Back at the end of June, I posted about the problems heat zone gardeners face with peat-based potting mix (you can read that post here). A few days later, I picked up some Cleome plants at Nelson's Water Gardens, thinking they would add a nice punch of color to a bed out back. They had been watered at the nursery that morning and were full of buds and blooms. I set them in a bed and went about the rest of my day. The next morning, I walked out and found this sad sight:
I foolishly neglected to check on them the afternoon I brought them home; left in the blazing July sun, the peat dried and hardened very quickly. Only one of the plants was able to rebound. I removed the plant from its 4 inch pot and used a gentle spray of water to wash the potting mix off the roots. I dug a hole, watered that well, then placed the Cleome into the hole and watered the area around it again after planting. I forgot to water it the day after that and was sure I was going to find it on the edge of death when I finally remembered a couple of days later. I was very surprised to find that not only was it alive, it was thriving. Just over 4 weeks later, this is how it looks. Well, slap my face and call me sassy but I doubt it would still be with me had I not removed the potting mix.
I've since tried this with other plants and it continues to make a tremendous difference in their survival rate. I talked with Rolf Nelson about it at the time I bought the Cleomes and he confirmed that they always wash the potting mix off before planting, no matter what the season. Today I was out back watering and I found more peat victims: two badly wilted pentas that were planted at least 3 months ago and have been watered semi-regularly. I yanked them up and came inside to grab the camera so I could use them as yet another exhibit in my case against peat. The top plant managed to spread its roots outside of the original pot shape a bit; the bottom one clearly did not.
Once again, I used a gentle stream of water to wash the soil off the roots of the plants, then potted them up, resulting in this sorry sight (the pink flowers are verbena, not penta ... sorry, I didn't pick the best spot to take a picture).
But wait ... there's more! Take a look at the difference in them not two hours later.
I went out just now to check on them and take a picture, in the interest of full disclosure. The one whose roots were constricted was struggling. I took it out of the shared pot, cleaned it up and repotted it by itself.
Although it's most critical in my garden that this method be used with peat based potting mixes, I also used it recently when planting eleven Gulf Coast Muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Although they were in a fairly loose and well drained mix composed of compost and bark, they had been in their pots for a while and their roots needed some loosening up. After I'd done that, I washed off at least one-third of the soil on each of them before planting them. As usual, I watered the hole first and then rewatered the area after covering the roots. The grasses are in a bed covered by the sprinkler system so they've been watered every 2 days. They seem to be settling in quite nicely.
So there you have it, a method that enables those of us gardening in the heat to plant even in July! That said, I will stress that if you do buy plants in temperatures like we're currently experiencing and they're in a peat-based potting medium, you probably should plant them the day you buy them. If you don't, be sure you put them in an area where they get afternoon shade AND remember to water them at least twice a day. And while this method has worked for heat-loving summer annuals and grasses, I'm not so sure how perennials would fare. It's probably best to wait for cooler weather to plant those. Only 55 days till October 1st, when we know the worst is behind us and life in the garden can begin anew!