Q: I was told by an old gardener to buy my trees with bare roots and not in containers. Won’t it be harder for them to start growing again if they have spent time with their roots out of the ground?
A: It would be hard or impossible for them to grow if their roots had been exposed to air, but they have not. When bare-root trees are dug in the nursery, the roots are immediately protected. They are kept covered with something like damp sawdust until you buy the trees. As long as you keep the roots in the sawdust or in a bucket of water until you get them back into the ground, all is well.
It is true that roots begin to die after only two minutes in the air. Why, then, are bare-root trees a good idea? They grow faster than container plants because their root systems are bigger than the ones in containers. They grow faster because the stress of transplanting comes while they are dormant. When trees are half asleep, moving is easier for them than it would be later, when they are trying to leaf out for spring.
Also, bare-root trees cost about half as much. Because the nursery has put less time into their preparation, they are a genuine bargain.
The only downside to bare-root trees is that their planting season is very short. They are available only in spring, from the time the ground thaws until the trees come out of dormancy and start unfolding their leaves.
If you are planting bare-root trees, plant as quickly as possible after they arrive. Plunge their roots into a bucket of water while you get the holes ready, but leave them in the water no more than 24 hours before you transfer them back to soil.
Taking care of orchids
Q: I want to buy an orchid, but I have no idea how to take care of it. How do I keep from killing it?
A: Here is Orchids 101:
Orchids are easy to take care of, as long as you remember that they are different from other house plants. A three-part program should keep your orchid happy and healthy.
First, put the pot in a window where it gets good light but little or no direct sun. An east window is often good. If you have only windows where sun comes directly in, set the orchid to one side of the window or far enough into the room that the direct sun does not reach it.
Second, keep the orchid’s humidity high. Use a big saucer under the orchid pot. Fill the saucer with marbles or pebbles; then set the pot on top of the pebbles. Keep water always in the saucer, but not so much water that it touches the orchid pot. Including the orchid in a group of house plants also will help to raise its humidity.
Third, water the orchid generously once a week, soaking it thoroughly but leaving it wet not more than half an hour. An easy way to water an orchid is to submerge the whole pot in a sink or a bucket for that half hour, and then take it out. Don’t water it again for a week. The orchid will bloom better if you add house plant fertilizer to the water, but only at half the recommended strength. Most orchids bloom once a year.
That’s all there is to it. Follow those directions and you will become an orchid expert.
Finding early iris
Q: I want some of the little early iris I see blooming now, but I don’t see any for sale. Where can I find them?
A: You should find them easily, but this isn’t the time. Look for them in late summer, along with tulips and hyacinths. They are the only iris bulbs sold locally. Other iris, like the big bearded ones, grow from rhizomes and are for sale during the summer.
There are no common names for the iris you want. You may see them labeled as early iris, early dwarf iris, bulbous iris, or just iris bulbs. The fine print will give the botanical names. The usual ones are Iris reticulata, but you may also see Iris danfordiae. Its flowers are yellow. I. reticulata flowers are various shades of blue and purple. The labels for these may give only a cultivar name, ‘Cantab’ or ‘J. S. Dijt,’ for example, instead of the botanical name.
A look at these iris bulbs in the package will tell you their identity, because “reticulata” means “netted.” The bulb is covered by a fine brown net, which protects it in cold weather. If you see iris bulbs with this net, they are what you want. No other bulb in the plant world has this netting.
Once you find your iris bulbs, plant them this fall, in a sunny spot with good drainage. You will want to put a dozen or two in the same area so that they make a visible display. The plants will grow only four or five inches tall, but the flowers will be at least two inches across. You may want to plant a group in a few different places, so that you can learn where they will thrive; then you can add more in their favorite place.
It is important to plant these bulbs far enough down. The holes need to be four inches deep. Planted closer to the surface the bulbs will live but will make only leaves and no flowers. Set them three or four inches apart.
Mix these early iris with other plants if you like. I use them as a border to a perennial bed. They also combine well with self-seeding annuals. Be sure to choose a spot where you will not be digging during the summer. After they bloom, they go into summer dormancy and will soon become invisible above ground.
Relax, it’s just gardening
Gardeners, especially those with only a few years’ experience, sometimes believe that they are beginning a battle or a contest of wits with the big world out there. They are afraid that they don’t know all the rules and therefore are doomed to kill their plants. Not so.
Here are some remarks on the subject from English expert Carol Klein: “The more you do, the more reassured you become that gardening is not a question of right and wrong, nor one of control and winning. It is neither a competition nor a fight. Eventually you come to realize that however unpredictable Mother Nature may seem, in fact she is the only thing on which you can depend. You learn to trust her, to find out about her laws and to cooperate with them. In some ways gardening is an artificial process, the imposition of the gardener’s will on the plot, but always it is a compromise.”