurs, as long as they are kept sufficiently watered afterward.

* Wait to plant or transplant until the weather cools. Late September or early October is plenty of time for plants to get established. The time of day is also a factor: Plants' roots grow mostly at night, so try to plant in the evening.

* Water the place deeply where plants are slated to be moved to the day before you plan to plant. This will make the soil easier to dig as well as create a favorable environment for the transplanted plant. Remember to water the plant the night before, too.

* Transplant as much of the dirt surrounding the root ball as possible. Many plants develop beneficial relationships with bacteria in the soil around them. This helps to keep them healthy and will get them off to a good start in their new home.

* If you are adding new plants, tease open the roots. They often become pot-bound in containers, so encourage them outward, rather then have them circling the plant.

* Dig as deeply as you can to loosen the soil well without disturbing neighboring plants. This is a great time to add compost to improve the soil.

* Don't give much fertilizer this late in the year. It will only encourage late growth that cannot harden off by winter and will weaken stressed plants further. A couple of tablespoons of bone meal is all that most perennials require.

* Use a sharp knife to divide large clumps of perennials after they are dug up. Clean cuts heal faster in plants as well as humans. Pulling clumps apart, even when gently done, will still tear roots and hurt the plant much more than cutting will.

* Firm the soil around transplants well, but stomping is unnecessary. Water deeply. Secure with plant stakes where necessary. Protect with burlap as needed for tender shrubs.

* If the plant you are moving is still flowering, cut off the flowers. It can only do one thing well at a time: make flowers (and seeds) or make new roots.

* Cut back existing leaves or branches by about one-third, so the plant will have less foliage to support and can focus on making new roots.

Sources

Prairie Nursery

P.O. Box 306

Westfield, Wis. 53964

800-476-9453

Garland's Gardens

1109 Ingleside Ave.

Catonsville, Md. 21228

410-747-5151

Cooperative

Extension Agency Garden hot line: 800-342-2507

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