As the summer sun beats down relentlessly, and the heat index climbs ever higher, I'm spending a lot less time in the garden than I'd like. We who garden here in Texas know that summer is the price we pay for being able to garden our way through the winter months. Unlike our counterparts in cooler climes, though, we can't put the garden to bed for the summer as they do in winter. Watering chores must be tended to if we want our plants to live and sprinkler systems can't be relied upon to properly nurture our most precious progeny. So we venture forth before the sun is up and wonder as we're watering if it will EVER rain again. Some of us may even find ourselves pondering the possibility of a tropical storm with wistful longing. Nothing serious, of course, no repeat of last September's hurricane ... but a tropical depression, perhaps, that would bring us several days of gentle rain ... that we can wish for, surely?
One of the hardest things for me NOT to do at this time of year is buy plants. The nurseries are filled with bright summer annuals and it's hard to resist them. Who can fail to be seduced by the vivid colors of coleus, the zing of the zinnias, the punch of Laura Bush Petunias? It's actually that last plant that brings me to the real subject of this post. In catching up on various garden blogs, I read with interest Plantwoman's post about the demise of her Laura Bush petunia. Although she'd planted it several weeks ago, when she dug up the dead plant, she found the root system virtually intact. I have a theory about what could have happened; even if it's not the cause of Laura Bush's untimely passing, I think it's worth sharing with y'all. I'd actually been thinking I should post on this subject so thanks for the nudge, Plantwoman!
The gist of my message is this: Peat is not our friend here in South Central Texas. Take a look at the potting medium used in the plants you buy: more often than not, you'll find that it's a soilless peat based mix. It's lightweight and fast draining, and thus well suited to a commercial growing situation. Once you get your plants home, though, that peat based mix can become a real problem, especially as the weather heats up. All of us know to make sure the plant is well-watered before it's transplanted from its pot to the garden. I'm not sure if everyone follows my practice of watering the hole and doing what I think of as puddling in the plant. And all of us know to make sure we water the plant in again once it's in the ground. Yet way too many plants, enough to make me question my abilities as a gardener, have failed to thrive even when they've been carefully transplanted and monitored. Plants that should have doubled or tripled in size languish unchanged from the day they were planted.
The one thing each of them have in common when I dig them up? Their roots have not expanded beyond the original shape and size of the pot they were in, including the plants whose roots were gently loosened before they were put into the ground. Almost always I find that the peat mix has hardened enough that no amount of soaking can penetrate to the core of the plant. Once that peat mixture has dried out completely, it's close to impossible to water the plant enough for it to thrive, even in our moderate spring temperatures and with regular rainfall. In heat and drought conditions like we're currently experiencing, I find it literally impossible. (Note: In some cases, when I've washed the mix off, I can see the Oasis foam plug that was the starting medium for the plant. Those seem to be the plants that fare the worst. The roots are constricted from day one, and more plants than not seem to object to that.)
So what's a South Central Texas/Gulf Coast gardener to do? I certainly don't consider myself an authority so I can only tell you what seems to be working for me. It's pretty simple but some may consider it drastic: I carefully wash off all that peat-based potting mix and put the bare-rooted plant into the ground, making sure that I puddle it in and then water both plant and surrouding soil thoroughly afterwards. It's a method that seems to work for me ... let me know if it works for you!