Friday, March 20, 2015

The dirt on digging and how to dish your dirt

Dear _______,

Let's talk about dirt. If you want to preserve your reputation among gardeners, you never call it dirt in public. You call it soil. Dirt is when you find out your best friend is carrying Vladimir Putin's love child. Dirt is the stuff that needs to be saved from itself. Not much grows in dirt. It's barren unlike your best friend. Dandelions struggle to grow in dirt. Grass refuses. The cat uses it as a port-a-potty. When it's windy, the top layer blows away, and any minute you're sure you'll see a tiny tumbleweed roll past as well (also from Russia by the way-- it hitchhiked as seeds on immigrants' clothing). So, you need to stop pretending you're in the Wild West and find yourself some hoity toity culture, namely in the form of compost, chicken manure, humus (pronounced hyoo-mas or you-mus if you're British), peat moss, and/or possibly a bit of loam. Sounds complicated, I know. But like cake mix, all this stuff comes in bags which you can buy at a decent garden center. I don't recommend big box stores, because I've had trouble finding loam and humus there. Plus their compost is usually cheap, thus full of weed seeds. Probably tumbleweed, and you've already got that. If you're feeling like making it hard on yourself, you can use your own compost (make sure it's "finished" compost or you'll give your plants a chemical burn), humus, and loam. I bought myself a leaf mulcher to make my own humus, but all I really did was make a leaf litter tornado and I wasn't wearing safety goggles. Lots of labor and lots of time.

But who does that? I may be making margaritas for my garden, but I'm not squeezing all those limes or picking the agave. I get the ready-to-pour mix and buy the tequila. Bagged compost and/or 15% chicken manure potting mix (also bagged), with a bag of humus all thrown onto my cruddy dirt is essentially the mix I'm going for in this margarita. Rototill that stuff. Shovel it up. Mix it like a martini on the rocks and pretend you're James Bond. Be a human KitchenAid mixer. Usually I'm a bit lazy and I just mix one part really bad dirt with two parts compost, one or two colorful words, and a 16 oz bag of humus for a twelve-foot-by-eight-foot area. Coincidentally that is the size of the cat's port-a-potty wasteland under my deck. That should be enough for your plant buffet. Even if you're soil isn't dirt, it's still a good idea to get it drunk every couple of years, which means working in some compost and burying some dead bodies (go back and look at that definition of humus). Also, worms. Lots of worms. I order at least a thousand worms every Spring and sprinkle them in the gardens. They aerate the soil, fertilize with their worm poop (called worm castings), and break down leaf litter to make humus. Slave labor. Unfortunately, moles love to nom on earthworms.  My yard houses a ghetto of moles as a result, but the cat is eating well at night. Those tiny dead bodies add nicely to the humus if I don't hit them with the lawnmower first. It comes full circle.

Red European Night Crawlers from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm

Okay, you've got your shaken-not-stirred soil and possibly some worms. Now the fun part: digging. I didn't know how to dig a decent hole until a few years ago. Dig it and plant it, right? No. Nope. Not even close. Here's how you do it:

1. You've got your new plant in its flimsy plastic 8" pot. Dig a hole as big as that pot. Now dig it at least a few inches wider. The bigger the plant, the larger the percentage of width you'll want to dig. So if you have a large pot, triple the width. We're raising these plants to reach their full potential, not stunting them. More room generally means more unrestricted root growth. That's what we're going for: giants, not dwarfs.

Heuchera 'Sugar plum': note hole size.

2. Now you sprinkle the hole with a general purpose, slow release fertilizer. I like Osmocote for flowers and vegetables. You want your new plant to stretch out and grow like Kim Kardashian's backside, and if you feed it a quick release fertilizer like Miracle-Gro, it doesn't need to spread out its roots. It just opens its mouth and gulps it down. You do all the work for it, it turns into an addict (literally), and you'll end up naming it Seymour. Then you have to keep feeding it crack if you want it to survive. However, if you're growing a plant that will not survive the winter, feel free to feed it crack. It'll be dead in a couple of months anyway. If your plant is a perennial, a slow release fertilizer lasts a few months: just enough time to get your plant used to its new home and strong enough to survive Winter. So, sprinkle about a tablespoon into the hole and...

3. Fill that hole 3/4 of the way with water. You read me right. No one likes a dry hole (I bet you'll remember that from now on). That's the part I didn't know about until I was in my early thirties. Water in the hole reduces transplant shock. If your soil is already soaked and muddy, you shouldn't be planting in those conditions. Wait until the soil is moist at the most. You don't want to drown the plant. It's possible: I've done it.

4. Water your new plant while it's still in the pot if its soil is dry. Wait a few minutes, then pull the plant out of the plastic pot. Sometimes you have to squeeze the sides together and yank off roots that have grown out of the drainage holes. Watering first should help, though. When the plant is out, check the roots. Are they tangled in a large mass at the bottom? If so, tear an upside down "V" into the base of the mass. See photo below. This is for your plant's benefit, I pinky swear. It will force the roots to regrow and spread out into the luxury you're providing. If the plant is not root bound and its roots are puritanically unexposed, then there is no need to tear it a new hole. If it's a small plant with little root growth, cradle it before all that soil falls away. Or wait until it's bigger before you transplant it.

This plant didn't need to be torn a "V," but I wanted to show you how.

5. Set your newly naked plant in the watery hole you've created and refill with soil: pull all that mounded soil back into the hole around the plant, right over the water. Pack gently, but not firmly. We're not making concrete. Think of the inside of a bread loaf. If after a few days there appears to be some sinkage, you can lay more soil around the crown of your plant to even it out.

Yes, I did switch Heuchera plants at the last minute. This one is called "Venus." 

6. Water regularly until the plant is well established. This is usually for a week or two in hot weather. Depending on your growing season and when the plant flowers, fertilize it with slow release fertilizer in the spring and summer months (about every ten to twelve weeks). Don't feed it in Autumn, though. Not many plants like to go to bed on a full stomach. There are some plants that want fertilizer at different times, but those are special, not as common, and we'll talk about that later.

Stay dirty,


Alabama said...

You make me wish I had the time and money to have a beautiful yard. Nobody likes a dry hole! Especially not Putin.

Anonymous said...

Playfully packed with amazing advice.