Plant Care Guidelines (a cheat sheet for making your neighbor jealous)
Apr 15, 2022
If you're like me, I love to work in the landscape. A good Saturday for me would be spent toiling about in my garden taking care of my plants. For me, the landscape has been a way of life professionally for over 15 years. As a landscape architect, I have learned so much about the natural environment, and through experience, I picked up a ton of ways to care for plants and in turn have shared these life lessons with my clients. In the past, I always thought it was strange how some designers would spend hundreds of hours on a project, designing every intricate detail imaginable, then turn over the design to the client without an owner's manual. In the high-end residential market, some clients would spend north of 200K on their landscape. A sizable investment for any pocketbook. So I thought, why not create an owner's manual for my clients? Why not provide general guidelines one can follow so their investment isn't wasted? So like most things, if I look out there in the world and see something missing, it means I need to create it, so I did.
The following guidelines are provided as a “general” way to care for your plant material and are not intended to be site-specific. Each category listed below describes ways one can care for their plants to help insure proper growth habits. It's important to remember that newly installed plant material will go through a "shock" period as it gets acclimated to its new environment and will not perform as expected until it's fully established (see establishment periods).
This guide is not intended to cover every scenario one may encounter, but instead, offer industry-proven means for proper plant management.
Table of Contents
- Establishment Periods
- Proper Branch Pruning
- Pruning Large Branches
- Prepare Perennials for the Winter
- Annual Schedule for Perennial Plants
- Ornamental Grasses
- Flowering Bulbs
- Sod Care
- Sod Watering Techniques
- Watering the Established Lawn
- Fertilizing your Lawn
Water is the most critical element for your plant’s survival. Your new plants have limited root development and since they use their roots to reach into the soil and gather the water that they need, it is extremely important during the establishment period to keep the soil consistently moist.
How much water & how frequently you will need to provide water to your new plants will vary depending on a few factors: the type of plant, the site conditions, the soil conditions, and the weather and wind conditions.
As far as your plants are concerned, they need water applied slowly. For almost all plants, a deep, thorough soaking followed by enough time for the soil to dry out slightly is ideal. Frequent light watering is not good for plants. It encourages shallow root growth.
General Watering Guide for the 1st month depending on Weather & Soil Conditions
Under 60 deg. F
Every 3rd Day
Every 5th Day
Between 60-80 deg. F
Every Other Day
Every 3rd Day
Above 80 deg. F
Every Other Day
In average soil, newly planted trees and shrubs need an inch of water every week, ideally split between 2 waterings. Once established, trees and shrubs need an inch of slow rain every 2 to 3 weeks. The amount of water that falls in a given area can be measured with a straight-sided container or a rain gauge.
The outward signs of too much water are wilting and yellowing leaves, especially those in the inner areas of the plant. Signs of too little water are very similar so you must check under the top 4” of soil to determine the cause. The foliage on many plants will start to look "ashy" if they are too dry even before they wilt. After the Establishment Period, your plants should start to establish their root systems and you will be able to cut back on your watering.
Getting established in a new environment can often be difficult and for your plants, this is no exception. At the time of planting a new plant will go through a type of shock while it gets acclimated to its new environment. This period of time is different for every plant yet often can really scare a new owner into thinking something has gone terribly wrong. Not to worry, an establishment period is typical, and with a little care and understanding your plants will be full and happy once acclimated to their new surroundings.
- Trees & Shrubs – the first growing season
- Perennial Plants – on average one month
- Annuals & Vegetables – on average the first 2 or 3 weeks
This is a general guide and you should always check the soil moisture 4” to 6” below the surface to determine if water is needed. Feel the soil – it should never be soggy and should dry to just slightly damp before watering. Don’t be deceived if the surface is dry; always dig down under the surface to check.
If possible, plants should be watered early in the day. Since plants use the most water during the warmest part of the day, you will avoid losing the water directly to evaporation. Watering early in the day allows the plant foliage time to dry out before evening, minimizing problems with fungal diseases.
Try taking a few steps to minimize your need for water:
- Use methods and tools that apply the water exactly where it is needed and in the most efficient manner: slowly and directly over the root zone. (Soaker Hoses/Drip Irrigation)
- Use a water timer on hoses and sprinklers.
- The use of organic mulch will help in several ways: Mulching slows down evaporation from the soil surface, keeps the surface loose and cool, and slows down water loss due to runoff. Mulch inhibits weeds that would otherwise take some of the water you are providing your plants. It also encourages good root growth which allows the plants to do a better job at gathering the water they need.
- Xeriscape: choose plants that have low water requirements, such as native plants.
- Hydrozone: Group plants that need more water together.
Fertilizers can be used to provide nutrients needed for plant growth, but it is not actually plant food as some may think. Plants produce their own food using water, carbon dioxide, nutrients from the soil, and energy from the sun. Fertilizers are added to the soil to provide nutrients that plants need in modest or small amounts that may be missing in the soil. The best way to determine this is to have your soil tested. The macronutrients that are used in relatively large amounts and are most likely to limit plant growth if deficient are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. (N-P-K).
- Nitrogen (N) is responsible for increasing plant growth.
- Phosphorus (P) promotes early root formation and growth and the production of flowers, fruits, and seeds.
- Potassium (K) is vital to photosynthesis and helps regulate water levels in plants, which helps plants overcome drought stress, increases disease resistance, and improves winter hardiness.
- It is best to avoid fertilizing when trees and shrubs are newly planted (their 1st growing season)
- Once established, an annual application of a quality, dry fertilizer for flowering trees & shrubs (10-20-10) and for non-flowering plants (10-10-10) is best applied early in the Spring.
- Trees planted in the lawn will most likely get enough nutrients if you are fertilizing your lawn.
- Avoid fertilizing trees and shrubs in the late summer (the last 6 weeks of the growing season) since it may stimulate new growth that fails to harden off before frost.
- Perennials can be fed after the first month following planting. Apply 10-20-10 dry fertilizers once in the early Spring when the plants have first started growing and once again a month later.
- Annual Flowers & Vegetables can be fertilized with 10-20-10 after the first two or three weeks of planting and applied monthly thereafter.
- In dry weather, water the plants the day before fertilizing but make sure the foliage is dry when you apply the dry fertilizer to avoid burning the foliage.
- Water lightly after applying dry fertilizer. It will move quickly through the mulch so there is no need to move it.
- Water-soluble fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro are easy to use but are used up quickly. Be sure to apply water-soluble fertilizers more regularly (every 2-3 weeks during the growing season). These types are best used on annuals. They can be used as a supplement in the first season for trees and shrubs applied at a low rate but are not very effective once they are established.
- Over-fertilizing is the most common mistake! Follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully.
Pruning correctly during the formative years for a tree or shrub is really the best preventive maintenance a young plant can receive. Too many young trees are pruned improperly or not pruned at all for several years. By then it may become a major operation to remove bigger branches, and trees may become deformed. Shrubs can become overgrown and misshapen over the years.
At planting, remove only diseased, dead, or broken branches.
- Begin training a plant during the dormant season following planting.
- Keeping tools well-maintained and sharp will improve their performance.
- Prune to shape young trees, but don’t cut back the leader or main branch leading the tree into the sky.
- Remove crossing branches and branches that grow back towards the center of the tree.
- As young trees grow, remove lower branches gradually to raise the crown, and remove branches that are too closely spaced on the trunk.
- Remove multiple leaders on evergreens and other trees where a single leader is desirable
- Renewal Pruning for Shrubs: Every year remove up to one-third of the oldest, thickest stems or trunks, taking them right down to the ground. This will encourage the growth of new stems from the roots.
- Generally, most Overstory & Ornamental Deciduous Trees & Shrubs should be pruned in winter/early spring, just before spring growth starts, (December through April) to avoid disease & insect infestations. Otherwise use the following guidelines:
For example, shrubs that bloom early in the growing season on last year's growth should be pruned immediately after they finish blooming.
Spirea (Snow Mound & Bridalwreath)
Weigela (late summer)
For example, shrubs grown primarily for their foliage effect or that bloom new growth should be pruned in spring before growth begins.
Spirea (all others)
- Hardier shrubs such as late-blooming Spireas, Potentillas, and Smooth (Snowball) Hydrangeas can be pruned all the way back to the first pair of buds above the ground in early spring.
- Arborvitae, Junipers, Yews, and Hemlocks grow continuously throughout the growing season. They can be pruned any time through the middle of summer. Even though these plants will tolerate heavy shearing, their natural form is usually most desirable, so prune only to correct growth defects.
- Spruces, Firs, and Douglas-Firs don’t grow continuously, but can be pruned at any time because they have lateral (side) buds that will sprout if the terminal (tip) buds are removed. It’s best to prune them in late winter before growth begins. Some spring pruning, however, is not harmful.
- Pines only put on a single flush of tip growth each spring and then stop growing. Prune before these “candles” of new needles become mature. Pines do not have lateral buds, so removing terminal buds will take away new growing points for that branch. Eventually, this will leave dead stubs.
- Pines seldom need pruning, but if you want to promote more dense growth, remove up to two-thirds of the length of newly expanded candles. Don’t prune further back than the current year’s growth.
Proper Branch Pruning
- To shorten a branch or twig, cut it back to a side branch or make the cut about 1/4 inch above the bud.
- Always prune above a bud facing the outside of a plant to force the new branch to grow in that direction.
Pruning Large Branches
- To remove large branches, three or four cuts will be necessary to avoid tearing the bark. Make the first cut on the underside of the branch about 18 inches from the trunk. Undercut one-third to one-half-way through the branch. Make the second cut an inch further out on the branch; cut until the branch breaks free.
- Before making the final cut severing a branch from the main stem, identify the branch collar. The branch collar grows from the stem tissue around the base of the branch. Make pruning cuts so that only branch tissue (wood on the branch side of the collar) is removed. Be careful to prune just beyond the branch collar, but DON’T leave a stub. If the branch collar is left intact after pruning, the wound will seal more effectively, and stem tissue probably will not decay.
- The third cut may be made by cutting down through the branch, severing it. If, during removal, there is a possibility of tearing the bark on the branch underside, make an undercut first and then saw through the branch.
- Research has shown wound dressing is not normally needed for pruning cuts. However, if wounds need to be covered to prevent insect transmission of certain diseases such as oak wilt, use latex rather than oil-based paint.
Protecting smooth-barked trees from sunscald will require wrapping the trunk with tree wrap before the snow flies and removing it as soon as the snow is gone. You can also use plastic tubing. Rodents can be kept from gnawing on trees by encircling the base of the trunk with ¼” gauge hardware cloth or screen wire or you can try using repellents such as Tree Guard, Ropel or Hinder.
General Care for Perennial Plants, Ornamental Grass & Bulbs
Perennial gardens can be very easy to upkeep and maintain as perennial plants are typically considered to be very hardy. By providing ongoing care for your perennials, you'll not only create a much more attractive display but you will produce better results and ensure longevity. Perennial plants respond with better blooms & vigorous health.
Follow these simple tips and you'll be well on your way to success in your garden:
- Water: Utmost in importance the first year following the installation of these plants is watering the plants. It is very common for these plants during the first year in your garden to “hang on for dear life” because they are struggling to acclimate to new surroundings and develop a healthy root system. Depending on the specific type of soil, perennials will need at least 1 inch of water per week and they should be watered in the morning so that they can dry off by the time it gets cooler in the evening. Cool and wet leaves in the evening will make them more susceptible to disease. In general, water thoroughly (soak) and then allow the soil to dry out and then water again. The time in between waterings depends on the weather, the location of the plant in the garden, and the type of soil in the garden.
- Weeding: Even with some mulching during the growing season that will help stop most weeds, occasional weeding will also be needed for most perennial gardens. Weeds pull nutrients and water away from your plant and limit healthy growth. Weeding will need to be done on an ongoing basis as it is easier when weeds are smaller.
- Mulching: is basic. It helps keep the soil moist and cool. It helps control weeds. Best of all, it feeds the soil gradually over time as it breaks down. Check your mulch periodically to see if you need to fluff it with a rake or replenish it. Keep it between three and four inches thick. Apply mulch in a flat layer over the root area but do not allow it to touch the stems of your plants.
- Fertilizing: Although most perennials are not considered to be 'heavy feeders', it is important that they are produced with an adequate nutrient supply. Mulching the perennial beds with compost each year often supplies an ample amount of nutrients. In beds covered with bark mulches, it is recommended to fertilize once or twice per year with a general-purpose fertilizer. Applying too much fertilizer causes many perennials to grow too quickly and become floppy. Do not apply fertilizer directly on top of the crown or severe injury from the salts may result.
- Staking: Perennials that grow to be tall will thrive far better if they are staked or tied up. Staking a tall perennial will prevent slumping and allow for attractive blooms to be seen. Alternately, tall perennials can also be pinched in the late spring. Pinching your perennials along the stem will promote bushier, rather than upward, growth and will make it less likely that they will need to be staked.
- Dividing: Many perennials propagate by division and some will need to be divided every couple of years in order to prosper. The best way to divide your perennials is by digging them up and removing the entire plant from the ground and dividing the clump up into 3 or 4 sections. In general, perennials that bloom early should usually be divided in the fall, and perennials that bloom in late summer or early fall should be divided in the early spring.
- Deadheading: entails removing the dead flower heads and faded flowers; this practice keeps the garden looking nice and encourages many perennials to continue blooming for an extended period and improves the appearance of the plant. For perennials that self-seed, dead-heading can also be done before it goes to seed which will prevent invasive perennials from taking over your garden. It also prevents the plant from trying to form seed, so it has more energy for blooming and overall health. Large blooms, such as roses and peonies, are cut off one by one. Plants with a multitude of stems and blooms, such as dianthus or lavender, may be sheared. Prompt deadheading prevents re-seeding in the garden and may encourage rebloom.
- Thinning: or removing some of the stems from the dense bushy clumps in the early spring can benefit some perennials by allowing more air circulation and reducing the conditions for certain foliar diseases such as powdery mildew. Similar to deadheading, cutting some perennials back after they flower will often rejuvenate the clump by regenerating new growth and may possibly lead to another flush of flowers later in the growing season.
- Cutting back: is also used to prevent some perennials from flopping over or to prevent the centers of the plants from opening up and appearing ragged following bloom.
Prepare Perennials for the Winter
- Do not fertilize perennials after they stop growing in the late summer or early fall. This will allow them to prepare for dormancy rather than encouraging them to remain actively growing.
- Trim foliage back in winter: Many perennials go completely dormant (die back to the ground each year) and should have the foliage trimmed back before winter. Removing the existing foliage will make the perennial beds look cleaner and will decrease the likelihood of diseases setting in over the winter months or being carried over and infecting next year's growth.
- Trim foliage back in spring: Other perennials, such as ornamental grasses & sedum, are often trimmed in the spring allowing the foliage to provide some structure to the winter landscape.
- Add organic mulch: it is beneficial to apply mulch after the ground has frozen to help protect these perennials during harsh winters.
Annual Schedule for Perennial Plants
- 1st year: keep them alive
- 2nd year: help them thrive by weeding and fertilizing
- 3rd or 4th year: ready to divide and replant in a different area of your garden or give away to friends & family
Ornamental Grasses are undoubtedly one of the easiest types of plants to grow & maintain.
Additional Care Tips:
- Most grasses are slow starters in the garden. They do not get started growing very much until May or June so they are best surrounded by early growing and blooming plants so there is not a hole in the garden until summer. Grasses flower in late summer/early fall. This is their time to shine.
- Established grasses are the ultimate low-maintenance plants. Once a year all you need to do is give them an annual haircut early in spring.
- Cut them back to within 2 to 12 inches of the ground (depending on the type of grass and the size of the plant). Use hedge shears and wear gloves - some species have very sharp edges.
- Try to cut down the previous year's growth of cool-season grasses as soon as the snow melts because that's when they start to grow. If you leave this job too long you could chop off the tips of the leaves.
- Some grasses need dividing when they die out at the center. Usually, a division isn't needed for many seasons, but it's a good way to get new plants, as grasses tend to be expensive. Dividing a large mature grass plant is demanding: you need a strong back, a sturdy spade, and an axe to chop clumps apart.
- Divide warm-season grasses in early spring, as they begin growth, and cool-season grasses in early spring or fall. Water newly planted divisions until they are well established.
- When cutting these grasses down, leave about one-third of the previous year's growth in place. The new growth will quickly hide the old plant material.
- You can cut warm-season grasses right down to the ground if you like, but if you are doing the job late, be sure not to cut into the new growing tips. Cut these grasses down a little later because you will find that the previous season's buff-colored foliage looks good in with the spring-flowering bulbs.
Flowering Bulbs are a colorful addition to your garden. We recommend using bulbs in your garden when you need some flower color at a time of the year when you could lengthen the color season, especially in early Spring. It is good to plant bulbs amidst other plants so you do not have to look at the dying leaves in an open area of the garden.
Follow these care tips:
- Deadheading: When flowers fade, cut them off to prevent seed formation. Seeds take stored food from the bulbs.
- Removing foliage: Once the flower is gone it is important to only cut back the flower and flower stem and leave the leaves until they turn brown or yellow and die. The reason is to allow the leaves to photosynthesize energy into the bulbs for the following year.
- Fertilizing: After plants bloom, fertilize them lightly with 5-10-10 fertilizer. Use no more than 1 pound for a 5 by 10 foot bed. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizer (N is the first of the 3 numbers). Be sure to keep fertilizer off the leaves and away from the roots; it will burn them. In addition to 5-10-10 fertilizer, you can use bone meal as an extra source of phosphorus.
Watering your new sod after it has been installed is very critical. It is essential to begin watering the newly installed Sod within a ½ hour after it is laid on the soil. Regular watering is necessary until the root system has become deeply established, usually one full growing season.
The following is a guide for the first 4 weeks after installation:
First Two Weeks after Installation
- Water as needed to keep the topsoil moist to a 3-inch depth. After 14 days, water three or more times a week during warm weather. In cooler weather, water once or twice a week. Sandy soil requires more frequent watering than clay soil. Special attention should be paid to slopes and mounds where runoff occurs. More frequent, shorter watering may be necessary.
- During the first two weeks the sod should feel squishy when you walk on it, but please avoid any heavy traffic as walking on the sod at this point will create uneven or low points in your lawn.
- To determine how long to run your sprinkler, use a small can with low sides placed in the sod to measure the water (a tuna or cat food can works well)
- Check the soil moisture by lifting up a corner of the turf and pushing a screwdriver into the soil. It should push in easily and have moisture along the first 3 or 4 inches.
- Runoff may occur on some soils and sloped areas before the soil is adequately moist. To conserve water and insure adequate soak-in, turn off the water when runoff begins, wait 30 minutes to an hour and restart the watering in the same area, repeating as needed.
- If the edges are turning brown and/or there are gaps between rolls - Sod is shrinking or has pulled up at the corners - Due to lack of Water! Increase minutes per watering and frequency to minimize gaps. Also, hand-watering sod in those areas will help shrink gaps. Press down the edges by hand after watering.
- Water as early in the morning as possible to take advantage of the daily start of the grass's normal growing cycle, usually lower wind speeds and considerably less loss of water because of high-temperature evaporation.
- If the weather is especially hot, dry, or windy it will necessitate increased watering amounts and frequency
NEVER ALLOW THE SOD TO DRY OUT UNTIL IT IS COMPLETELY ROOTED.
- Re-adjust your watering time: Reduce the frequency of waterings gradually after each mowing, while increasing the duration of each watering. Deeper, less frequent soakings will help roots grow down deeper and establish more quickly in the soil.
- You may need to mow the sod if it has reached 4 to 5” in height. Make sure that the sod is firmly rooted before mowing for the first time.
- Mow no shorter than 3" – Your lawn will be healthier and better able to out-compete most weeds. A good rule to follow – Never remove more than 1/3 of the height of the sod at a time.
- Fertilizing is not recommended for the first 60 days after the installation of new sod.
Sod Watering Techniques
Proper watering techniques are a critical aspect of lawn watering, equal in importance to the issues of when to water and how much to water. Here are several key factors to proper technique:
- Avoid hand sprinkling because it cannot provide the necessary uniformity as most people do not have the patience, time, or "eye" to adequately measure what is being applied across any larger areas of lawn. The only possible exception to this guideline would be the need to syringe the surface of the grass to cool it, or to provide additional water near buildings or other heat-reflecting surfaces.
- Understand the advantages of different sprinkler designs, because each type has its advantages and disadvantages and its proper use will be determined by the type of sprinkler you select.
- In-Ground Systems require professional design and installation and they require routine adjustments and regular maintenance to be most effective and efficient. The greatest mistake made with most in-ground systems is the "set it and forget it" philosophy that fails to account for the changing seasonal water requirements to maximize turf grown or even allow the system to operate during or following a multi-inch rain storm. Another frequent problem is when heads get out of alignment and apply water to the sidewalk, street, or house siding, rather than to the lawn.
- Hose-End Sprinklers range in complexity, cost, and durability, but are highly portable and can provide uniform and consistent coverage when properly placed in the yard and adequately maintained.
- Sprinklers that do not throw the water high into the air are usually more efficient because prevailing winds are less disruptive of distribution patterns, the potential for evaporation loss is reduced and trees, shrubs, and other plants do not block the pattern (or are very noticeable if they do).
- Several times during the growing/watering season, routine maintenance to check for blocked outlets, leaking or missing gaskets or misaligned sprinkler heads is important, regardless of the sprinkler design.
Watering the Established Lawn
With the exception of long periods of hot dry weather, an inch of water per week should keep your lawn green and in good condition. Should Mother Nature need a little assistance, it is better to water your lawn deeply once a week, instead of doing a little each day. This encourages deeper rooting and better overall health of your lawn. Another important reason for weekly watering is that many weeds are shallow-rooted, and a little water every day is exactly what our little lawn enemies need to flourish!!
Fertilizing your Lawn
Of all the elements needed to keep your lawn healthy and green, none is as important as NITROGEN. Nitrogen promotes leaf and stems growth making lawns greener and more luxurious. In addition to nitrogen, two other key components essential for a healthy lawn are Phosphorus and Potash. They both promote general root development and rhizomes (underground runners, from which develop new stems and blades).
- First feeding combined with a pre-emergent herbicide if needed, should take place two weeks on either side of April 15th, depending on the spring.
- Second feeding should be applied around Memorial Day (end of May).
- And the third feeding should be applied two weeks on either side of Labor Day (early September) to help winterize your lawn. This feeding helps prepare the grass for our harsh winters and keeps it green throughout the fall.
Visit your local Garden Center or Farm Seed and Fertilizer Center for top-quality fertilizer. Note the recommended rates of application, percentages, and conditions of application.
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