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Grappling With Growing Pains : Good Advice and Attention to Detail Will Help Solve Mystery of Gardening

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The symptoms were plain as day but carried no meaning.

A lone Mexican tulip poppy plant, properly stuck into the ground and watered, did three things: looked good for two days, then wilted and yellowed along the tips of its beautiful silver-green foliage another two days, then bent over and died.

The plant was returned to Green Thumb International nursery in Ventura and replaced free of charge. But the second plant did the same thing.

The plant’s owner, my neighbor, had sought my counsel on the subject because I had successfully planted a row of the very same Mexican tulip poppies. As a result, I was intimately involved--right down to mixing the fertilizer--in the death of his replacement plant.

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While I have no particular horticultural prowess, the conditions in my neighbor’s yard had looked fine to me: sunny spot, decent soil and what appeared to be great successes with surrounding plants.

So we took this, and other garden mysteries, to one of the cheerful green-coated guys at Green Thumb. Actually, we sought out Eric Finkbeiner, the one attendant who had passionately and successfully coached me through previous mini-traumas in my own yard.

Finkbeiner, hands on hips and eyebrows cocked, listened closely. Politely, he cross-examined my neighbor. He wanted to know about the texture of the soil, frequency of watering, fertilizing--he even asked about something called pH. Then he started speaking in some alien tongue, a garden language so specific and terrifying that I have come to call mulchera :

“Your soil sounds hydrophobic,” he said. “The clay particles are so fine and tightly packed as to be impenetrable to water. The water just beads up and bounces off it. If you’re hydrophobic, you’re watering the top of the ground, and it just runs off somewhere. If you’re not, then the water’s just sitting in the clay hole, without draining, and rotting the roots.”

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He paused for a moment, as if to let this sink in, then added:

“You do that, you croak it.”

Well. While croak is no verb, its fresh use lent an especially clear meaning: Owing to some factor that I or my neighbor had not accounted for, we--not the righteous little plant--were responsible for those incidents of poppycide.

*

Welcome to the yard. Indeed, welcome to that saddle of time between winter rain and spring heat that inspires all of us to get the lawn and flower beds in shape.

Nurseries throughout Ventura County in recent weeks have been in mad-paced transition. Winter means bare-root planting--notably roses and fruit trees--while warmer days mean potted flowers, shrubs and, depending upon the variety, vegetable plantings. The nurseries have been stocking up on brightly colored spring plants but stuck with brooding backlogs of bare-root stock.

The transition was stymied by weather. January’s pounding rains thwarted all but the most prepared home gardeners from carrying out their bare-root dreams. Those who didn’t plan well ahead and prepare planting sites--that is, in early December, and purchase fresh stock at the turn of the new year--were left drumming fingers and looking out the window.

That would be fine were it not for the fact that nature--even in the form of dormant roses or Asian plum trees--starts responding to the warm, if rainy, days by growing right in the bag at the nursery. That’s a bad development: The plant “thinks” it’s spring and starts to flower from the cane but has not developed a root system to support growth.

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Ironically, the very reason for bare-root planting is to give the unflowering, dormant plant a chance to develop roots that, come spring, amply support above-ground growth triggered by warm days. By mid-February, however, this presented Ventura County nurseries and customers alike a Catch-22: reserves of unsold bare-root plants at escalating risk from planting too late.

The few nurseries to avoid this predicament were those avoiding bare-root altogether.

“That winter market of bare-root plants has just gotten too competitive, as everybody’s doing it,” said Kyle Puerner of Green Meadow Nursery in Camarillo. “So we don’t even sell bare-root stock. Instead, we plant it here in containers in a special mix, allowing the root systems to develop, and then sell fresh rose plants in containers for planting right through till early summer.”

The difference is that Green Meadow’s roses are 50% more expensive, on average--about $15 for a No. 1 grade rose instead of an average $10 bare-root price tag--but carry a far better survival rate this late in the game.

Of course, this does little to placate purists who want their roots to develop in the soil that will be home to their plants for years to come.

I, a rather standard-issue back-yard duffer and co-killer of last summer’s poppy plants, am such a delusionist. That said, I would have been willing to take a chance on some of Ventura County’s overstock on bare-root roses but had a specific variety in mind that was unavailable. I found my bare-root rose of choice, the compelling Sea Pearl, at an Oregon mail-order ranch whose proprietor tried not to make the sale.

“You’re getting awfully warm down there,” warned Kathy Edmunds. “You might consider waiting a bit and then going to the nursery and getting other roses already planted in pots.”

Struck by her rather noble unwillingness to ship plants off to their deaths, I pressed for details on how she would proceed if she were forced to plant bare-root roses so late in Ventura County.

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Her reluctant, step-by-step description, when joined with standard planting rules offered by Green Thumb’s Finkbeiner and Green Meadow’s Puerner, serves as guide to understanding how most plants in the garden behave.

1) Dig a hole far larger than necessary. This was so I could adjust the soil in which the roots would develop. Ventura and Oxnard soils tend to be composed heavily of clay, in which case the addition of sand, peat moss, compost, mulch, or even wood shavings is necessary. The goal here is to increase porosity, thus drainage, and avoid both the dreaded hydrophobia and root rot. A fair amount of Simi Valley and Somis soils, by contrast, are sandy, and yet they often need the inclusion of richer topsoil to achieve proper balance.

2) Cut the canes of the still-dormant rosebushes back by perhaps 50%. This was to reduce the area of above-ground growth limbs--the parts of the plant that, under hot sunlight, make demands upon roots for water and nutrients. The premise: Smaller canes and fewer leaves seek less water from embryonic roots and run a lower risk of drying out. (This is true of existing trees and shrubs, as well: Deep pruning in late fall or dormant winter readies the plants for vigorous, more concentrated renewal in spring.)

3) Mound the roses. The word “mound” is another strange verb, courtesy of plant professionals. This is the only rose-specific instruction issued by Edmunds, but the principle behind it, if not practice, translates to all plants whose roots are busy catching up to their canopy growth.

“Mounding,” said Edmunds, “means you must bury the whole thing, so you protect the canes from drying out in the sun and heat and wind.” Hearing a silence on the phone that suggested, accurately, my conceptual block on this, she added: “When you’re done, each planted rosebush will look like a giant anthill.” She said that once roots start developing, the rose branches will flower right through the mound of mulched dirt, at which time I can remove the mounds. Only at that point will I have rose bushes with quick-growing feeder roots that can supply the above-ground branches--rose bushes that no longer are in danger of getting croaked by me.

I went ahead with the bare-root plantings as directed, the happy results just now coming in. I made no mention to Mrs. Edmunds of how strikingly similar all this sounded to my concurrent challenge of the season, the planting of a 16-foot-tall mission olive tree. That had started well enough, back in December, with plenty of winter cold and rain during which the mature but transplanted tree could start a new root system to supply its rather large canopy of branches and leaves.

But January’s rains were accompanied by heavy winds, and I made a cruel discovery: The tree blew around like a kite. Its huge branches would catch gusts of air and its paltry, chopped-to-fit-a-two-foot-box root ball was little use as an anchor.

Schwwuuunk, it’s tipped 20 degrees to the right.

Schwwuuunk, now it’s tipped 10 degrees to the left.

I had, in fact, lashed the 400-pound tree to four 10-foot poles set around it, but naively kept the tie lines loose as I’d read somewhere that one should leave a bit of bending room so the tree trunk, in swaying, would develop good capillary action, grow thick and strong, and also call heavily upon developing roots.

Karl Dobler, Green Thumb’s nursery chief, smiled when I told him this. He did his best not to call me a fool in gently telling me: “Right. That’s for young trees. What you’ve described is a strong, already developed tree with cut roots.”

With raincoat and flashlight, I’d go out nightly and tighten lines in an effort to keep the tree steady. As I did this, I would look down and see something terrible: a fissure, or half-inch crack, circling the root ball of the tree.

This meant that any of the hair-like little roots known as feeders--they rapidly extend laterally from a bare-root rose plant or old root ball on a transplanted olive tree--were being broken by the tree’s motion.

Finally, the rains and the wind stopped. While I was lulled into relief as days of warmth and sun arrived, the olive tree, inexplicably, started showing deep croak signs: curled and falling leaves, sagging branches.

Why, I asked Dobler, would my lovely tree reject such beautiful weather--especially when I continue to water it faithfully?

“Because it has no way of drinking,” he said. “Because the branches at the top can’t receive water from roots that have yet to develop and feeders that are probably torn. You probably have way too much canopy.”

Now my olive tree is in its own springtime intensive care unit: Instead of watering it profusely, I hose down its branches and leaves twice a day to slow transpiration, or the evaporation of the tree’s water through its leaves.

Moreover, there are fewer leaves to feed, as I pruned away perhaps 25% of the branches. And yes, I continue to water the roots, but only weekly since filling in the fissure around the root ball. Things are already perking up, I can see, from the broadening green leaves: Feeder roots are undoubtedly crossing the fissure line and forming. Still, a few months in the ICU are in order.

*

The passage of a season always prompts a review.

First, the Mexican tulip poppy, a croaker. The problem? Over watering in soil that didn’t drain well enough seems the prime suspect. But as Dobler himself puts it, “Sometimes you just can’t tell without a full investigation. It could be a bunch of things.”

Then the olive tree, a near croaker but at this writing an apparent rebounder. The problem? Arrested root development from insufficient support in winds.

Now my potentially beautiful Sea Pearl roses, beneath sun-defying ugly wet mounds but soon to branch out in some kind of symmetry with burgeoning underground mats of hairy feeder roots. The threat? If they don’t continue to branch out in their embryonic success, I’ll have six expensive croakers planted in some very large holes with elaborate soil mixes. And, till next December’s bare-root try, I’ll wonder: Was it the high risk of the late-season planting? Did I start to pull the mounds down a week too soon? Or was it some crazy factor such as too much clay content in the soil?

As I ponder these back-yard dramas, I can only feel humbled by the tricks this transition in the season can play--and a profound appreciation for how all gardening, whether hardy olive tree or delicate bare-root rose, is governed by some very basic rules.

It’s not rocket science, certainly. But like any new interest, it takes some attention, patience and persistence.


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