The Sustainable Horticulture Equation

Collage of sustainable gardening: a person digging soil with a shovel, a close-up of a white rose, two people planting, and a hand planting a sapling in soil.

By Richard Flowers ACCNP- Green Thumb Nursery- Ventura

On a typical day I help numerous customers with their plant issues and problems. I try to make them successful in their gardening endeavors as best as I can. While dealing with the public I find most of the time there is a commonality or pattern in gardeners predicament with plants. It is often so straightforward and obvious that it is often overlooked.

One day an acquaintance of mine gave me his business card and on the backside of the card I read something that really made a lot of since to me. It had these words: “The Right Plant, In the right place, In the right soil, The right spacing, With the right care At the right time. “ He called it “The Sustainable Horticulture Equation”. I thought to myself, this is the ultimate goal to strive for when having a successful garden. I will explain each one of these elements in detail.

The business card belonged to Jerry Sortomme, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Horticulture – Santa Barbara City College- EH Dept. Chair. I never took any of his classes but I know him professionally. I thought I might want to share with you the meaning of Mr. Sortommes great “Sustainable Horticulture Equation” and hopefully you could apply it and have your garden thrive.

Lets dissect the equation together. You have a plant; we will say for example it is a Rose called Iceberg. Most everyone knows what this rose is; it is the most common rose with white flowers planted everywhere and blooms continuously. Before you decide to utilize this popular landscaping plant in your garden you need to know the details about the specimen for it to flourish. In a nutshell Iceberg Rose requires all day full sun, and an open area with good air circulation (not crowded). The soil should drain well and requires regular watering. Iceberg Rose is usually seen at 3-5 ‘ high and 3-4’ wide.

Now that we know the basic particulars of the plant in question, next we need to find out if it is the Right plant for the Right place? Certainly we are not going to place it in an area that does not get full all day sun exposure (6 hours or more). It is not wise to locate the rose in a poorly drained soil or in an area that it would not have enough room to grow (air circulation), unless you want to continually prune it. You don’t want to plant it when we are experiencing an extreme heatwave or in the middle of a heavy rainstorm .It is unwise to select a place where it will not get the care and attention it deserves.

After looking around the landscape we finally find the perfect site for the Iceberg Rose: The rose will be planted in a Southern exposure that receives lots of sun about 6 hours a day. The soil is clay but we amended the soil with Kellogg’s Amend (or you could use Azalea Camellia Mix) so it would drain better. We applied a healthy amount of mulch (medium size bark) around the plant but not touching the main stem. The planting area is open and has plenty of space so the rose will not be crowded. Since we are going to plant multiple iceberg roses, we will space them 3-4’ apart and have them fill in to be an informal hedge. We chose a time to plant the roses when the extreme heat wave was over, the weather was cooling down, and the long-range weather forecast indicated moderate temperatures. The iceberg rose is planted in a site where it could be enjoyed, has good viewing exposure, easily accessible for watering, maintenance, care, and attention it deserves.

Of course this is only one variant of the “Sustainable Horticulture Equation”, but I believe you will get the idea from this example. You could think of the “Sustainable Horticulture Equation” as a checklist. Check to make sure all the concepts come together and if they do, it would be a rewarding experience to know that your plants will thrive. Apply this way of thinking to all you plants and you will succeed.

I wanted to add another element to this equation that pertains more for newer planted plantings: The specimens should be planted correctly.

Planting Landscape Trees and Shrubs:

1. Using shovel, excavate the soil from the planting hole and break up soil clods as you go. The planting hole needs to be 2-3 times as wide as the root ball of the plant. The depth of the hole will be equal to the depth the root ball is planted in the nursery container.

2. Loosen an additional 6-8 ‘’ at the bottom of the hole but do not excavate.

3. Carefully remove the plant from its container. Examine the plants roots. If they are very thick, use a sharp knife to cut a 1” deep x in the bottom of the root ball, and three equally spaced 1” deep vertical cuts up the sides. (This is called scoring the root ball).

4. Sprinkle the required amount of EB Stone Sure Start Fertilizer into the planting hole and mix it into the soil. (For #1 gallon containers use 2 tablespoons, for # 5-gallon containers use 7 tablespoons.)

5. Place the plant in the center of the hole so that it is level with, or slightly above ground level.

6. Backfill the hole with amended soil, (The soil has already been amended earlier) tamping lightly every 6”.

7. Water thoroughly. If soil settles, add soil up to the top of the root ball. It is not wise to place soil directly on top of the root ball as this may inhibit water penetration. The end result is that the plant needs to be planted at the same level it was planted in the nursery container.

8. Build a 3” watering basin around the perimeter of the root ball. Fill up the watering basin with a slow trickle of water. (I prefer to hand water instead of using sprinkler systems because I think it is more through) Repeat this same process with each plant.

In review: When the right plant is installed correctly, in the right place, in the right soil, with the right spacing, with the right care, and at the right time your garden will have an enhanced future.

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