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Choosing great plants is an important part of making a great garden or landscape. Placing them in a suitable site is also important. Gardeners and professionals often attend classes that show superior plants and how to place them. I only wish that gardening and landscape success were just about those decisions, but there’s so much more to it.

Realistically, establishing plants in their new homes and keeping them alive is complicated and sometimes difficult. Sometimes nature and human nature conspire to make it nearly impossible for a recently planted tree or perennial collection to survive. Garden shoppers expect a lot from plants, especially after we professionals extol their virtues, but it takes more than great plants to have a great – living – garden.

Worse, explaining it all is challenging, requiring persistence, repetition and patience. There is a lot for plant shoppers to understand. In the garden center, before they reach the cash register or depart the premises, ideally they would have a discussion about taking care of their purchases. Somebody should review the site factors, planting bed and soil preparation, and how to plant, protect and water the plants for the next three years.

That’s unrealistic, usually. In the relatively short and busy gardening season, a detailed lesson with each purchase won’t happen in most plant sales situations. Professionals try – and it’s a primary reason to buy from a reputable garden center or nursery that has CNLPs (Certified Nursery and Landscape Professionals) or educated horticulturists on board.

Ideally, people putting in a new landscape have done their homework, received professional advice, and learned something about the follow-up to a planting job. It’s rather like having a baby or adopting a dog on a slightly less life-changing scale: Responsible people read some books, buy some supplies and talk with professionals ahead of the event. They’re ready and know how to care for the arrival.

Alas, poor plants. Sometimes nobody prepares for them, and the new owners don’t know what to do. After the plants fail or are disappointing, the owners often blame the plants. Then the garden “expert” – sometimes also blamed – is asked what happened. The answers, which are usually complicated and all about the site, planting and care (and some weather), are rarely satisfactory.

Recently, several experiences with good clients left me reflecting on how complicated it all is. In the case below I’ve changed the details slightly, and intend no criticism of the people who made a good effort to establish this landscape.

The frying Caryopteris

An intelligent businesswoman had worked with me extensively in June to choose shrubs for a large, sloping bed next to her house. The new bed (soil well-prepared) faced southwest, with full sun all day, wind and deer anticipated. For a long, sloping 50-foot line along the edge of the bed, we chose Caryopteris (Bluebeard). It could have been Buddleia, St. John’s Wort, Pennisetum or another drought-tolerant plant.

She needed 14 and bought seven in 2-gallon pots and seven 1-gallon ones – all in excellent condition, well-rooted but not pot-bound. She planted the line of small shrubs carefully, set out soaker hoses that she left on for many hours at a time a couple times a week, and went on into a busy summer. By August we bumped into each other and I heard: “The plants just fried. The spot is just too hot and sunny for them.”

I went to see it (near my work), and indeed the plants were half-dead, showing severe heat stress. One tree (from another source) was completely dead, and the smaller shrubs were more stressed than the bigger ones. I could see what had happened, and now I had to explain it, knowing this would not be simple to communicate or easy to believe.

It wasn’t the Caryopteris or the tree’s flaws, as they were all suited to a hot and sunny site (drought tolerant once established). It was the problem of getting enough water to the roots of those plants during extended hot weather. An ideal way to have delivered the water effectively would have been an in-ground watering system – slightly expensive up front, but a very good investment, compared with losing the plants.

A professional landscape company on site would have recommended such a system. Even then, the systems have to be set up correctly with timing and water-delivery rates adjusted to the plant needs, especially on a slope. Alternatively, hand watering works and is all many fine gardeners do: Place a water wand (to disperse the flow) at the base of a new plant once or twice a week depending upon the weather and the size of the plant’s root ball, and let it run until the whole root area is soaked. Do this plant by plant.

Soaker hoses can be useful, but I don’t trust them to deliver enough water to the root balls of the plants, and on a slope their water dispersal is probably uneven. Also, I would have recommended creating a little pond bank around the tree to capture and slow the water runoff. Mulching would have slowed the water loss as well.

Obviously, I hadn’t adequately communicated how to water correctly, and the customer didn’t understand how deeply water must soak in to reach the roots. Tough to explain and tough to do.

Amazing when they survive

I am never surprised when plants die, even mine, because I know that even the best plants are at risk during their first few seasons. Weather throws us some curves. Few planting beds or sites are perfect. Not everybody plants them perfectly in an ideal site. New plants have small root systems that are easily damaged and quick to dry out or drown. It’s hard to keep every plant alive, and I expect a percentage of loss – or at least a slow, three-year, painstaking period of establishment. Customers tend to expect more, sooner.

Now as I prepare my new “Best Plants” program I must remember: Tell them the truth. It’s not just about the plants.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.