When is a plant considered "established"?

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

Many of the tags on plants I have bought say the water needs of the plant are "Low - once established." I understand that meaning that once they are established, one only needs to water them once in awhile if there is no rain. Can someone explain to me how one knows when these plants are "established." Is it when they begin to put on new growth? While one is waiting for a plant to establish itself, how often and how much should it be watered?


Palmdale, CA(Zone 8a)

I believe that when a plant is established, its roots begin to grow out, and new growth appears on the plant. Since the plants are often in pots when we buy them, the roots are coiled up in one large lump under the plant. What I do to speed the integration process is I break up the roots a bit at the bottom of the root ball, so they begin to spread quicker than they would it they were left alone.

Hope this helps

Burien, WA(Zone 7b)

It's also going to depend on the plants. There are some trees and shrubs that can take one or two years to establish themselves enough to withstand draught.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

All the above is correct, especially regarding what type of plants you have. All newly plants plants /shrubs/ tree's ect require to be treated like babies, they cant find food / water on their own so we need to make sure they get the quantity they need to help them set out new roots and also sustain enough energy to put on some new growth above the soil. the best way to help speed this process up is to make sure there is enough humus added to the soil in which you place the new plants, this allows air into the soil as all plants require that, it allows moisture to be retained when watering takes place as it allows the roots time to use up the water before it drains away, it also offers nutrients needed for healthy top growth, good roots to grow and better flowers if that is the type of plants you have. Also a good 3-4 inch layer of mulch using the same manure / compost etc for a long term aid for the same reasons.

I look at new planted trees as requiring help with water for about 3 years at least, shrubs about 2 years as by then both would have grown well into it's new environment and made sure that all other growing conditions have been met, I also insert a clear upturned plastic container into the planting hole with inch left up top of soil and this is the way I water the tree / shrub, that way I know the water is reaching right DOWN into the roots where it is required, it works every time. sometime I leave the plastic container in situ, other times I remove it but it is also a great way of adding liquid feed to the root area. sometimes when the weather is so hot a crust forms on the top of the soil and when we water the liqid just runs off the surface instead of going down into the soil.
As for plants like annuals / perennials, I know when the plants are self sufficient is when they dont wilt after a couple of days without water, usually after a season in the case of perennials, but annuals get watered every other day as they are over in one season so they are made to make flowers /seedheads for spreading the next generation of plants so without enough water and help by deadheading, the annuals will quickly go to seed as there job has been done, we need to trick them into thinking they have to make more flowers because they have not made seeds as we have removed the flower/seedhead.

This is rather long but hope it helps to understand what a plants needs are and why it's important for the plant and our pockets to help do ll we can to make sure the plants we buy have a good chance of giving us pleasure and enjoyment.
Best regards. WeeNel.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Ditto WeeNel:
It takes several years for the larger landscape plants (trees and shrubs) to spread their roots into the surrounding soil and to really be established.
Around here I often explain to our clients:

Normal winter rains will help.
Mild fall weather is best for growing roots.
Most plants need careful attention through their first 2 summers.

If you plant in the late spring the plant may spend all its first summer fighting the heat, not really growing.
If you plant in the fall the plant will grow just as much, or possibly more than the same plant that had to fight its way through the summer with roots no larger than they were in the can.

The soils in my area are often dense clay, they hold water really well. Poor drainage is more often a problem that most homeowners are not aware of. This can especially be a problem if a plant has died and been replaced with a new plant. The surrounding plants are spreading into the soil, but the new plant just has its original root ball. It needs more frequent water than the surrounding plants, so do not alter the sprinkler timer. Get out there with a hose and supplement that new plant until it catches up.

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

Well, the plants I am inquiring about are mostly annuals, biennials, and perennials such as Echinacea, Marigolds, Zinnia, Cosmos.

When I buy the above plants from a nursery and plant them in the garden, how often should I be watering them to make sure the roots grow and they establish themselves? For example, I planted Cosmo seeds outdoors in full in spring. I kept the soil moist for a few weeks, then once they were about 10 inches tall, I would only water them if it didn't rain during the week. However, when I watered them at that point (the ground was bone dry I couldn't even stick a finger in it) the next day I noticed the lower leaves were yellow. I assumed that was a sign they didn't want any water LOL Anyway, after a few months of growing, I pulled up one of the Cosmos that was damaged by the dogs.It was about 20 inches tall and the roots were only like 2 inches long. Are they supposed to be longer or do Cosmos have a short root system.

The same thing happened Marigolds grown from seed in the ground. I had to pull some up due to spidermites flocking to them and the surrounding plants. The marigolds were a good size, some as tall as 15 inches, and nice and bushy...and flowering well. They had been in the ground and growing for 2 1/2 months. However, their root systems were only about 2 inches long. Even though they were growing nicely and flowering, I was wondering if I wasn't watering them enough thus causing the roots to be so short. I potted up these same Marigolds about 2 weeks ago, set them in full sun where they received about 10 hours of full sun. I had to water them every day and sometimes twice a day when the sun was intense because the clay pots caused them to dry out quickly. Anyway, yesterday, I removed Marigolds from two of those pots and planted them back in the ground, in full sun, and away from all other plants. In just 2 weeks those same marigolds that had such short roots grew roots that filled the 8" pots. When they were in the ground the first time, I watered them everyday when they were seedlings, then as they grew taller and bushier and began flowering, I only watered them about every other day and to a depth of about 4-6 inches IF the soil was dry or nearly dry. Many times when I watered them, even when the soil was dry, their lower leaves would turn yellow. However, the leaves didn't yellow like this when I watered them once or twice a day in the pots.

I bought Echinacea "Harvest Moon" last week. They were about 8 inches tall. I watered them in when I planted them and some of the lower leaves were yellow the next day. I plucked them off. Now I know I HAVE to water newly planted plants in order to get them established, but for plants like Echinacea, Zinnia, and Cosmos, do I continue to water them weekly for a few weeks even if their lower leaves turn yellow? This is where I am confused.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

As with annuals as I mentioned, these germinate, grow foliage then HAVE to flower all in one short season so you would be wise to probable water once per day, either early evening or early morning, I assume the soil the plants are in as you mentioned being bone dry now and it probably has a solid crust on it that water cant penetrate down to the roots, this type of soil will definitely encourage the plants to flower even faster so it can get on with producing seeds for next years seeds to propagate and the same cycle for annuals continues.
My advice would be to use a hand fork or trowel, even a garden how would help break up the crust allowing water to soak down to the roots you could also add a half strength dose of liquid feed to the watering just to give the plants a boost, dead-head as before to prolong the flowering season.

Next year I would add as much humus to the soil as you can get as this will help prevent the loss of moisture in the soil and lets air into the root area because when a crust forms on the soil in the hot weather, neither water, air or nutrients can do their job properly for good strong healthy plants that want to go on flowering for longer periods of time. hope this is a bit clearer for you to understand the different need for different types of plants.
Have a great gardening season and best of luck. WeeNel.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Improve your soil so the water soaks in easily then drains well. The soil should hold water well enough to supply the plants but also allow some oxygen into the root zone. It should not get so hard between watering that you cannot stick your finger into it.
As noted by WeeNel, annuals are flowers that are in a rush to produce next year's seed. If conditions are harsh they will bolt to flower, the flowers may be small, and dry up fast. The plant has done its job. Maybe next year conditions will be better and the seeds can grow more flowers to further perpetuate the species. If conditions are good then the annual will keep on producing more and more flowers, and the flowers will be larger, showier and last longer. Your job is to provide optimum conditions for the annuals to grow fast and well. You are not trying to get them established. "Established" is a concept for plants that live longer than one season. You are making a show piece when you plant annuals.

If your soil is dense clay or has a high clay content (sounds like it, if it gets so hard between watering) then add a lot of organic matter to the soil. Look in the stores for things labeled soil conditioner, but they may be called other things that are wrong. Never mind the idiocy of the manufacturer. No matter what they call it, READ THE INGREDIENTS. You want organic materials like various sawdusts, manures and similar things. Around here the ingredients often read "Forestry byproducts, Chicken Manure with bedding, Worm castings, Bat Guano, Peat moss"
You can use materials you find or make yourself, too:
Lawn clippings, leaves and plant based kitchen wastes can all be composted and the resulting material turned into the soil.
If you are near any places that keep horses you can collect the used bedding (especially shavings) with manure. If it has been piled up at the stable for a while you might not be able to tell that it used to be manure and shavings. This is ready to use. If it is fresh it will smell like manure and ammonia (from the urine in the bedding) and you can still see the shapes of the sawdust and manure. I would compost the fresh stuff before using it.

If you blend compost (any source) with your soil you will probably make a mix of about 50% soil and 50% compost, and thoroughly blend it in to a minimum depth of 6" for the smaller annuals (to about 1' tall) or deeper for larger annuals. Side note: When you dig a hole for a perennial dig it twice as wide as the container, and blend compost with the soil. When you backfill with this blend the plant will have a much easier time transitioning from the growers soil mix into your garden soil. Do not dig the hole any deeper than the depth of the soil in the original pot.

Next, mulch. Add bark, chips or other material (organic- not rocks) to the soil surface. This adds several benefits.
1) When water hits the soil it compacts the soil. When water hits mulch is seeps gently into the soil, keeping the surface loose and open for better water/air exchange.
2) Covering the soil surface keeps the weeds from sprouting.
3) Mulch decomposes over time the same way compost does. It improves the soil as the fine particles get washed into the soil.
4) Organic materials like compost, soil conditioner and mulch lower the pH of the soil. In most places this is good. Many beneficial microorganisms thrive in a lower pH, and many fertilizers and minerals are better available to the plants at the right pH.
5) Organic materials like compost, soil conditioner and mulch break down to become humus. Humus helps to clump clay soil particles together in a way that makes gardening easier and the plant roots grow better. Humus also holds fertilizers in a way that plant roots can take them.
6) Mulch moderates the soil temperature so in the summer the soil gets warm without getting too hot. In the winter it insulates the soil against freezing (somewhat).
7) Mulch moderates the water loss in the soil. The soil gets a good deep soaking, and the organic matter in the soil and the soil particles are holding the water. But if this is exposed to the air, wind, and sun the water would evaporate quickly. By mulching you are helping the soil to hold water. But remember point 1) The mulch is minimizing soil compaction, so even while it is holding plenty of water there is also enough spaces between the soil particles that allows for air in the soil, too.


So... here is what I would do to grow annuals:
1) Make a gentle mound out of the area to be planted. I might use rocks to make a border. Add lots of compost or soil conditioner and a little bit of fertilizer. Rototill well, at least 6" deep, and deeper if the tiller can handle it. I might build the mound in layers, rototilling each layer as I go to be sure the soil conditioner is well mixed with the soil. Net result will be a mound about 6" high, and 12" total depth is prepared soil.
2) Lay out the annuals. If I am starting seeds then all the plants are started that way. In the bed is OK. In a greenhouse will give better germination %. I usually plant from 'Jumbo Packs'. These are not so expensive as 4" pots, but the plants are larger than cell packs. Cell packs are OK, too.
3) If I am starting seeds do not mulch. Cover the mound with a sheet of clear plastic to mimic a greenhouse until most of the seeds sprout. If I planted cell- or jumbo packs, then mulch.
4) Water thoroughly but use a gentle spray so the soil and mulch are not compacted by the drops hitting the surface. Arrange drip tubing if that is what the client wants. Make sure the irrigation works.
5) Depending on the weather the new plants might need daily water until their roots get going. When I start from seeds I do not need to add more water- I might have to open the sheet plastic to allow some evaporation. When I remove the sheet, then mulch and water.
6) A long lasting fertilizer can help, if you are dealing with annuals that will be in the ground for as long as the fertilizer lasts, but short acting fertilizers are quicker to get results. I try to use some of each because I do not know if the client will continue to use fertilizers.

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

Diana and WeeNel, everything you say does make good sense. My flower beds are all thriving because last year I dug 12 inches, or more in some areas, and mixed in composted manure, soil conditioner, and organic planting soil with the native garden soil. This year when I went to plant something, the soil was so loose and rich with many earthworms visible, For the areas that I planted the wildflower seeds in this year, I did dig a trench about 8 inches down, but pretty much only churned the soil, broke up any clumps, and removed weeds and grass roots prior to planting the seeds. The only thing that really survived and are growing are the Cosmos, a few Rudbeckia, and another unidentified wildflower that is growing great, but hasn't bloomed yet. In the fall, I will redo this area and prep it like I have my other flower beds. The only reason I didn't do this before is because I read somewhere, and in multiple places, that a lot of wildflowers don't do well in rich soil...especially Cosmos. I also read that Cosmos don't like to be fertilized very much.

All of this can be so confusing, but I guess I need to take things I read with a grain of salt, because I have learned that what doesn't work for some people, may work for others. I just have to experiment and see what does and doesn't work for me :)

One more thing....can flowers, such as Cosmos, reseed if they are mulched? I thought I had read somewhere that the seed has to come in direct contact with the soil.

Thanks so much for all the informative answers.

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

Hi Again SavvyDaze, your right about the seeds of ALL plants needing to come into contact with the soil but when you Mulch, the substance you use becomes the soil, be it wood chip, manure, shop bought compost, or other organic matter.
I think what Diane and myself were giving you was info re adding humus INTO the soil, as the best type of additives you can use to get good quality seed germination AND season long growing medium that will offer all the goodness any plant is likely to require, ofcource after the growing season, for plants that are permanent growers (perennials) in the same spot, you would add more humus either end of growing season or next year at the start of the growing season as these type of plants will have used up all the goodness you already gave them therefore, like us humans, they need enrichment again for the following season to build up energy, they get this by topping up the humus as before.

It can be very confusing believe me, we all had the same start into gardening as you, the main thing to remember this new found gardening HOBBY is supposed to be enjoyable, your life is not dependant on every seed you plant growing into a great big lush plant, all you need is is to learn from where you went wrong IF indeed you have, and just try relax, think what a small child would need, germination, air, good foundations, liquid and feeding, it's the same with plants, water we do, feeding we do but we use different substances, air buy adding humus, and some TLC, so if we get the requirements (SOIL) right before the germination stage the rest will fall into place, sounds easy EH !!!!, like all gardeners it takes a little time to put it all together but eventually it all falls into place and you sit back in wonderment, be patient and try to enjoy instead of worrying. Even in the best gardens there are mistakes, they have disappointments or even disasters, but you learn from that and find the answers as to why it went wrong, that's what this Dave's Garden site is here for, and you could even strike up a few new friendships along the way. there's no right and wrong way to do it, just basic requirements are needed and we adapt everything else to our own methods to suit our own time table for the gardening chores, I just know you will get there in the end, just keep asking any questions you need answers to no matter how trivial you think it will sound, there's always someone else reading the question and thinking "OH I wanted to know that too" Have fun along the way, I can still laugh at all the stuff I did wrong and believe me, everyone else can come up with a few beauties of their own silly things in the garden too.

Best regards and good luck. WeeNel.

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

This was the 1st year I ever tried growing anything from seed. Although I kind of failed sowing directly into the ground (except for the Marigolds), I did grow some in peat pots under grow lights starting around Feb or March. Here is a picture of one success and one failure. My successful Cosmo is on the right side of the mailbox and my failure (sort of) is on the left. Can you guess as to which Cosmo I pinched and which one I didn't? LOL

WeeNel, I understood what you and Diana meant regarding adding humus into the soil. I just get confused when I hear people say to mulch around annuals that reseed each year. However, you explained that it can still reseed when it comes in contact with the mulch. I do the humus adding and mulching to the perennial beds :-) And from now on, I will do it for my seeds, too.

Thumbnail by SavvyDaze
Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

A thick mulch of coarse material is going to stop a lot of seeds from sprouting.
If you need that thick a mulch for any of the reasons I detailed above, then collect the seeds of your favorite plants, the healthiest, the nicest colors... and start them in the late winter then transplant them out when the weather is right.

If you can get by with finer material and no so deep, then that sort of mulch will decompose through the year, and when it is time for the annuals to grow again, they will be in contact with the right soil so they can grow well.

It is true that some plants do not care for large amounts of organic matter or fertilizer in the soil.
If you want to break it down into 2 major groups, then think of it this way:
Plants that grow in the sun evolved out in the open, in grasslands, or some brush, but not in the woods. The amount of dead plant material added to the soil each year in grasslands is not much. So plants that grow in full sun are generally OK with a blend of perhaps 1/3 compost to 2/3 native soil. But if your soil is pretty bad, then go with more compost. Not too rich with the fertilizers, either. But not zero- you are not looking for the scraggly growth that is common is wild grasslands. You do need to add some fertilizer, and do some soil prep to get the best out of the plants. Moderate mulch.
Plants that evolved in the woods, that grow in the shade, are used to soils that are an accumulation of many years worth of leaf litter, fallen branches and fallen trees. VERY high in organic matter. Perhaps 100% organic matter. For plants like this I would make a blend of at least 50% organic matter with 50% or less native soil. Plenty of fertilizer. Thick mulch.

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

Diana, I was just experimenting with the Cosmos by the mailbox. I only used the decorative rock around it for 3 reasons. 1) I didn't want the grass growing right there. 2) I have a terribly invasive weed called Florida Betony that loves to grow in that area and I didn't want it growing by the anything I planted there because it would make spraying weed killer very difficult. The rock pretty much keeps the betony from growing in that area, but if it does start growing through the rock, it is easier to see and easier to spot treat each individual weed. 3) I wasn't sure if I wanted the Cosmos to reseed in case I didn't like them there or at all LOL

As for woodland type plants and even some tropicals...I have gotten pretty good at growing...at least I feel like I have LOL (See pic below). Of course, I am always learning something new everyday. Until this year, I had never grown wildflowers so I thought I'd give it a try and realized I had a lot to learn. I appreciate all the information you and WeeNel and the others have offered here. Maybe next year, I will do a lot better :-)

Thumbnail by SavvyDaze
Palmdale, CA(Zone 8a)

I get that too with my cosmos. I am not sure why one of the plants grew taller than me, while the rest stayed tiny, some less than a foot.

Contra Costa County, CA(Zone 9b)

Savvy, your tropicals look so lush!

Ayrshire Scotland, United Kingdom

The Tropicals all look as good as you would find in any well cared for garden and standards shown by experienced gardeners, so all credit to you.
Try not to worry about next year right now because this year you should just enjoy the fruits of your labour, ALSO, all that advice Diane, myself and others have given you is brilliant and passed on from experience gained over the years BUT, cant speak for Diane when I say, even experienced gardeners are still learning. And the other thing to remember Savvy, the weather plays a large part in failure and success in all our gardens and we can give you hints and tips on what we can do as gardeners, we cant control the weather and from what I can gather from people all over the globe, the conditions, re the global climate are changing and more unpredictable so keep that in mind too.

I have every confidence in your abilities with regarding your gardening so keep it up, remember to enjoy the garden, when it becomes a chore instead of enjoyment it's time to hang up the garden gear Ha, ha, ha.
Have much fun and take good care.

Lady's Island, SC(Zone 8b)

Bloomfly, when I started 6 Cosmos indoors near the end of winter, as an experiment, I pinched the growing tips of 2 of them to see how well they would branch out. Unfortunately, when I planted my Cosmos outside, I forgot which 2 I had pinched and they ended up in different areas.The 2 I pinched are very tall, branched out nicely, and have very thick stalks & stems. The one by the mailbox gets full sun from 11am until the sun goes down and flowered later (about 3-4 weeks later) than the ones I didn't pinch. The other one only gets sun from 11am until about 3:30pm and hasn't flowered yet, although I am beginning to see some buds develop. Those I didn't pinch are much shorter, started blooming about 3 weeks after being planted, and one, needed to be staked because the stalk was thin and flimsy. However, the short one by the mailbox is developing a thicker stalk as time passes and I assume it is because it gets a lot more sun.

So, what I have learned from this experience is to grow them in peat pots, pinch them when they are about 6 inches tall, and give them as much sun as possible. Of course, amend the soil and mulch :-)

I had purchased 2 Cosmo plants at the local nursery shortly after I had planted mine outside just to compare. They must have pinched them several times because they have stayed really short (12 inches tall and wide) and are more like mini Cosmo bushes. I prefer the tall, airy look much more.

Bloomfly, how often and how much do you water your Cosmos?

Diana, thanks for the nice comment about my tropicals. :) I love Colocasia, Alocasia, and Caladiums. One day I will be brave and try a Musa Basjoo banana tree . The nursery had some beautiful ones in the beginning of spring, but I resisted. Maybe some day...

WeeNel, weather certainly does play a big part in gardening! We didn't even have our normal spring showers this year, but we've had some very windy days. I felt bad for my Colocasia when their leaves got ripped to shreds. However, they recovered and look pretty good now. They have a few months until they get shot up by the falling acorns in the fall.

Yes, gardening is supposed to be fun and enjoyable...and for me it usually is. I don't get upset if I lose a plant for whatever reason, or if something doesn't grow well. I just think of it as an opportunity to buy a new plant LOL The only part of gardening that I have found the most frustrating is the attack of spider mites which decided to invade my tropical garden. Why they chose the area of the yard that receives the most water and regular misting is beyond me. It was a pain getting them under control and several times I wanted to give up and let them win. LOL Gardening IS supposed to be fun and dealing with billions of spider mites all over my plants was NOT fun! But eventually, spraying the underside of everything everyday for a few weeks just became a normal part of my gardening routine. Now I only have to do it once a week. I have enjoyed learning about gardening. When I first started, I was no idea there was so much to learn! I have already learned so much and realize there is so much more I have yet to learn. I look forward to it.

Palmdale, CA(Zone 8a)

I water them every other day thoroughly, switching to every day when temperature rises above 100(It plans to be 109 this weekend.)

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