A GROWING CONCERN: Preaching the holey garden gospel

AS MARCH PROGRESSES, so do my planting chores.

We are in the apex of planting time — bare root items, transplanting, dividing and new purchases.

On top of that, many yard chores are stacking up and we are digging holes, lots of holes.

Holes for walkway lights, holes for water and electricity, holes crafted for future planting and definitely a hole in the homeowner’s wallet.

This made me realize there is a whole art involving holes, and there are a lot of holes to be dug from now until May.

Everyone on the North Olympic Peninsula must realize that we either live atop a gravel pit or are slowly sliming our way through clay and silt.

Dirt poor

Our indigenous soils — for the most part — are poor at best.

They are usually nutrient-poor and either hold water to excess (clay) or retain little moisture and drain out rapidly (gravelly sand).

This is why your planting holes need a lot of attention.

First, figure out what type of soils you have, along with sunlight and moisture conditions, and preferably select plant material suited for that condition.

Native plants

This is why native, indigenous plants can be the best selection.

They have evolved in our local soil profiles and are well suited for them.

Many times, these domesticated landscape plants require larger holes because it is necessary to mix and prepare a large lush soil pit.

Otherwise, you need a stick of dynamite, a jackhammer, a backhoe or an 18-year-old in order to get any kind of fair-sized hole into the ground.

Just making a hole is the top critical factor when preparing for a lush, organic, rich, loose, light soil for most flowering plants, shrubs or perennials.

When you are digging a hole, you are creating an artificial depression that can be the source of numerous problems.

Size matters

Make it too small and just like the pot the plant came in, roots can become compacted, thick and tangled as the roots wrap around the edges of the small hole rather than venturing into the compacted, dry or rock-infested soil.

Make your hole at least two or three times the pot size.

Roses, for example, would adore a planting pit 2½ feet across and 3-foot-deep that is filled with lots of very old manure.

An area for clematis, creeping honeysuckle or wisteria would call for a backhoe, ideally creating a 3 to 4 foot-wide hole and 5 foot long by 3 foot-deep trench for optimal growing ability.

When I plant large trees that are 15 to 20 feet high, I like to dig a hole until the 3-yard trailer is full of debris and then dump a new 3 yards of topsoil around the tree.

But as you have heard, size isn’t everything.

So it is with holes.

What kind of soil, fertilizer and how the sides of the hole are treated also has significance.

You must know the soil requirements of the item to be planted.

Recipe for success

For example, lavender grows so wonderfully here and a lot of that is because of our poor soils.

If you give lavender a rich, humid soil it will slowly rot away.

This goes to show that gourmet greenhouse blends aren’t always preferred.

When blends are preferred, be careful.

It is extremely difficult to adjust the lower soils once the plant is placed on top, so getting the bottom right first is a requirement.

Tricks in the mix

I like to add very old manure or compost into the bottom of the hole with lots of bone meal for quick root growth.

Then cultivate that into the native soil very well, mixing and chopping it until every thing is evenly blended.

This cultivating or shovel turning helps by breaking up the line between the hole and added soil.

Do not leave smooth edges, so roots can go out and mingle between old and new soils.

Then with a nice organic soil, place the plant in the hole and put soil entirely around it.

Avoid stomping on the soil which only compacts it, making for a very poor water and nutrient movement.

Instead use the handle end of the shovel to push soil in and around the roots and closes the air pockets.

Watering tips

Next, it is time for a nice heavy watering — several times in the next few days is highly advised.

This further closes air gaps. It settles the plant and root ball well into the soil.

Mandatory in finishing off the hole is a top dress of fertilizer, especially at and just outside the drip line (the foliage’s outside edge).

This encourages new, outward root growth.

Cover-up operation

As always, cover with a nice layer of mulch or compost, but do not apply so thickly around the exact base of the plant.

It will smother and kill it.

Remember, when digging a hole in clay, you are making a bathtub in most cases and a french drain may be required.

This is nothing more that a 4 foot long, 6 inch-wide trench filled with rocks that angles down and away from the lowest corner of the hole to drain water away from the bathtub.

With these tips, go out and buy a whole lot of bare root trees — get roses and shrubs, too — and plant away.

This is the month for it and you will be “holey” ready for it.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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