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Grandma's Fool-Proof Wet Planting Technique
October 1, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden

My grandma, who coaxes plants to thrive in the desert, taught me this planting method. Though my climate offers abundant rain in spring and fall, summers can be mighty dry. I've found that giving my plants this initial boost helps them to establish more quickly and need less future maintenance. I use this technique when planting in any season.

Step 1. Soak plants before planting them.

  • Unwrap bare-root plants as soon as you receive them and soak in a bucket of water for several hours (minimum) to several days.
  • Water potted plants thoroughly just before planting. Make sure their soil is wet clear through.
  • For larger potted plants, plunge them—pot and all—into a bucket of water and let stand for an hour before planting to help them absorb a store of moisture.

Step 2. Dress for immersion.

Your shoes will certainly be drenched during wet planting, along with pant cuffs and probably sleeve cuffs too. I wear old loafers or tennies with socks and leather gloves. I usually wear long pants and a thin long-sleeved shirt to minimize mosquito bites.

Step 3. Gather your tools.

  • You need a hose that will reach to your planting area.
  • A good spade will save lots of time, frustration, and energy. I use a long-bladed spade approximately four feet tall—eighteen inches of that is blade, and the blade is rounded, not squared off, at the bottom. (For planting very small seedlings, a hand-held trowel or Hori knife will usually suffice.)
  • You might want a small retractable blade for larger potted plants.
  • Have on hand enough wood chips or other mulch material to cover the new plants and, if available, a nutrient source such as compost, rotted manure, or grass clippings.

Step 4. Dig a hole.

  • For a larger potted plant, dig a hole just large enough to hold the root ball.
  • For a smaller seedling, a shallower slit might work. See the special section at right for tips on planting small seedlings.
  • For a transplant, dig a hole large enough to hold the excavated root ball.
  • For a taprooted plant, make a deep slit in the ground with your spade and open a gap just wide enough for the root.
  • For a bare-root plant with spreading roots, dig a shallow hollow wide enough that you can spread out the plant's roots and cover them.

Step 5. Make a mud-hole.

Fill the hole with water. As it drains, add half the dirt you took out. Stir with a stick if you have heavy or hard-packed soil. It will make a nice muddy soup.

Step 6. Prepare the plant.

Do not disturb a recently dug transplant's root ball unless you want to divide it into several smaller plants; it was growing in heavy, dry soil that is caked around the roots like cement and that you'd like to lighten up with compost or other organic matter; or perennial weed roots have infiltrated it and you don't want to spread them to new places.

Remove a potted plant from its pot.

  • If the soil crumbles away from the roots and they form a loose ball, try to keep the plant's root ball intact.
  • If the roots are massed together with the soil into a hard, pot-shaped clump, untangle them before planting. You may need to make several vertical cuts around the edge of the mass using the retractable blade. Gently pry the ends of the roots away from the clump and try to spread them out (so they will grow away from the clump instead of strangling each other).

Step 7. Plant it.

Gently push the plant's intact root ball or untangled mass of roots into the mudhole. It should be watery enough that you don't strain the roots or break them off (add more water as needed). When the plant is settled in the mud, push the rest of the dirt over its roots.

Step 8. Water it in.

Add more water to the dirt you just added until you have a soggy mess around the plant's base. Make sure the plant doesn't sink too deep under the weight of the soil and water. If it is sitting too low, you can usually pull it upward a bit while it's still immersed in mud. Or you may have to insert your spade into the mud under it and pry it up gently until it's sitting level with the surrounding ground.

Step 9. Mulch it.

This is why I love mulch; it makes the wet planting (slightly) less messy. Throw a layer of wood chips or other mulch over the mud, then use your foot to gently but firmly press down the soil over the roots all the way around the base of the plant. This gives the plant solid seating, helps soil contact all the roots, and ensures that they have immediate and lasting access to moisture.

Note about wood chips: If you're using wood chips as mulch, they do tend to create a Nitrogen deficit because their decomposition requires Nitrogen and removes it from the surrounding soil. You can counter this by sprinkling compost, rotted manure, or grass clippings around the plant before you top it off with wood chips. Gravel is an alternative mulch material that won't deplete soil Nitrogen, but don't use limestone gravel unless your plants prefer alkaline soil. Pine needles or pine bark are also fine mulches, but use them only for plants that prefer acidic soil.

Step 10. Water again.

Use a lower flow to wet down the mulch you just added. I also sprinkle the plant's leaves at this point to wash away any accumulated dust. If the plant looks like it's swimming in mud, I let the water drain and then pack down the base again with my feet or hands to ensure that the plant is solidly seated in the soil.

Remember not to pack the soil down too tightly. This is especially important if you garden in clay soil. The soil should dry with its air pockets intact, so it will hold moisture like a big sponge rather than forming a hard-packed, moisture-resisting brick.

If you're planting a tree in your lawn, consider creating a tree island to protect some of its root zone using the smothering technique.

Planting very small plants

For plants in two-inch to four-inch pots, I use a toned-down version of the "wet planting" method:
  1. Substituting a small hand-held trowel for the spade, dig a shallow hole.

  2. Set the plant roots in it. Usually the roots aren't as tangled or tough, and I can separate them with my gloved hands if necessary. It's much better for these small plants to keep their root balls intact if possible.

  3. Cover the roots lightly with the loose dirt.

  4. Water with a lower flow but still create significant mud.

  5. Cover with a thin layer of mulch.

  6. Lightly press your foot or hand all around the crown to pack it down.

Read a LessLawn article on finding less costly mulch.

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