Getting Started in Ornamental Gardening, Part II (2023)

Getting Started in Ornamental Gardening, Part II (1)

  • By Cathy Caldwell
  • /
  • August 2015 - Vol. 1 No. 8

by Cathy Caldwell

Yes, there’s more for the amateur ornamental gardener to know! If you somehow missed reading Part I or you wish to review the initial steps, go back to the July issue.

So you’ve selected a site, you’ve prepared the soil and you’ve carefully chosen some plants. But as I mentioned last month, you can’t just plop them in the bed. And please don’t do it at all until the weather starts to cool a bit, probably September. Aim to get your new plants established before freezing temperatures start. On average, the first frost in our area occurs between October 10 and October 29, depending upon your elevation. Va.Planting Guide

Finally, there you are with your new plants on a planting-friendly overcast day in early September. First, while the plants are still in their containers, arrange them on the surface of the bed. Perhaps you’ve drawn a plan or maybe you’re playing it by ear. In any event, be sure you read the height and spread (width) information on each label to make sure each plant has enough space for growth — and also so that taller plants are behind shorter ones.

You’ll want shrubs as background for your flowering perennials (perennials are the plants that “come back” year after year, unlike annuals), Those beautiful flowers and foliage show up better against a leafy green background. You’ll probably re-arrange and step back to inspect more than once.

For lots more about shrubs — how to use them in your designs and how to plant and care for them — take a gander at Shrubs: Functions, Planting and Maintenance, Va.Coop.Ext. If you’re planting azaleas or rhododendrons, you’ll want to follow the instructions that meet their very specific needs. Growing Azaleas and Rhododendrons, Va.Coop. Ext.

Once you’ve got your plants arranged to your eye’s satisfaction, it’s time to plant those babies! The steps are listed below.

1. Water each plant thoroughly before removing it from the container. If it’s dry, set it in a bucket of water while you’re digging the hole.

2. Dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball of your plant, but no deeper than the rootball. You want the roots to have plenty of room to expand outward. If the hole is narrow, the roots may remain small and start circling — not good at all! The bottom of the hole should be solid, not mushy.

3. Gently remove the plant from the container. Turn the container upside down and tap the bottom of the container. I’ve been known to tap quite vigorously. If the root ball doesn’t slide out easily, don’t yank on the plant; instead, cut away the container.

4. Tease out some of the roots so they’ll spread out in the planting hole. Cut — yes, cut — any circling roots. This won’t hurt the plant; in fact, it will help. But what if the roots are such a tangled mess that mere teasing out is impossible? You can’t leave them as is or they’ll just stay that way in the ground, resulting in “girdling” and killing the plant.

— If the root ball was difficult to remove and roots are packed tight together, you’ve probably got a “root-bound” (a/k/a “pot bound”) plant.

Root-bound, container-grown plant
Photo courtesy of John James, Va.Tech.Ext.Pub.No.

If the plant is so root-bound that untangling the roots is impossible, you’ll need to do some cutting to prepare the roots for successful growth. Since scientists are not in perfect agreement on the best way to do this root-cutting, I’ll give you both methods.

Slicing into a Root Ball
Photo: Jodie Delohery, courtesy of Fine Gardening website

Conventional Wisdom: cut 3 or 4 slits through the roots on the sides of the root ball, from top to bottom.

Root Ball with a Box Cut Photo: Jeff Gillman, gardenprofessors

New Advice: “Box Cut” the root ball, basically turning it into a square root ball. Use a sharp knifeand cut off the bottom of the root ball. Then make 4 vertical slices around the edges. Voila! You’ve given your root ball a Box Cut. I say “you” because I have not yet tried this new method myself. If YOU try it, please let me know how it works out.

5. Set the plant in the planting hole so that the top of the root ball (the spot on the stem where the roots begin) is at or above grade level. If the hole is too deep, you’ll have to take the plant out and add soil to raise it to the proper height. If the plant is too deep in the soil, it will be more susceptible to disease and rot. In fact, in our clay-ish soil, placing the root ball a little bit ABOVE grade level is a good idea, especially for shrubs.

6. Re-fill the hole with the soil you removed. This is called backfilling. If you’ve prepared your soil in advance, it won’t be necessary — or even a good idea — to add any amendments to the soil now. Also, remove all tags and wires from the plant.

7. Water generously and tamp down the soil so it settles and air pockets are eliminated. Air pockets are bad; those roots need to be in contact with the soil and moisture. Check that your plant hasn’t sunken below grade level. If you’re planting a shrub, you’ll water and tamp down when the hole is partly filled with soil; then you’ll do it again when the hole is full. Find shrub-planting directions at Shrubs: Functions, Planting and Maintenance, Va.Coop.Ext.

Should you add one of those transplant starter solutions to the water? I generally do, but I’ve wondered if it really helps to prevent transplant shock as the labels promise. I did a bit of research and here’s what I learned. Transplant starter solutions that contain rooting hormone and fertilizer may boost growth of roots and ease the transplant process. But don’t pay for a solution that contains vitamins because vitamins don’t do a thing for transplants. Myths Virginia Tech scientists recommend using astarter solution of high phosphate fertilizer which is water-soluble. Va. Coop.Ext. Pub. 426-203 “Perennials: Culture, Maintenance and Propagation”. So adding some transplant fertilizer won’t hurt and may indeed help. Just be sure to follow the directions on the label.

8. Mulch around your new plants. A layer of mulch — ground hardwood, leaves, or bark — is essential for keeping the roots cool and moist.

9. Keep Watering! Regular watering is essential for your new plants. We’re not talking about casual sprinkling! We’re talking about a long, slow drink from a hose or a watering can. Keep it gentle so as not to disturb the growing roots. You need to commit to watering regularly — often enough to keep the roots moist for at least a few months and providing extra water for up to a year until the plant is well established.

10. Start Weeding! Those new roots will do better without competitors, and the weeds may start quickly because the planting process brings weed seeds to the surface. Mulch will help, but keep an eye on your new plants and pull weeds as soon as they start.

Your new plants need your nurture and attention for the first year. Think of that time spent watering and weeding as an opportunity to admire your new plants. You may find that you enjoy this chance for close contact with plants. You may even find yourself talking to your new plants. I know I do. Is there any science to support this? Well, I doubt it. But that’s never stopped me, and it probably won’t stop you either. You’re a gardener now.

This local garden features purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), an easy native perennial, and a shrub background. Photo: Gail South


Taylor’s Master Guide to Landscaping (R. Buchanan, Houghton Mifflin 2000)

The First-Time Gardener(P. Barron, Crown Publishing 1996)

“Selection and Use of Mulches and Landscape Fabrics,” Va. Coop. Ext. Pub. No. 430-019,Mulches Va.Coop.Ext.

“Perennials: Culture, Maintenance and Propagation,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Pub. No. 426-203,

“Plant It Right for Healthier, Long-Lived Plants,” Penn State Extension (2015),

“Planting and Transplanting Trees and Shrubs,” University of Minnesota Extension,

“Shrubs: Functions, Planting, and Maintenance,” Va. Coop. Ext. Pub. No. 426-701,

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