A Lazy but Correct Way to Install Potted Plants

I like to garden, but my garden does not like me.  Specifically, the garden soil where I live is hard-packed clay mixed with occasional chunks of limestone rocks.  Not only is the clay hard to dig into, it also gunks up the blade of the shovel.  After a few pushes of the shovel, you’re not just moving the blade up and down, but you’re also moving the extra weight of the heavy soil glued to the blade.  This makes difficult digging.  I’ve broken shovels before.

The Lazy Way to Install a Potted Plant

What is a lazy person to do?  Dig a hole as shallow and as narrow as possible, of course. 

For years, I’ve installed my potted plants into the ground in slightly tighter holes dug not as deep as the pot.  This means that when I fill the soil back into the hole, the formerly potted plant sticks above the ground by a few inches.  They’ve always done fine. 

But wait.  Isn’t this against all the gardening advice on the Internet?  The prevalent advice is to dig a hole wider—maybe twice as wide—as the pot and deeper than the pot.  Then, after you’ve placed the plant into the hole, you backfill the hole with nutritious, loose soil so that you end up with a plant flush with the surface of the ground.

OK, but that’s a lot of back-breaking digging.  And that type of hard work is not Lazy Worthy.

The plants I installed and left a few inches above the grade have always done fine.  In fact, they usually thrived.  I recently learned that, in a surprising twist of fate, my lazy method is actually the correct way to install a potted plant.

The Explanation

My brother in law is an arborist with 25+ years of experience.  He explained.

Score the roots

When you take a plant out of a pot and before installing it into the ground, you’ll notice that usually the roots of the plant are often tightly wound to conform to the shape of the pot (i.e., the plant is “root bound”).  To ensure plant health, you break the roots apart by scoring them, usually with a knife.  This way, once the roots are in the ground, they can spread open to grow into the surrounding soil. 

The wrong way to install a plant–flush with surface

If you don’t score the roots, they tend to continue to grow in the shape of the pot even when there is no longer a pot.  Eventually, the plant will choke itself to death.  Scoring the root before installing a potted plant is therefore important.

But, when you score the root, you loosen the soil not only around the sides of the plant, but also the bottom of the plant.  Once you put the plant back into the hole, your plant’s root-ball will now be much lower than your carefully dug hole that earlier was about the same height as the pot.  You make adjustments and backfill the bottom and sides of the hole with loose soil to make sure the plant is planted flush with the surface, but, after a few days when the soil settles, the plant will once again be lower than the surface.  This is bad.

Place the plant into a hole shallower than the height of the pot

Why is it bad for a plant to be lower than the grade of the surface?

The right way to install a plant–a few inches above the grade

You have to water the plant to keep it alive.  Once you water, the soil settles, and the installed plant is now lower than the grade of the soil.  Water now pools into the lower area, and your plant is not only likely to drown, but, even if it survives initially, the surface roots can’t grow correctly because they’re buried too deep.  Your plant is very likely to die after a few years. 

The solution is to install the plant a few inches (the arborist’s advice is two inches) above the grade of the surface.  This means that you can dig a hole that’s shallower than the pot such that the installed plant is a little higher than the grade.  This way, when the soil settles and after you mulch, the surface roots of the plant will be at the correct level to spread out near the surface, leading to a healthy plant for many years to come.

The Laziness Scale Rating

On the Laziness Scale, my method takes less time/effort, costs no additional money, and gets better results.  Therefore, this method of planting is Lazy Worthy.

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