After you plant: watering, mulching, & fertilizing your garden


Watering. The key to getting your new plant off to a good start is moisture. Water thoroughly after planting, and keep a close eye on the plant over the following week.

If you notice the plant wilting on a hot, sunny day, check the soil with your finger. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly. But if the soil below the surface is moist to the touch, don't water. The plant is probably wilting because the roots are unable to supply the top with sufficient moisture even though the soil is damp. The remedy is to contrive some means of shading the plant. Within a week or so, the roots should catch up, and you can remove the shading.

After the first week, give a new plant a good soaking once a week during summer, unless rainfall is plentiful (more than 1in per week). Established plants can generally get by on less water, but most grow best if the soil remains evenly moist. Please note that more is not better. When in doubt, don't water.

The value of mulch. You can reduce both your watering and weeding chores drastically if you cover the soil surrounding your plant with a 2-3in blanket of mulch. Mulch is any loose material spread over the soil to conserve moisture and inhibit weed seed germination. We recommend an organic mulch, such as chipped or shredded bark, shredded leaves, or pine needles, because they break down and enrich the soil. Keep mulch an inch or so away from the crowns of plants to discourage disease. Replenish the mulch as necessary every year. Please note that a layer of mulch will not by itself prevent winter damage in cold climates. See "Winter protection" below for additional measures.

Fertilizing. Most ornamental plants grow best if fertilized with a light hand. Here at the Farm, we fertilize our borders and our specimen trees and shrubs just once—in early spring. We carry buckets of a balanced, granular fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, out to the garden and scatter it by hand (always wearing gloves) the way a farmer scatters chicken feed. Our aim is light but even coverage of the soil. For most plants (Roses are notable exceptions), this single feeding is enough. We specifically recommend that you not fertilize plants growing in the ground with water-soluble fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro and Peter's. Water-soluble fertilizers are best reserved for plants grown in decorative containers.

Winter protection. In cold-winter climates such as ours (Zone 5 [-20°F]), alternate thawing and freezing of the soil in winter can heave the crowns of newly planted perennials and small shrubs right out of the ground, leaving their roots vulnerable to drying winds and freezing cold. To protect plants from heaving during their first winter, put a 4-6in layer of loose organic material such as straw, oak leaves, or evergreen boughs (cut into 1-2ft lengths) over the crowns after the ground freezes (generally in December here in Litchfield). Take care to avoid covering the evergreen foliage of plants such as Digitalis and Dianthus. Remove this winter mulch gradually in spring when frosts become infrequent, usually at about the time Daffodils and Forsythias are in bloom.

Pest and disease control. Like many gardeners, we were once quick to reach for pesticides, some of them bearing very dire warnings on their labels, at the first sign of insect damage or disease problems in our gardens. Today we are aware of the hazards of indiscriminate spraying to organisms we want to encourage (not to mention to ourselves and to wildlife), and so we now follow the more measured approach outlined below. Several years of success allow us to recommend it to you.

  1. Meet the needs of your plants. Plants are less likely to suffer from pests and diseases when their cultural needs are met. If you have a plant with a consistent problem, learn more about its needs and address them. In many cases, the solution is to relocate the plant to another part of your garden.
  2. Practice garden sanitation. Destroy infested plants to prevent pests and diseases from spreading. In fall, uproot annuals, cut down all but evergreen and semiwoody perennials, and rake up leaves to remove cover for overwintering insects and diseases.
  3. Learn to identify pests and diseases. Before deciding whether to attempt to control a pest or disease, you must identify it. Different measures are effective against different pests. For example, an insecticide may be ineffective in controlling mites, which aren't insects (they are spider relatives).
  4. Use the least toxic control. Attempt to control pests and diseases only when they threaten the health of a plant (a little nibbling doesn't warrant intervention), and then choose the least toxic control available. Many biological controls have proven very effective in our gardens. Of course, the least toxic approach of all is to banish a long-suffering plant from the garden and grow something else instead. (If you do use pesticides, please follow the instructions on the labels very carefully.)