November 30th, 2007

Zanthan Gardens
I had a difficult time getting this rock out because of the tree root growing over it. After I did, I discovered another rock, even larger beneath it. This is why I asked for a post hole digger for my birthday one year.

I was over at Pam/Digging‘s the other day picking up some purple coneflower that she graciously shared after dividing. Her front garden looks all new and tidy after the removal of the vitex. She explained that she had dug everything up and rearranged it. She said it casually, as if she were rearranging the knickknacks on a table. My mouth dropped in awe. “I can’t imagine moving big plants around.” “Really?” It was Pam’s turn to be surprised. “I would have thought you did it all the time.”

Not I. I love digging up bulbs or dividing irises. I have no problem transplanting self-sown annuals like larkspur and bluebonnets, even though they both have long taproots and aren’t supposed to like being moved. I mulled over it awhile and realized that my hesitancy does not spring from a fear of replanting a plant. It’s the digging it up that bothers me.

Many of the plants I grow are adapted to Texas’s droughts and soils by having a long taproot. Such plants, like Texas mountain laurel, are notoriously difficult to transplant successfully even when they are quite small. I prefer to sow a lot of seeds and hack out any plants that come up where I don’t want them to trying to transplant larger plants. Moving something that’s growing happily (or even unhappily) seems too risky. If it dies, I’m out a plant I’ve nurtured for three or four years. (Like my beautiful Fatsia japonica that had grown for ten years by the old shed.) Once a plant is rooted in place, rooted it remains until it dies or I chop it out.

My other problem is the soil itself. Take your spade out in my garden any day, even after a rain when the ground is fairly soft, and see if you can plunge it in more than six inches. Despite the truckloads of amendments (which rot away quickly in our hot humid summers), the ground is unyielding. It’s not just a problem of heavy black clay or rock, although I struggle with both. The real problem is with tree roots. In this regard, I hate the cedar elms particularly. They grow a matting root system close to the surface which persists years after the tree is dead. And then there’s the roots of English ivy, bindweed, poison ivy and smilax to contend with.

Zanthan Gardens
Can’t get a shovel in the ground for all the roots!

When I go out to dig a hole in my garden, I have to take more than a spade. My arsenal includes a garden fork, a post-hole digger, loppers for big roots, pruning shears for small roots, a bag for rocks, and (if it hasn’t rained in awhile) a pick-ax. I don’t have to be cautioned against the old practice of double digging. I’m lucky if I can get down more than a foot. I can show you the tines of a broken garden fork still stuck in the spot it broke off thirteen years ago. For large plants, I usually dig down a foot and then build a little planter that’s raised off the ground a foot.

Zanthan Gardens
Even under a mulch, tree root suck all the moisture and nutrients from the soil, leaving clumps of hard black clay.

I have considered the idea of using horticultural cloth to line new holes so that the roots won’t invade. I think that this would work best in places where I plant annuals or bulbs. I can’t see how it will work for larger plants, especially ones with long taproots. It seems almost like planting in pots in the ground. Won’t the plants be restricted by the cloth? To be effective, I think I will have to dig out a very large section, line it, and then fill it with trucked in soil. This is what I plan to do with the bog garden. Digging out the section, however, is taking a very long time.

Have any of you used horticultural cloth to block weeds? How did you use it and what were your results?

Another question–are there any gardening techniques that you shy away from? I remember being amazed, last year, by the number of people who said they wouldn’t grow plants from seeds. And then there are those gardeners who hesitate to take up their pruning shears. I never realized I had an animadversion to digging up plants until I talked with Pam.

by M Sinclair Stevens

13 Responses to post “Rooted”

  1. From Pam/Digging:

    Since my garden is free of rocks and tree roots, digging is not such a chore as it is for you. Even so, I don’t usually try to move plants that have been in the ground for more than a couple of years. If a plant with a deep, established root system turns out to be wrong for my garden or in the wrong spot, I just yank it out.

    I have an aversion to growing plants from seed in little seed trays. I don’t know why, but it’s just not appealing to me. But I have sown seeds directly into the soil, with mixed results.

    And by the way, what a blessing it is, I now realize, to be able to comment on your blog and leave my link without having to sign in or be a member of anything. Thank you!

    Yeah. Boo to Blogger! All you people who write using Blogger–are you aware that Google just made changes that excludes us non-Blogger users from your blogosphere? Your community just got a lot smaller. Oh we can still leave a comment but it will no longer include a link back to us. So for those of us, like me and Pam, who find interesting new writers via their links left in the comment section of blogs we read, we’re shut out. If you blog via Blogger, be aware of the change and complain to Google if you don’t like it. — mss

  2. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    I don’t recall ever using landscape fabric for line planting holes. That said, your thinking sounds pretty good though–bulbs and other small plants would probably benefit from having it…the larger plants you could line the sides of the hole but leave the bottom open.

    Oh yah, those roots! We’ve got a massive American Elm in the backyard that has roots everywhere–we put in a flower planter this spring and when we pulled all the summer stuff out it was completely entangled with Elm roots. In the case of that raised flower planter I think next year I’ll try using your technique except line the entire bottom of the planter with cloth, then refill.

    By the way though, our native Texas planting area has done quite well under the shadow of the Elm–this includes Kidneywood, Redbud, Buckthorn, Pigeonberry, Salvia, Indigo Bush, Carex, Turk’s Cap, and some ferns. They all seem adapted to dealing with the Elm’s aggresive root systems.

    A pick-ax is the best tool I’ve found for digging in these soils. I’m trying to think of any techniques shy away from but I grow plants from seed, and prune as needed with abandon. I don’t fertilize established plants, only vegetables and annuals, and generally only when they’re first planted. Everything goes in the compost pile when its done for the season. and everything gets mulched heavily to conserve water and keep the weeds down.

    I lined the bottom of my the planter where I put a ‘New Dawn’ rose last year. When I planted the rose, I made a cross slit in the fabric so it’s roots could grow down through it (I hoped), it they needed more space. So far this method seems to be working. I grow many of the same Texas natives that you do. I think they can handle the competition from trees in the same way they handle the clay or limestone they grow naturally in–long taproot. — mss

  3. From Kathy (New York):

    Larry Hodgson, in his book “Making the Most of Shade”, had a lot of good ideas for coping with tree roots when planting.

    Thanks for the tip, Kathy. I’ll check the book out when we go to the library Sunday. — mss

  4. From Carol:

    I can’t say that I’m afraid of pruning, seeding, tranplanting or digging, but then I don’t have the tree roots that you have to contend with. I do think I have a fear of digging a really big planting bed.

    I’d be concerned that using anything to line a hole might create a “sink” that retains too much moisture, which would make it perfect for a bog garden. It stands to reason that if a lining keeps outside roots from coming in, the plants inside will be as though they are growing in containers.

    On the Blogger change, I did a bit more research and found that they are experimenting with OpenID, which would allow people to comment with WordPress, TypePad and other id’s and bring back their URL’s. It is in draft form, not generally available as far as I know. In the meantime, I’d just include your blog url as part of your “nickname”. I’ve complained.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

    Horticultural cloth blocks weeds and roots but not water. My trouble using it so far is digging a big enough space to line. So far, I’ve only managed it once and in the other cases just lined the sides of the holes. Thanks for your help with the Blogger changes. I tried putting my blog url in the nickname box but it doesn’t allow any html. So I’ll just have to put it in the comment box. I’ve found so many great bloggers through comments (especially on your Garden Blogger Bloom Day posts) that it’s a shame to disable that feature. — mss

  5. From Julie:

    Right on, Sister! Seems like a crowbar is in order here once the digging begins.

    I also have an aversion to gardening in the height of summer. The scorching sun makes me feel sick and the mosquitoes- egad. A neighbor three doors down is now recovering from West Nile.

    I hate summer gardening in Austin, too! This is the time (when the temperatures are in the lovely 60s/70s and there are no mosquitoes) to be out digging and planting. I think out of all the gardeners I know in Austin, your garden is the closest in age and site problems to mine. So I’m particularly interested in how you deal with ordinary garden chores like renewing old beds, gardening in the shade, plant choices, and such. — mss

  6. From entangled:

    I have the same troubles with clay soil, disappearing organic matter, and tree roots, and I’ve tried all kinds of ways around it, but the “lasagna method” worked really well for establishing some perennials in the woods. I think it may require fairly rugged perennials for this to work, and the squirrels got into it where I planted some martagon lilies, and I ran out of organic materials to replenish the beds, but the upside was no digging. The biggest downside for me was obtaining enough compost fodder.

    I’m always on the lookout for composting materials, too. In fact, I realized I was looking forward to Christmas this year particularly in anticipation of getting more free Christmas tree mulch from the city of Austin. — mss

  7. From Yolanda Elizabet:

    It seems like Pam really lives up to the name of her blog. 😉 I’m not too keen on digging either but I do do it, albeit with moderation as I garden on heavy clay, very heavy clay.

    Hopefully Blogger will come up with a solution soon, like Carol I complained about the way it is now.

    I love how we can find similarities despite gardening in such different locations. Heavy clay. Same here. Oh, and thanks for complaining to Blogger on our behalf. — mss

  8. From Margaret Powis (Austin):

    I’m in an area of Austin that has thin black clay soil and numerous large limestone rocks. It sounds similar to yours. So far I’ve just cut through the Cedar Elm roots and used a pry bar to get the rocks out of the ground. But in my back yard I have even thinner soil with Bermuda Grass sort of growing in it. I say sort of because it hasn’t been doing well, not that I wanted it to do well. It was left over from a previous owner. Anyhow I’m in the process of experimenting with a raised bed lined with landscape fabric to stop the Bermuda Grass growing through. I just laid the landscape fabric on top of the soil and used limestone rocks to build up from ground level. As I had had a decomposed granite patio put in earlier I dumped the soil from that into this new bed, covered it with a hay mulch and have been adding compost to it as my compost matures. I’m a lazy composter and rather than turn over compost I just wait longer. Anyhow the papaya seeds (and rinds) that I added to my compost remained in the heap and when I put it on my raised bed it sprouted and I have a papaya tree that is about six feet tall with numerous baby papaya on it. I don’t think the soil is even a foot deep but the papaya is doing really well. It’s not going to last as it is very susceptible to frost. I’m sure the roots don’t go into the soil below so it must be sustaining itself on that small amount of soil. I’ve just planted a rose bush, a salvia, and a crinum in the bed so I’ll see how those do. So according to my experience so far, you wouldn’t have to cut a hole in the landscape fabric. I suspect that the roots would find their way in if you did that. Anyhow good luck.

    Thanks, Margaret, for sharing your experience. I wish that I had known about landscape fabric when I built my original terraces. But I will try using it on the new beds. By the way, I also had a papaya which sprouted in the compost. I managed to get it through a couple of winters before it succumbed to a really hard freeze. Have you seen the ones at Zilker Botanical Gardens. I was amazed to see that they had fruit on them. Your comment is making me itch to try growing a papaya again. — mss

  9. From Julie:

    Dear MSS,

    I will never be in your league as a gardener! but situated where I am, we may share some of the same natural pests and soil tragedies.

    My biggest effort/investments have been

    1) yanking out heaps and heaps and heaps of ivy — the place was completely overrun when we moved in. This was a good move for several reasons — a big one being the exterminator truck which appears with regularity down the street. (cockroaches love the stuff)

    2) hacking out primrose jessamine, which I just haven’t been able to love, tho it’s a workhorse in these parts.

    3) buying and spreading around about 9 sq. yards of good garden soil from that joint out at the Y. Took me a long time. About then I started the blog and gardening since has been pathetic.

    Biggest peril now is bamboo, coming on strong from the side of the house (where it makes a nice neighbor screen), to the front, where it’s turning into a horrid imperialist.

    As time goes on, I am amazed how how much destruction gardening requires — which gets back to this neat post. I am basically a weenie about destruction of most kinds (ivy and primrose jessamine being exceptions). but unless I can attack the nandina and bemuda grass around here, there ain’t gonna be much of a garden, and thus far I haven’t had the gumption for it.

    We drove out to Bastrop and Fayette counties today. The soil there (and the property taxes here) are making us wonder….

    I, too, am trying to learn to be more determined in culling out plants I don’t want. I still find it hard to pick bluebonnet seedlings out of the gravel path unless I have a place to transplant them. Plants trump garden design around here every time. Now that there is a fence to block the view to the north, I’m working to take out the nandina. I’m not doing it all at once, though because I couldn’t afford to replant the entire border. My habits are closer to the tortoise’s than the hare’s. I, too, have often dreamed of owning land east of Austin; that area is about to explode with development so acting on that impulse now would be better than later. Maybe if I win the lottery. — mss

  10. From Angelina:

    I am afraid to prune my fruit trees. They are very young and need to be pruned to help direct their growth, yet I’m afraid of making terrible mistakes. Even though I know that the worst mistake of all is to not prune them.

    I also don’t like planting big plants and I think a lot of it has to do with not liking to dig big holes. Although, I love digging post holes. So what gives? I am always making Philip plant our bigger plants like the blueberries and roses.

    Although I love pruning roses, I am also a bit wary of fruit trees. The loss of any big-ticket item makes me nervous. It’s one thing to botch a packet of seeds, another to kill an expensive large plant. — mss

  11. From Annie in Austin:

    The tree roots are a problem here, too. Philo uses a mattock to break up the ground in some areas and to get roots out. I can make a few swipes with it, but can’t make a sustained effort.

    We have fewer trees you do, MSS, and mine are not cedar elms, but there’s no easy digging here either. I get nostalgic for digging into Illinois prairie, black loamy clay for 40 inches straight down without a rock. Planting here is more like chopping container-shaped holes into hardened muck.

    The Divas of the Dirt have tried various methods to restrain Bermuda grass and saw the fabric act as a mulch for the roots. When the grass grows into the fabric weeding it out becomes even more difficult. It wasn’t a surprise, since Bermuda can grow through asphalt.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose
    [that name is more of a hope than a reality!]

    That rich deep soil in Illinois (where my Dad is from) sounds like a farmers’ paradise. I understand better why so many people settled there from the east where they were disgusted with trying to plow around stumps and where the woods were always anxious to take back the land. Coming from the almost treeless American southwest, I find it odd to be in a war with trees. They’ve always been so precious to me. But there are definitely some less desirable trees (like the hackberries and chinaberries). — mss

  12. From firefly in maine:

    Ah, my back ached in sympathy as I read this post. Tree roots are horrible where I live too — it’s an old neighborhood with lots of big maples, and the roots are literally everywhere. The city recently replaced a section of sidewalk in front of our and two other houses and had to use a Bobcat with a forklift attachment to clear the roots from the sidewalk track (that was sweet to watch, although I’m worried about the trees).

    I’ve taken two chunks out of a mattock blade planting things like shrubs that needed a relatively deep hole. It doesn’t help that we also have a lot of granite rocks.

    I don’t think I’m really averse to any gardening practice, but I’m about to swear off digging any more major plant holes. I’ve transplanted a few of the previous owner’s plants, but like Pam, I’ve yanked and disposed of some rather large shrubs and perennials (rhododendron, lilac, mountain laurel, hosta) rather than re-plant, mainly because I didn’t have a place for these things. The hosta, surprisingly, was one of the most difficult things to dig up.

    Re: Blogger, I’ve had trouble posting comments since the time Google took over, and I had a Blogger ID but no blog at the time. They forced everyone to switch over to Google IDs by making it super-difficult to log in at Blog owners all thought it was great because they could invoke the switch automatically, and none of them saw it from a pure user perspective, so it was hard to get any feedback through.

    If you set up a Google ID profile page, you can put your blog homepage on it, and people who click on your linked ID will find their way to your blog.

    I have mine set up to say that I like Typepad better!

    That’s a good strategy. I’m just not going to give in to Google/Blogger, though, by setting up a dummy account. — mss

  13. From Bonnie:

    I feel your pain on the big digging projects, MSS. I am a wimp about some things where my physical strength just can’t do the job. Others might just keep going until they persevere, but I just get frustrated. Luckily, if I have enough strength to bat my eyelashes at my husband, I can usually get him to come out and put his muscle toward the task.

    But the one thing about gardening that I am very bad at is calling it quits on a plant. I have an issue with getting rid of a plant that is still alive, even though it might be past it’s prime or not good in my garden soil. I just hate to dig it up and throw it out. And “redoing” an area is particularly bad for me. I’m in the middle of creating two new flower beds for which I had to kill a large area of St. A grass and it just broke my heart to spray it and watch it go brown.

    My husband doesn’t complain about supporting me; in turn, I don’t ask him to do yard chores. I have a terrible time tearing out a plant, too. I’m trying to learn, under Pam/Digging’s tutelage, to be more disciplined. I’m a collector, though, and both my house and garden reflect my preference for acquisitions over any sense of style. — mss