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Gardening Columns

A soaker hose conserves water and makes the
task of watering these zinnia seedlings much easier.

De-Stress Your New Plants

First published on on May 24, 2007, by Suzanne DeJohn

The last cold snap is behind us now (hopefully) a nd the gardening season has arrived in earnest. Although the weather has been glorious these last few weeks, the downside is that much of the area is in a drought. April didn't bring the showers she promised -- so how shall we tend to our May flowers? You probably have most of your transplants in the garden by now, so let's look at some post-planting care techniques.

Newly transplanted flowers and vegetables are going through their biggest challenge right now. Compared to their pampered existence indoors or in a greenhouse, in the garden they have to adapt to much wider temperature swings, more intense sun, drying winds, and very different soil conditions. And they have to do this despite their roots having been disturbed during transplant -- as they invariably are to some degree, no matter how careful you are. Even if you hardened off your seedlings, this first month or so is a critical time for them.

Water Wisely
Right now your primary concern is making sure young plants have enough water. Brilliant sunshine, warm temperatures, and low humidity add up to water stress on plants. Even with daily watering, plants may look wilted by midday because the small root systems can't take up enough water to keep up with the leaves' needs. If plants look wilted, double-check soil moisture and water if necessary. Shading small plants with a scattering of straw can help. Once plants rebound, remove the straw.

Water deeply. When you water you want to soak the plant's entire root zone. This encourages plants to develop deep, strong root systems. Shallow watering leads to surface roots, which dry out quickly. If you've been watering by showering plants with a hose or overhead sprinkler, try this: When you're done watering, take a trowel and dig into the soil. How deeply has the water penetrated? You may be surprised to see that it's only a half inch or less. Much of the water evaporates or runs off. It's far more efficient to apply water directly to the soil around plants.

One way to do this is to build a small berm around new transplants. By creating a 1- or 2-inch-high circle of soil around transplants, you create an area where water can collect and soak in around the root zone, rather than running off. Fill it with water, allow it to soak in, and refill, repeating until soil is saturated to the depth of the roots. Once plants are established, you can flatten this berm so water doesn't collect around the stem. But with the dry weather we've been having, too little water is a more likely problem than too much.

Soaker hoses save time and water. I invested in my first soaker hose last week, and I'm sold on them now. These hoses are made from porous rubber that allows water to seep out slowly. I run a regular hose out to the garden, then attach the soaker hose and carefully place it around plants. I turn the water on for an hour, then check to see how deeply it has penetrated. (I set my kitchen timer to remind me.) You can set up permanent soaker hoses, burying them just below the soil surface. I have too many gardens to afford to do this, so I move mine around.

Another trick is to cut the bottoms off 1- or 2-liter soda bottles, remove the caps, invert them, and bury the neck several inches into the soil next to plants. Fill the bottles with water and let it seep into the soil. If the water runs right into the soil, try replacing the caps and poking a few holes in them so the water drains more slowly. Just be sure to bury the bottle deeply enough so it doesn't blow away.

Make Sure to Mulch
If you didn't do so at planting time, mulch new transplants. Mulch helps keep soil moist and cool and keeps clay soils from developing a hard crust. It also deters weeds, which if left unchecked can rob transplants of water and nutrients. I use straw mulch for vegetable gardens and bark mulch for decorative plantings.

Forgo the Fertilizer
Avoid dosing your plants with a big shot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer right now. Nitrogen encourages leafy growth, and your plants need to develop strong roots before they can support lush growth. If you enriched your soil with compost before planting, you shouldn't need to fertilize now. If not, you may want to give plants a dose of low nitrogen, high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage root growth.

Before you know it, you'll be on your way to a beautiful, bountiful summer.

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