Unlike the tops of ornamental plants, which go dormant and cease growth for the winter, roots continue to grow throughout the winter. Fall planting allows all the energy produced during the previous growing season to be directed to root growth because there is little demand from the top. So when spring arrives, a well-established root system will be prepared to provide the necessary water and nutrients for optimum growth.
The most common cause of problems among the sick woody plants that come to our plant clinic at the University of Georgia is improper planting. It's easy to avoid.
Start by digging the planting hole two to three times as wide as the root ball and 1´ times as deep. Be sure to backfill soil under the root ball so that the top of the root ball is slightly above or level with the soil.
Some references recommend setting the bottom of the root ball on a slight pedestal of soil so the soil beneath the plant will not settle over time and leave the top of the root ball below ground level.
Organic amendments may be useful for improving soil that is too sandy or has too much clay. They should be evenly incorporated into the planting area and not added directly to the planting hole.
You may want to rinse potting soil from the roots of azaleas and other woody plants before planting. Soil with a high clay content will wick moisture away from the pine bark-based growing mixes where the majority of the roots are and make it difficult for the plant to get the water it needs.
Another common mistake is failing to break up the root ball before setting the plant into the hole. Failure to break up the root ball usually causes the plant to continue to be root-bound. (Most plants purchased in containers are root-bound.) Most of the problem plants I see and that are sent to our lab still have root systems in the shape of the pots.
Finally, a good layer of mulch around the base of the plant will keep the roots moist and prevent weeds. Water the ornamentals immediately after planting to settle the soil around the roots. Give them a regular watering about once a week in the absence of rain for the next 6 to 8 weeks until they become established.
HEAD:Other September tips
You can avoid another common mistake by following label directions before applying pesticides.
Apply pre-emergence herbicides, if you haven't already, to prevent winter weeds from growing in your lawn.
House plants that have been outside all summer should be allowed to make a fairly slow transition to the indoors. Quick changes in environment can result in yellowed foliage and leaf drop. Check for insect pests before you move the plants. It is easier to get rid of pests while plants are still outside.
Sid Mullis is director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County. Call him at 821-2349, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Richmond and Columbia counties have a Web page at www.griffin.peachnet.edu/ga/columbia.