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Norm Schilling's fall planting tips

“Desert Bloom” host Norm Schilling will irrigate your gardening knowledge this Saturday, at 9:30 a.m., with a talk at Plant World, 5311 W. Charleston Blvd. Can’t wait? Here are a few of Norm’s fall planting tips to get you started.

Spring is traditionally the time to plant in most climates, but in our hot patch of the Mojave, fall is better for most plants. That allows plants about nine months to build a root system robust enough to handle the most challenging time of year for most plants — our hot, dry summers. While plants appear not to grow during the winter, roots do continue growing, since our soils don’t freeze. So fall planting builds a root system for the spring flush of growth, and the endurance test of summer. 

Here are a few hints that will help you succeed in your planting endeavors.

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Dig a $5 hole for a $1 plant. A hole that’s wider than the root ball of your plant, but not deeper, loosens the surrounding soil, so it’s much easier for roots to spread. Sloping the edges of the hole at about 45 degrees further encourages root development.

Amend the soil for nondesert species. This is one more reason I lean more toward desert plants, as they’re generally happier here and take less work. But if you do plant nondesert plants, amending the soil at a rate of about one part well-decomposed organic matter to three parts native soil will help them off to a good start.

Unless it’s a tomato, don’t plant it any deeper than it is in the pot; you might suffocate the roots. And soil piled on the trunk makes it susceptible to pathogens that cause rot.

For trees with stakes against the trunk, remove the stake the day you plant it. If it can’t hold itself upright, restake it using at least two stakes placed well away from the trunk. The new stakes should hold the tree up, but also allow it some movement — trees build tissue in trunks much like we build muscles.


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It’s important to group plants in “hydro-zones” with plants of similar water needs: desert plants here, moderate-water-users there. If you put one moderate-use plant in with a group of desert plants, you end up over-watering all the desert plants.

Don’t plant a garden of just shrubs and a few trees. Be sure to include some ground-covers (Prostrate Germander, Teucrium chamaedrys ‘Prostratum’), succulents, accent plants and little flowering perennials (Indian Blanket Flower). This will add interest and give your landscape a more natural look.

Include plants with different foliage colors. Think silvers, blues and grays, and even purple.

Include plants for textural variety: succulents for fleshiness, and ornamental grasses for softness and movement when it’s breezy. Don’t do just succulents, or the landscape will look harsh and uninviting; the little leafy guys help soften the feel.

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Include at least a couple of bold accent plants with strong form. These provide a focal point and can add a lot in interest and beauty (Blue Yucca, Yucca rigida or Webers Agave, Agave weberi).

Underplant trees with other plants. Plants share root space and water resources, so planting under a tree will encourage it to spread its roots out for structural stability. If you don’t underplant, add emitters every 3-4 feet anyway to get the roots to spread.

Keep desert trees away from lawns. Desert trees grow slower and stronger when they don’t receive too much water. If they find the lawn water, they’ll grow too fast and rip apart in the wind.

Don’t plant messy trees near your pool.



Research your plants.

If you do plant nondesert plants, use organic (wood chip) mulch. It’s the single best long-term, holistic health-care practice you can perform for moderate-water-use plants.

While cool weather planting is best for most plants, some prefer warmer weather and soils. Succulents plant and transplant best once soils warm up (April-October). And Red Bird of Paradise takes off much better if planted in warm weather (May is great)!

Want a great desert tree? Consider planting a native species. Some of my favorites include Screwbean Mesquite, Redbud and Gambel Oak. Desert Willow is my all-time favorite, for its amazing and long flower show and the beautiful curves and arches in its branches … as long as it doesn’t get too much water, which creates long straight shoots.

Finally, know this: Learn to expect and accept some gardening failures. Gardening is a learning experience. When plants fail, it’s just part of the game. I guarantee you, more plants have died on my watch then ever will on yours.