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!

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Great post Cindy! I will definetly try this.
You mentioned the is so hard to love gardening right now..and I keep wondering why I do this when it gets so hot like it is now, but I think you reminded me; it's not for the summer, it's for the other 3 months! :)
Gail said…
cindy...Excellent post! I have been thinking much the same thing...and have begun to remove the potting medium when I transplant. I still buy plants now and keep them in a holding area in the semi-shade. It requires watering twice a day, but come this fall I will have plants to add to the beds. We could use some rain, too! gail
Pam/Digging said…
Great advice, Cindy. I do puddle everything I plant, but I haven't tried bare-rooting plants from pots that are peat-planted. I will definitely try this in the future.
Rose said…
Cindy, thank you so much for these excellent suggestions! Some of the plants I've bought, especially later in the season, are so tightly rootbound that it's hard to even loosen them up. I've gotten pretty vicious with them when planting, but I figure that's better than planting them as is. I'm going to take your suggestion and get rid of even more of the potting medium next time I plant.

It's finally cooled down here in Illinois; hope the Texas heat has relented for you somewhat, too.
Hmm, I haven't tried the bare root method but if it works for you, I'll try it. I have found those little foam plugs to be totally obnoxious and lethal to most everything. There's an herb plant grower at our farmers market who sells the best plants. I'll have to find out what mix he uses.
I have been shaking the soil off the roots of all potted shrubs and trees and some perennials for years now, with good results, but I hadn't considered extending that idea to annuals. I think I'll start trying that on them too, even though my climate is much more forgiving.
Anonymous said…
Cindy, I definitely have plants that just haven't grown like they should; you might have the answer. I'm actually planning to remove everything from a couple of beds in the fall, and re-amend the soil and replant everything. I'll check out the root situation when I do that. Let's see, I'll do it when the weather gets below 80 again - so, probably next November!
Anonymous said…
Hi Cindy - I am the sister of Meadowview Thymes and I live in Spring. My sister suggested I come over and visit your blog when I was complaining about how icky my gardens look right now. Your post certainly cheered me up - you are right - these few beyond hot months do make the rest of the year worthwhile! We have only been here for 2 years but gardening here is amazing - so many plants grow here that we had never even seen before! I just have to get through this summer. Your blog is both enjoyable and informative, glad I stopped by!

Meadowview's sister Kimberlyn
Mary Beth said…
Cindy - I have removed HUGE impatients from my planting beds whose roots were still shaped like the teeny - tiny cell-packs they grew in at the nursery. At the time, I was just thankful that the top part of the plant grew and thrived. Now, I wonder how much longer into summer would they have lasted if the roots had actually grown into the soil! You gave me something to think about!
EAL said…
Interesting! I might try this too--though with an annual, if the flowers grow and last through the summer I don't much care what the roots do. Still, better for the roots to spread.

But what I don't get is why the garden centers stock all kinds of annuals if it is so difficult to plant them and keep them alive.
Cindy, MCOK said…
I spoke with Rolf Nelson of Nelson Water Gardens about this yesterday as I was buying plants. He said that it's their practice to remove the potting medium before planting out. Y'all let me know how it works out for you.

I'm about to do a follow-up post on this if I can get myself galvanized into action! It's a sad story but it needs to be told.
CiNdEe's GaRdEn said…
Wow I never thought of this! I had some blackeyed susans that died a rapid death lately. I am going to yank them up and see what they look like. I bet they were in peat too. Geez. Its hot here too and dry which would add to that terrible mix. Infact thinking back this year I have planted a lot that died. Maybe that was the problem? I am going to check this out! Thanks for the heads up!
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