This time of year, it’s hard to resist popping into the local garden center or plant section of a store.
There are so many beautiful plants — and just look at those exotic specimens and tempting veggie starts! We are inspired to buy tomato plants, to replace our old shrubs with eye-catching grasses, and to splurge on new ceramic pots and high-contrast annuals for the front walkway.
Then we bring home all those purchases and realize we need to move fast to get them established. The details of planting, fertilizing and setting up a watering system in a very short period of time can feel overwhelming.
So we asked local plant experts for their best tips for what we can do now so these new additions to our gardens will survive — and thrive — this summer.
Tip 1: Figure out the fertilizer
Shirley Jane Benecki, co-owner of Walt’s Organic Fertilizer Company in Magnolia
“Feed your soil,” Benecki says, gesturing at a wall lined with her store’s vast array of specialized fertilizers. “Compost is good, but compost is not fertilizer.”
For those of us who amend our soil with compost before planting and then hope for the best, Benecki has one quick tip: Add a bag of what’s called “complete fertilizer” for plants or flowers to the soil, following the directions based on the size of your garden. If you missed the chance to fertilize while prepping your garden earlier this spring, you can still add fertilized planting soil around your seedlings or starts as they go in over the next week or two.
Benecki notes that “complete fertilizer” — which is long on nitrogen for plant growth — is just a generic solution. It will feed your plants, but it doesn’t take into consideration the makeup of your specific soil. That means it doesn’t correct for any deficiencies.
To help you find out your specific needs, the King Conservation District offers free mail-in soil analyses. Benecki encourages gardeners to take advantage of this service.
The KCD test results often require some analysis. If that seems too advanced for you, garden experts (including Benecki) can provide that for a fee, helping you figure out which soil amendments you need to add to your garden, and in what quantities.
Tip 2: Water the right way
Gabriel Maki, co-owner of Swansons Nursery in Ballard
Even in Seattle, our plants start crying out for water during dry, sunny streaks. But sprinkling, spraying and irrigating don’t help much if the water is in the wrong place or if the plant is getting only a bit of moisture at a time.
“The rain we’re going to get in June is not going to be enough,” Maki warns. “You’ll need to water thoroughly, deep and right on top of the root ball.”
Sad to say, the soaker hose that sits 6 inches away from the root ball of your new plant or shrub is not going to deliver enough vital moisture to the plant. “Water goes right down, not sideways,” Maki says.
While mature trees, shrubs and plants have extensive root systems that can draw in water from a soaker hose or irrigation system, new plants desperately need a direct source of water, and plenty of it, he says. This is why you’ll see newly planted trees wearing those green Treegator sleeves that slow-release water directly onto the root ball.
And, just when you thought you had it all figured out, Maki cautions against overwatering. That can cause rot or invite disease. “Keep an eye on the soil,” he says. “You should be checking [moisture levels] daily, but not watering daily.”
Tip 3: Give tomatoes some room
Jeanene Miller, owner of Abundant Greens Urban Farm and Nursery in Ballard
There you are, with dozens of seedlings and starts to get into the freshly turned soil. The plants are so tiny that it’s tempting to crowd them together. But wait!
“They need space,” Miller says. She and her partner, Eric Clark, run two seasonal CSAs and have a seasonal nursery in the driveway of their Ballard home. She recommends planting tomatoes at least 18 inches apart in a big, long row.
“They need sun, they need air, and you want to be able to reach the plants so you can prune out those bottom leaves,” she says. “You also need to be able to find the fruit when it’s ripe.”
To get her own tomatoes to grow up rather than out, Miller plants them against fence posts and trains them with twine.
Tip 4: Refresh the soil with air and sunshine
Bunly Yun, community garden coordinator for Seattle’s P-Patch Community Gardening Program
Yun assists the hundreds of local gardeners who have plots in 18 P-Patches in Central, South and West Seattle. To help young plants survive the warm days of June, he suggests carefully weeding and cultivating the soil around new plantings.
“You don’t want to damage the plant’s root system,” he says, “But if the soil gets hard, the water runs right off. So you want to get in there and loosen the soil.”
Yun’s technique involves gently breaking up hard dirt with a weeding tool and then letting the soil sit exposed to the sunlight.
“Do not water it for a day,” he says. “The plant will look a little sad, but you come back the next day and then you water it. The plant will be able to drink the water now, and it will become healthy.”
Tip 5: Thrill, fill and spill for dramatic containers
Katie Hinson, community engagement coordinator at Urban Earth Nursery in Fremont
If you’ve purchased a new decorative garden pot for your porch, deck or patio, Hinson wants you to try the “thrill, fill and spill” approach when adding plants to it.
Start with a base of excellent potting soil, then set a tall, dramatic plant right in the center to anchor the arrangement, she says. To provide that “thrill,” Hinson recommends a dwarf evergreen, a tall grass or an upright lavender plant.
“You have your statement,” she says. “Next, there’s the filler.” She suggests surrounding the thriller with multiple small plants, such as the delicate yellow-and-purple viola “Etain” (her favorite) or, for a shaded area, some coleus.
“Then you finish with a dramatic spiller,” she says. Creeping jenny or a trailing rosemary will extend down the side of a tall pot, providing an attractive asymmetrical note.
“Fill the pot completely,” she says, noting that the plants will “follow the sun” as they grow into a full and striking arrangement.