Zone 7 Nursery
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How to Plant in Red Clay - Failure, Success, or WOW!

When taking a plant, shrub or tree home, you do not want it to die. You not only want success, but also desire the “WOW, It’s beautiful” factor. All too often, you do not get the WOW factor. The reasons for your disappointment usually lie in improper planting techniques.

The following is the short and long of planting in the tough local soil found in Upstate SC and Northeast Georgia.

The Short:

  1. The hole needs to be broad and should be 2 to 3 times the diameter of the pot.
  2. The hole needs to be shallow and only as deep as the pot.
  3. Living Soil® amender should be added to the existing native soil to lighten the soil, allowing air and moisture penetration.
  4. Water should be added while back-filling the hole.
  5. The root ball should be planted high (a couple of inches above grade for small pots, higher for larger ones).
  6. The planting should be covered with 3” mulch for moisture retention.

The Long:

For successful planting, a deep understanding of the short list above will assure maximum results, reduce transplant shock, allow for faster rooting and faster growth, promote resistance to problems such as insects, disease and drought, and encourage more blooms.

  1. Our local soil is composed of mostly compacted clay. In order for roots to spread quickly, the soil must be loosened around the immature young plant. Dig the hole 3 times the width of the container.  A 3-gallon plant should have a 24” to 30” wide hole, allowing for fast root development and for moisture and nutrients to reach the plant.

  2. Because the soil is so dense and compacted, roots on most plants can not go deep into the soil. The moisture, air and nutrients are near the surface where the roots grow. Digging too deep is the most common mistake made. When the hole is too deep, the plant is buried or sinks, settling too deep and going into transplant shock. The hole should be only as deep as the container.

  3. While our soil is tough and compacted, it does retain moisture very well once saturated. A hole dug into clay and filled with water will take a long time to drain. Also, clay will remain moist for a long period even in our warm summer temperature.

  4. Zone 7, Inc. developed a product, Living Soil® amender, specifically for use with our local soil. It lightens and loosens the soil, improves the pH, and takes advantage of the moisture-retaining property of the existing soil. Living Soil® amender also contains sea kelp extract, important B vitamins, humic acids, and beneficial bacteria and organisms commonly called miccorhizae. Miccorhizae is the “living” element of Living Soil® amender. These fungi organisms permanently attach themselves to the plants root systems, improving uptake of moisture and nutrients, reducing transplant shock, improving drought tolerance and accelerating plant growth. The soil amender should be mixed with the native soil at the recommended rate.

Adding heavy soil amenders, such as bagged cow manure alone, while adding black loam does not lighten the clay soil; therefore, resulting in a heavier soil that does not breathe, drain or allow nutrients to penetrate. Also, do not add sand, as sand actually acts like cement and hardens the soil.

  1. Dig the proper hole, removing all the soil and placing it around the sides of the hole. Mix in the Living Soil® amender. Place the plant into the empty hole, making sure it is not too deep. Place the garden hose into the hole and fill it with water. After the hole is full and the root ball is totally saturated, back-fill the hole with the amended native soil. The water will activate the amender ingredients, saturate the soil, and reduce transplant shock. Watering from the top will never be better than watering from the bottom.

  2. Do not plant the root ball too deep. The root ball should be at least a couple of inches above the existing grade or soil line. (Large trees are often planted 4” to 6” above grade). Do not put soil on top of the root ball and, do not put it into a “volcano-looking” hole. The poor drainage of our soil will suffocate a plant placed too deeply. Plants such as azaleas, dogwoods, magnolias, gardenias, and others will perform poorly if planted too deeply.

  3. Mulch is cosmetically appealing and very important in insulating new plantings. It cools the roots in the summer and keeps them warmer in the winter. Mulch also allows our new well amended plant to retain moisture. At Zone 7, Inc., we recommend bark mulches, not wood mulches. Hardwood bark is the most popular choice. Pine bark, pine needles, and river stone are also common mulches. Bark should be at least 3” deep and pine needles should be 6” deep. Both will settle. River stone of 2” to 3” diameter should be at least 1 to 2 layers deep.
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