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The Trowel and Error of Planting Perennials

Perennials are flowering plants that typically bloom for a short period, maintain their leaves from Spring-Winter, and then return each year. To enable them to live so long, perennials spend the first year of their lives developing and strengthening their root systems. Aided by strong roots, years two through five are often filled with blooms.

After five years the root systems will be so large, digging them back up and dividing the root system becomes necessary for their ability to thrive. Luckily that typically results in two healthy, happy plants for each one originally planted.

Perennials vs. Annuals


Short Bloom Time

Lives 3 to 5 Years

Deep Root System


Blooms Throughout it’s Life

Lives for 1 Year

Shallow Root System

Sold in Multi-Packs


Healthy Perennials Will Root For You

A thriving, healthy root system is the single most important factor for perennials.

Their deep root system enables them to tap into more water sources.

The roots secure them to the ground, protecting them from harsh wind storms.

In fact, the roots play such an important role that during the winter months, when the plants are often cut down to the ground, the roots of perennials continue to grow.

Pro Tip: Focus on Protecting and Nurturing The Root System, Not The Flowers

Adding organic material to the soil will help ensure strong roots. A product such as Azomite, a naturally mined, volcanic material that has over 66 minerals and trace elements that are important for plant nutrition and growth, is ideal.

Know Your Soil Type

Soil types are about as diverse as ice cream flavors. Just as each person has their favorite ice cream, perennials have particular soil types they enjoy above all others. It’s much wiser to discover what type of soil you already have and then find perennials that will thrive in it rather than add fertilizer and other non organic material in hopes of changing your soil to make your perennial happy.

Pro Tip: Pick Plants That Naturally Enjoy Your Existing Soil Type

Those who are natural chocolate lovers might eventually eat a bowl of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate sauce, but will would surely
enjoy a bowl of pure chocolate ice cream even more.

Examine The Root System

Carefully turn the container upside down and allow gravity to assist a light tap, releasing the perennial from its container.

At long last the roots, the key component to a healthy plant, are now visible.

Ideally the roots still have ample room to grow. Slightly moist soil should be easily visible.

Pro Tip: Correct The Roots Before Planting

If the plant has been in its container for too long the roots will begin to wrap around each other, seeking the space they need.

In this case simply use garden sheers or a sharp knife to cut along the roots. This will encourage the plant to send out new roots, enabling it to better recover from being in the container for so long.

Dig A (Large Enough) Hole

The size of the container is a handy gauge to estimate the size of the hole your perennial will need to thrive, but it’s merely a gauge. The preciseness of the hole size is key. If the hole is too small, the roots will wrap around each other. If the hole is too large, the beneficial insects in the soil will be moved and reluctant to immediately return

Rather than estimating by sight, dig into the ground, remove any weeds, then place the clean soil in the empty container. When the container is full, your digging is complete.

Pro Tip: Place The Soil Directly Into The Container

Place The Perennial in the Hole Emphasizing Looks and Roots

Use a hand shovel to loosen the soil around the newly dug hole. That area is exactly where the roots will first reach out into the native soil, so providing easy access for hard working roots can make a big impact.

Place the perennial in the hole with the best side facing the main view. Simultaneously use your fingers to gently aim the roots in many directions. The more various opportunities there are for the roots to find nutrients and water, the more likely your perennial will flourish.

Pro Tip: Use the Native Soil, Now in the Container, To Fill The Gap

Never create a new soil level. Maintain the same soil level your perennial enjoyed in the container. The easiest way to achieve this is to use the native soil now in the container to fill in the gaps between the hole you dug and the perennial. This process, referred to as back filling, eliminates air pockets and provides the roots with an optimal growing opportunity.

Amply Water Now, Then Regularly

Each of us processes being in a new home differently. Even if we move into a better home in an improved community, we still face growing pains before we settle down and get back into our routines. Plants experience a similar shock to their systems. Providing them with ideal growing conditions certainly helps, but it’s still an adjustment from being wrapped in their containers.

To help reduce transplant shock, water the perennials roots on planting day, then every day thereafter for a week particularly if it’s a hot, dry day. Water is most valuable to the root system, not the leaves. Rather than spray water from overhead, place it directly on the ground, watering the entire root system.

Pro Tip: Water The Roots, Not The Leaves

One simple watering solution is to add a terracotta or clay water dispenser topped off with a bottle of water.

Terracotta is a slow release material, providing the roots with small amounts of water regularly.

Mulch For More Than Just Appearances

Maintaining a weed free, moisture rich garden bed is only easy when preventative steps are taken. An incredibly effective tool at your disposal is the addition of organic mulch, in particular Sweet Peet. After watering add a 3 inch layer of mulch around perennials.

Adding mulch is akin to wrapping a baby in a warm blanket to help it calm down and enjoy it’s new surroundings. Coddle your perennials on planting day and they will reward you with more robust blooms that appear sooner.

Pro Tip: Add a 3 inch Layer of Organic Mulch

Organic mulch will leech nutrients into the soil over the course of a year and ultimately completely decompose. Each spring and fall it’s important to add new mulch, ensuring the benefits are continued.

An attractive alternative to mulching is to add groundcovers to your garden beds. They provide the same benefits; they suppress weeds, maintain moisture and look great, all without the continued costs associated with mulch.

Pro Tip: Replace Semi-Annual Mulching With Groundcover

Set Friendly Reminders

Your perennials are finally planted with the promise of blooms now in your future. Capture the moment with a photo and a calendar reminder. Add a reminder in fall to cutback and fertilize. Right now is an ideal time to set that reminder to an annual frequency, helping you to care for them for many years to come.

Add another reminder to add fertilizer in each year’s early spring (late April/early May) to help provide much needed nutrients during growth spurts.

Pro Tip: Add Fertilizer Right Before Growth Spurts

Perennials spend their first year in the ground developing roots. The second year they develop a more sophisticated branching system. The third year the big payoff begins. Robust, long lasting blooms.

Remember to relax in, and fully enjoy, your garden. Surround yourself with the fruits of your labor often and you will likely feel refreshed, inspired and grateful you initially picked up the shovel.

Pro Tip: Be patient. Perennials have 3 stages; sleeping, creeping and leaping.

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Mulch Ado About Nothing

Spring’s arrival brings with it longer days, America’s favorite past time, and every gardener’s yearning desire to add mulch to their garden beds. Early spring is one of the ideal times to add mulch to existing gardens. It acts like a blanket, insulating the ground from the last of the wintery winds, prevents weed seeds from reaching the sun they need to set root (not to mention spread) and it can turn almost any garden bed from looking like a worn down dress to a head turner.

New Mulch on a Spring Garden Bed

Too Much of a Good Thing?

When adding mulch to a garden bed limit yourself to only one to three inches in depth, staying entirely away from areas where the roots connect with the ground. Mulch is definitely one of life’s pleasures where you can have too much of a good thing. While a few inches of mulch is beneficial, too much mulch can create a complete barrier stopping all moisture from evaporating and preventing oxygen from reaching the roots. In response plants will send their roots upwards to the ground’s surface searching for dry air rather than deeper into the ground where they are better able to sustain winds and find natural water resources.

More than a few inches of mulch around a tree, often referred to as a tree volcano, prevents the roots from reaching the air it needs.

Compounding matters, thick layers of mulch prevent water from easily evaporating, creating pools of water for the roots to drown in.

When smothered in mulch roots respond drastically. They twist and turn, often around the trunks of trees, searching for dryer ground and fresh air.

When roots become twisted like this, it’s next to impossible for them to relax and return to their healthy growth patterns. Much like people who use a girdle to squeeze into an outfit far too small for them. Hence the term “tree girdling”.

What Happens to Existing Mulch?

When excess mulch is harming plants, proceed immediately with an empty wheelbarrow and promptly remove the mulch volcano. Trees might still need treatments to repair their root systems, but at least further damage can be prevented.

When the right amount of mulch has been applied, it will decay with time and need to be refreshed. Organic mulches will leach nutrients as they decompose, improving overall soil quality.

Faced with a thin layer of last season’s organic mulch, gardeners know it can be valuable to incorporate any remaining mulch into the soil. Ideally nutrients are deep enough in the soil structure to directly benefit the roots.

Nonorganic mulch, such as dyed mulches, leach into the soil over time, but their benefits span from non-beneficial to downright harmful.

Colored mulch might initially seem appealing in a garden, but it pales in comparison to having live plants in a garden.

Types of Mulch

At first blush it might appear that there are as many mulch types as there are garden styles. For simplicity much can be divided into two distinct groups: organic and non-organic.

Organic mulches improve soil fertility, aeration, structure, and drainage as they decompose. These include sweet peet, cedar, wood chips, grass clippings, shredded paper, leaves and compost mixes.

Within this group mulches made from pine, technically a softwood, are more acidic so might not be ideal for all plants.

Cedar mulches can temporarily repel all insects, including beneficial insects, when the aroma is fresh. Avoid using cedar mulch if your goal is to attract butterflies.

Inorganic mulches can prevent weeds and have some ascetic appeal, but they do not improve soil fertility. Examples include: stones, rocks, and synthetic products.

When selecting inorganic mulches the coloring can play a critical role in its beneficial use. Dark mulches retain heat in the landscape, which may increase water evaporation and cause the landscape to overheat. Light colored mulches on the other hand are highly reflective, and therefore can heat up adjacent structures and result in glare. Neutral/beige tones often are the most suitable since they reduce glare, heat retention, and heat reflection problems.

Reducing the Cost of Mulch

Buying, installing and maintaining mulch can quickly become an expensive ordeal. Naturally, adding shrubs and perennials to a garden bed reduces the amount of mulch necessary with each application. Another effective way to reduce the economic burden of mulch while maintaining all of its benefits is to replace mulch with groundcover.

Vinca minor, sometimes referred to as periwinkle, thrives in partially shaded conditions, reaches 4 inches in high and becomes very low maintenance within a few years.

Elfin creeping thyme is another favorite mulch replacement. It is an evergreen, offers a lemony scent, is drought tolerant, and can tolerate foot traffic. Best of all, butterflies are attracted to it.

This combination makes elfin creeping thyme a great selection fir growing between stepping stones.

Drop down for Key Mulch Takeaways

When to Add Mulch

New plants enjoy the benefits mulch offers. Every new plant deserves a great mulch dressing.

If you’re growing in poor soil conditions organic mulch, such as sweet peet, can drastically improve your soil.

Spring and Fall are ideal times to protect your existing garden beds against Mother Nature’s harsh winter season.

Benefits of Mulch

Mulch creates a protective coating on soil, retaining heat and moisture.

Mulch prevents weed seeds from taking root.

Mulch looks great.

Downside to Mulch

Too much mulch stops plants from being able to access air. One to three inches is ideal.

Some mulches contain elements that damage soil. (i.e. dyes).

The wrong mulch can discourage butterflies from visiting your garden.

Types of Mulch

Organic mulches are more expensive, but beneficial.

Inorganic mulches (stone, rubber, dyed mulch, etc.) can cause harm in the long run.

Mulch Replacements

Groundcovers, particularly native ones, reduce the need for mulch and can be low maintenance.

Additional shrubs and perennials reduce the need for mulch while enhancing landscapes.

Given the impact that mulch has on soil quality and home values, it plays a key role in gardening. If you are going to do it yourself, spend as much time comparing and contrasting your choices as you will buying and installing the mulch. If you are going to hire a professional, ensure they can answer all of these questions as well as we can.

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