Last Updated May 20 2014. All material copywrite protected.
Customers always leave the nursery with great enthusiasm and optimism. There are visions of park like yards and gardens. Frequently, the great expectations are not adequately tempered with information and advice. The result can be disappointment, frustration, and disillusionment. In the full line and chain store nurseries, the necessary advice and information is often replaced by a "non warranty" which solves nothing except the store's need to instill confidence in their offerings. You get no more advice than if you were buying a pound of bananas.
To be successful, you must begin with varieties that are suited to the local climate. The easiest way to pass this test is to insist that your purchases be locally grown. If the nurseryman can't grow them locally, you probably can't either. If your supplier is strictly a reseller or retailer, he or she may not have anyone knowledgable enough to select appropriate plants to sell and certainly not to help you with answers to specific questions.
In all fairness, some imported plants do quite well on the prairies, but there are many problems. Early spring plantings are troublesome because the huge wholesale nurseries are in areas where spring is much earlier than on the prairies. In spring, their plants look much better in the nurseries because they easily have a month's head start. Even if they are fully hardy, they can be destroyed by a late spring frost.
Plants such as Brandon, Holmstrup, or Skybound Cedar have been specifically developed on the prairies for the prairies. Under normal spring and summer conditions, they are almost impossible to distinguish from less hardy varieties. The huge wholesale nurseries have little incentive to grow them or to keep rigorous control of what's what because their prairie customers represent only a small fraction of their total market. Often local garden centres are selling unsuitable plants without even knowing it.
Hardiness Zone Maps are useful in that they divide the country into zones based on minimum winter temperatures. On Canadian maps, Saskatoon is in Zone 2b; on US Department of Agriculture Maps, we are in Zone 3. In the heat island of the city or in sheltered rural locations, it is possible to grow plants with higher hardiness zone designations successfully for some years. However, some winters are more severe than others. Thus, the frustration of growing a specimen for some seasons only to have it die just as it is becoming a major part of your garden.
After the hardiness criterion is satisfied, it is time to consider the specific location or microclimate. Although Mugo Pines are very hardy, they do poorly in shaded areas. Birch and willows grow naturally in moist, low lying areas. Dogwoods prefer sheltered, semi-shaded locations. The book, "Woody Ornamentals for the Prairies" by Hugh Knowles, is an excellent reference in these respects.
Assuming you have the variety right, it is important to select plants that have not been damaged in the transplanting, shipping, or retail display processes. In this regard, a pot grown plant is always best. All its roots are intact. The root/foliage relationship will not be disturbed by transplanting. A plant which has been recently potted will almost certainly be troublesome because it has to overcome two closely spaced transplantings. If the soil doesn't remain in a root bound ball when the pot is removed, the plant is probably not a good buy at any price. Specimens which have been dug as balls and wrapped in burlap are sometimes OK. Depending on the variety, these plants should have been root pruned at least once in the field to develop a compact root mass. If the balls have been allowed to dry out, these plants may take years to establish even if they do survive.
The easiest parts of the plant to check are the stems, branches, and leaves. Large, well developed leaves of good colour are strong evidence of a healthy root system. Avoid plants that are leggy and have unusually long internodal sections. Also avoid plants that have unusually soft stems and branches. These trees will have trouble coping with hot dry weather and may not harden off in time for winter.
The size of the plant is much less important that its condition. If you start with plants that are healthy, robust, and undamaged, you will be amazed at how quickly they grow.
The plants which you purchase are living things. Until they are planted and established they are as vulnerable as a new born baby. If it is not possible to plant them immediately, keep them in a cool shady place and insure that they do not dry out. In the nursery, potted and balled and burlapped plants are thoroughly watered everyday. Do not leave them in the hot trunk of your car for even a few hours. Many plant failures are caused before the new purchases are even planted out.
As a biologist, I often marvel at the differences between animals and plants. Animals are free to move about: to find a spot of suitable microclimate, to hunt for adequate nourishment; and to avoid sources of harm or injury. Plants are not free to move about, but they are remarkably well adapted to make do with what they "are dealt". The best gardeners "deal" their plants every possible advantage.
Start with adequate topsoil. Although two or three inches is adequate for a nice lawn, trees, shrubs, and perennials generally need a lot more. It is not unusual for landscape architects to specify that shrub and perennial beds have a foot or more of topsoil. Light or sandy topsoil is better than heavy or clay material because all roots need aeration (oxygen) to thrive. The topsoil should have a reasonable organic component. Root fibres and partially decomposed plant material are good. A good dark colour is also evidence of decomposed plant material. The soil should not be pulverized or so lumpy that it is hard to work with.
Dig a large hole, about twice as big as the root mass you are planting. An old timer once suggested that it is better to start with a "five dollar plant and a ten dollar hole" than a "ten dollar plant and a five dollar hole". This is especially important around new homes where the ground has been thoroughly compacted by heavy machinery and other construction activity. The process of digging and backfilling a large hole provides the plant with an area of easy penetration during the initial period of establishment. A hole which is just barely big enough to squeeze in the root mass seldom leads to good results.
Now you are ready to plant. Backfill the hole so that the top of the root mass will be flush with the surrounding undisturbed soil. Carefully remove the new plant from the pot. If a significant number of the roots are encircling the root mass, these should be carefully teased away and spread out as much as possible. If they are left undisturbed they can eventually girdle the tree and cause its demise. Do not allow these roots to dry out during the planting process. Set the plant into the hole. Check again that the top of the soil mass is flush with the surrounding undisturbed soil. Backfill in lifts of three or four inches compacting each lift as you proceed.
I like to water the new arrival when the backfilling process is about two thirds complete. Fill the remaining reservoir completely with water and let is soak away at least once. This is a great time to relax and greet the new arrival. Double check to see that it is planted straight. After you have made a thorough acquaintance with the new arrival, finish the backfilling process. Use the left over soil to make a little dike just outside the perimeter of the original hole. This will be useful for watering the first few weeks.
It used to be common practice to prune the top of the plant to remove a percentage of the leaf area at planting time. Recent research has shown that this practice does more harm than good. Restrict pruning at planting time to the removal of dead and damaged branches and twigs. If the plant was well handled, there should be very few of these. Any pruning required should be done with a sharp secateurs. Leave no short or frayed stubs.
If the plant has been well grown and has an adequate root mass, it will not require staking or guying. However, if it is in danger of being trampled by playing children or pets, drive in about three hefty stakes to protect it from harm for the first year or so.
On average, fertilizer applied during planting does more harm than good. For every new tree that benefits from fertilizer, there are probably ten that are damaged by it. With very few exceptions, trees and shrubs do not need supplemental fertilizer. Retail sales people are well schooled in the art of "add on selling". If you are buying diapers, they will offer you baby powder and if you are buying a pair of shoes they will offer you polish and water proofer and deodorizer and what have you. Similarly if you are buying trees, they will offer you fertilizer sometimes even implying that it might affect the warranty.
A tree which is over fertilized will become soft and succulent. It will be endangered by high winds, summer heat, and increased probability of insect attack. It may not be able to achieve adequate winter hardiness on time.
Peat Moss is a different story. It is often the difference between the "green thumb" and the "hand of death". When planting a new tree, it is very beneficial to mix the excavated soil with an equal amount of peat moss by volume. Course peat moss is best because it is more persistent in the soil over the years but regular grade peat moss is also very beneficial.
Peat Moss serves three major purposes: 1) it keeps the soil loose and pliable allowing for better aeration and making it much easier for new roots to penetrate; 2) it greatly increases the moisture and nutrient holding capacity of the soil; and 3) it adjusts the pH reaction of the soil slightly toward the acid side thus increasing nutrient availability and decreasing the chance of chlorosis. Because peat most is almost completely void of actual nutrients, it does not promote the rank or succulent growth which can lead to no end of problems
The symptoms of overwatering are similar to under watering because both end up depriving the plant of its essential water supply. If the soil is continually saturated, the roots will die from lack of oxygen and it should go without saying that dead roots will not take up a lot of water even though it is readily available. Similarly, live roots will not take up a lot of water if it isn't there to be had. Generally, a plant will recover from lack of water but it will not recover from overwatering. Thus, effective watering is a matter of achieving a balance between the plants need for water and its need for oxygen in the soil.
As a very general rule of thumb, plants should be watered thoroughly about every three days for the first two weeks and then weekly for the next two months. After this, an occasional deep watering every two or three weeks should be sufficient. Maintain the dike which you build around the new tree for the first two months. When watering, remember that the water has to soak down to the bottom of the root zone to be effective. This could mean filling the basin created by the dike two or three times or until the water soaks away very slowly. Do not water if the soil surface is still wet from the last deep watering.
Starting in mid September, it is good to greatly reduce water so that your woody plants will have a chance to go dormant and harden off for the winter. Then, in late October, when there is no chance of promoting new growth water all your plants very heavily one last time before winter. The following spring, delay watering until at the soil is completely dry to a depth of at least an inch. Until this time, there is probably a greater need for oxygen than there is for water.