Getting plants into the ground is a fun part of gardening. Every plant you put into the soil or a container offers the promise of growth and transformation with foliage, flowers and perhaps even a crop to harvest. Plants also change their environment, providing shade, shelter or habitat. Some plants grow quickly and live for only a season, while others grow to maturity more slowly but live for decades if not centuries. Whatever they become, the journey begins with the planting.
There is a cliche in the gardening world that you never put a $10 plant in a $2 hole. In other words, if you don’t spend money on the soil, there’s no point spending money on the plant. A $2 or ‘cheap’ hole would be either too deep or not deep enough for the rootball. It has no added organic matter, fertiliser or wetting agents. In order to prepare the hole for the plant, dig the planting hole at least twice as wide as the rootball but only as deep. This means a plant that’s being transferred from a 20cm pot into the ground would require a planting hold thats about 40cm across and at least the depth of the pot. A larger pot needs a wider, but not necessarily deeper hole.
If you are digging a hole into a garden bed take care that you don’t disturb any nearby plants and their roots or any dormant bulbs or rhizomes. If there is a chance there are plants in the area where you are digging, it’s a good idea to use a small trowel to small spade to dig, and proceed carefully. Also watch out for buried irrigation lines or pipes.
A word about soil
In heavy or clay-based soils, it’s important to ensure the soil drains well. To check drainage, dig a hole approximately the same depth as your potting hole will be, fill it with water, and see how long it takes for the water to drain. The water should drain within several hours. If not, improve the soil. The higher the clay component of the soil, the more slowly water drains away. In a very dense clay soil water may remain in the planting hold the next day or longer. If the hole has poor drainage, your plants roots will be waterlogged, which has a detrimental effect on your plants health. Root dieback, root disease or even plant death could result.
It is possible to improve the soil’s drainage, even for soil with a high clay component. Planting a raised bed may be a better approach in gardens with heavy or poorly draining soils. In sandy or loamy soil, water drains much more quickly than it would from a heavy clay soil. If you add water to a hold dug in sandy or loamy soil, the water will often be drained completely within an hour of being added. This can cause its own problems. If the water drains away quickly, plants can’t absorb it fast enough, leading to root dieback and even plant death.
If your soil can benefit from added nutrients and compost – and most soils will – the time to add them is with your new plant, or in the preceding weeks. The best option is to improve the soil prior to planting, allowing two weeks or more between digging in fertiliser, manure or compost and planting. This allows the added organic mater or fertiliser to become incorporated into the existing soil. Alternatively, use slow-release fertiliser pellets when planting as this keeps the fertiliser out of direct contact with roots.
There are two ways to incorporate organic matter into the soil. One is to add organic mater to the planting hole. This raises the soil level, and assists with drainage. If you don’t want to raise the soil level, remove some of the improved soil to use elsewhere. This keeps the soil at it’s original level.
Step-by-Step: How to plant a plant
- Dig a hole and mix plenty of compost or manure into the planting soil.
- Knock the plant out of its pot. To do this, support the plant in one hand, upend the pot and firmly tap the bottom. The pot should slide off.
- Place the plant in the hold, making sure that the top of the potting mix is at the same level as the surface of the ground. Backfill around the plant with the soil that was dug out of the hole and firm down.
- Water well, and adjust any irrigation lines so that the plant will recieve water, Spread mulch around the plant, and water again.