Early Spring Gardening Makes for “Feel Good” Projects

11/23/2012 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener Plant Care

The definition of a bare root plant is one that has been grown in a field then lifted from that field with no dirt left clinging to its roots. It is shipped to market in that condition, hence the name bare root. This process is brutal on the plant and is reflected in the extremely high failure rate with this type of planting. The failure rate is even more pronounced in an arid climate. Also, bare root plants are at least 2-4 years behind the development of their counterparts sold fully rooted. As you might suspect, cost has always been the reason for these naked plants’ marketability. However, even including shipping from distant farms, I find there isn’t much cost difference between a bare root tree and a fully rooted container tree from a local farm. Especially considering that the fully- rooted tree will produce fruit this year, not like the bare root in two years or more!

Fruit trees, grape and berry producing vines are best planted before their first leaves emerge in spring. That makes February and March their ideal planting time. Following is the proper technique for planting in this area, and some of my personal favorites for planting in local landscapes.

It’s important to know that a tree grown in mountain clay soil does not send down a typical taproot. Instead it sends out a bent growth that I call a ‘hockey stick root’. This root will send out runners just under the surface of the soil in order to absorb rain and nutrients from our area’s sporadic rainfall. Because we know this is how the root is going to grow it only makes sense to give it a hole that is wide but no deeper than the root ball to be planted. My rule of thumb is a hole that is the same depth but three times the width of the roots in the container.

Remove any rocks and debris that are larger than a golf ball and amend the excavated soil with composted mulch, using one shovel of mulch to three shovels of native earth. At this time it’s good to add a natural fertilizer, too. I suggest my “All Purpose Plant Food; it’s the perfect blend of nutrients to encourage leaf growth which in turn will bring on a hardy root system. To save time, I blend together the soil, mulch, and plant food into a single planting medium.

Using your foot, pack down the enriched soil firmly around your newly planted tree so there are no air pockets remaining around the root ball. Water the tree thoroughly with a mixture of water and “Root Stimulator”. This rooting hormone encourages new root hairs to form right away and results in a strong plant well before the stressful effects of summer heat.

The final planting instruction is to stake. Each new tree requires two stakes, one on either side of the root ball. Use one of my specially designed ‘V-straps’ to secure the tree to the stakes. They allow the tree to move and sway with the wind, but never to snap in two.

Here is a tree-planting postscript: To top off or not to top off the top of the tree, that is the question. In years gone by gardeners were advised to cut most of the branches off of newly planted fruit trees; the thinking being that the existing root system could better handle the reduced leaf mass. That no longer is the accepted thought because it takes many leaves to create the photosynthesis that produces more aggressive roots. The more leaves you can have on a new tree the better the rooting process of the first year. Do NOT top your trees; it makes for weaker plants.

There you have it. For a more detailed list of instructions and visual aids please visit me at the garden center and ask for my special instruction guide on planting new trees. It is given with each purchase of a tree, but is available to everyone.

I have found that some fruit trees and vines, when planted in our alkaline soils and low humidity, produce more prolifically or have a better flavor than others do. I confidently can say: “If in doubt start with these varieties and you can’t go wrong.” I like all of these; they’re my favorites:

Fuji Apple
Gleason Alberta Peach
Comice Pear
Burgundy Japanese Plum
All-In-One Almond
Anna Apple
Bartlett Pear
Hosui Asian Pear
Tilton Apricot
Redhaven Peach
Satsuma Plum
Black Satin Blackberry
Niagara Grapes
Heritage Raspberry

I have had personal success with these varieties and love their local flavors. These are by no means the only fruits you can grow here, but the listing is a good starting point of selections. Ask at your favorite local garden center for additional advice about local orchards.

Of course, if you need more information about planting figs, nuts, grapes, and berries, you may bring your questions to me and the many other garden experts at our garden center. Next Saturday I’ll be listing my favorite choices for roses and some of the exciting new varieties for 2011.

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.