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Norm's Planting Mix Instructions

First off, I must tell you that I've been doing planting for years, and don't actually measure the amount of amendments I add to planting mix. I guess it's similar to a cook who uses quantities of pinches, dashes and dollops. But in the interest of giving you good guidance, I think it appropriate that I try to describe the amounts. So here goes:

For a 5-gallon size plant (a container with an opening of about 12-inches across)

  • 2 double-handfuls of 3-12-12 Gro-Power Flower-n-Bloom fertilizer. I choose this product because it's low nitrogen (the 3 on the label), high phosphorous and potassium (the two 12's on the label), organic and has a good micro-nutrient package

  • 1 double-handful of soil sulfur

  • 1 double-handful of bone meal

  • 1 double-handful of worm castings

  • approximately 15% (by volume) of well-decomposed organic matter

The amount of amendments listed above should be added to the soil that was dug from the hole. Do not replace the native soil, just amend it.

For 1-gallon plants cut the amounts above in half. For 15-gallon plants, quadruple the amounts. Keep the volume of organic matter at around 15%, which is done through visual estimation.

There are some other important points I want you to be aware of, though.

First, I only amend this way for 'moderate water-users', the non-desert plants. For true desert species, I don't amend at all, or cut the amounts of amendment drastically, to about 1/4 of what I use for the moderate water-users.

Note that, after planting, moderate water users should have organic (wood chip-type) mulch placed about 1 1/2 - 2-inches deep, at least out to their drip line, and preferably the whole area should use such mulch. All the work you do putting the amendments in is only temporary...after a year or two, without the organic mulch, the soil will revert to its previous low-nutrient, high-pH state. Organic mulch has other very beneficial qualities, too numerous to mention here. But I must tell you, putting down organic mulch is the most important thing you can do to develop good long-term health for non-desert plants!

Planting holes should be dug to the same depth as the soil in the pot, no deeper. But you should definitely dig the hole wider. The top of the planting hole should be at least 2x, and preferably 3x, the width of the planting container. The sides of the planting hole should slope down and in at about a 45-degree angle, for this helps encourage root development into surrounding soil.

The over-digging of the hole as mentioned above should be done regardless of plant type, desert or moderate water-user. This is because, even if you don't amend, it will loosen the soil and greatly enhance the likelihood of root development into the surrounding soil

The soil you are digging in should be moist, not wet nor dry. Digging in wet soils damages soil structure, creating compaction that drives 'pore-space' out. Pore space is the area between soil particles, wherein water and air are held by the soil. A good, loose soil has lots of pore space, and digging in (or walking on) wet soils causes them to become more compact, with less pore space. Digging in dry soils is just harder, for a little moisture ''lubricates' the soil particles, and makes it a bit easier, and every little bit helps, eh? Plus, if you plant a moist plant in dry soils, the dry soil can 'wick' the water right out of the plants root-ball, causing it to dry out much quicker.

The best thing to do is to do your planting over the course of two days. On day one, dig all the holes in moist soil (you watered the area approx two to four days prior). Place the soil someplace where it will be easy to move, twice. I prefer to do it on my driveway, for it's a flat surface where I can use a flat shovel to easily move it. I add the amendments as listed above and following their addition, I move the entire pile, shovel by shovel to the side. I try to grab shovel-fulls to most evenly distribute the amendments I've added. After moving the pile once, I'm done for the day.

On day two, I move the pile, shovel by shovel, back to its original location. The reason I wait about a day in between the two mixings of the pile is for the soil sulfur. The sulfur comes in little pellets. In that form, the pellet will take many years to completely dissolve into the soil. You can dig an area where soil sulfur was used years earlier and still find the pellets more-or-less intact. But if you move the moist soil pile once with the sulfur in it, the sulfur will absorb moisture from the pile and become very loose and unstable. When you move the pile the second time, the next day, the sulfur will naturally begin to disintegrate. When you further load the soil into the wheelbarrow and then into the planting hole, the pellets should be pretty much completely dissolved by the movement of the soil, and it's in that condition that they really do their work (helping to bring down soil pH levels).

When planting, first loosen the plant in the pot by gently pressing the side of the pot with your thumb, to remove the connection between the plastic pot and the root ball inside. Then push, with your hand on the bottom, or placing the bottom of the pot on your knee and pulling down on the sides. This should cause the plant's rootball to move loosely up and it's ready to come out. If it isn't yet loose, repeat manipulation of the sides and bottom of the pot until it is loose. If this doesn't work, then carefully cut the pot away.

After removal from the pot, it's a good idea to loosen the root ball a bit. On small root-balls this can easily be accomplished by manipulating it with your fingers, loosening the outer perimeter (about 1/2 to 1-inch into the root-ball. This will encourage the roots to develop into the surrounding soil. If you don't do this, the roots may remain forever wrapped in a circle. Please note, this is especially critical for trees. And with trees, use hand pruners or another sharp knife-type instrument to cut the root-ball vertically, about every 4-6 inches around the perimeter. Cut from top to bottom along the sides and also score the bottom of the root-ball. If you don't take this step, the roots may remain forever wrapped, girdled, and this can cause the decline and death of the tree in the future. Sometimes decline and death occur quickly, within a year or two. But worse, sometimes death occurs 10 or more years down the road, and all that time in developing a beautiful tree is lost!

After loosening the root-ball, place the plant in the pre-dug planting hole and make sure the top of the root-ball of the plant is at the same level as the surrounding soil. If not, remove the plant and add or remove additional soil in the hole until it's at the right height.

After placing the plant in the hole and assuring the planting depth is correct, begin the back-fill process. Place about three to five inches of soil into the hole around the rootball. Then using your hand or the end of a shovel, firm the soil down and against the rootball. I like to use my thumb to press down and in. Doing so will remove any large gaps of air, without compacting the soil.

Repeat this process in increments of three to five inches until the soil level is back to its original height, matching the surrounding soil and the level of the root-ball.

Immediately after planting, water thoroughly (except for cacti). To do so, either build a reservoir wall around the plant to a height of two to four inches and then fill with water. Or, put the hose on a slow drip, place it at the base of the plant, and allow it to run long enough (1/4 to 1 full hour) to thoroughly saturate the root-ball and the surrounding soil. With cacti, allow the planting hole to dry out quite thoroughly before the first irrigation, around to 2 weeks. Then water normally.

Next step is perhaps the most important. Enjoy your new plant! If, in the end it does not survive, try to figure out why, then shrug your shoulders and know that such is the nature of gardening...sometimes plants fail. If your plant thrives, love it, enjoy it and know you're an awesome gardener. Remember, celebrate your successes in gardening and shrug off the inevitable failures...in this, you will always continue to enjoy gardening here in the beautiful southwest!

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