There’s an old saying among gardeners: ‘a penny for the plant and a pound for the hole’. Preparation and planting is the best way to ensure your plants grow well. The more work you put in to preparing the soil, the better the results will be. Getting a plant off to a good start will mean you can reap the rewards later, be they flowers and fruit or simply a strong, established plant that needs little aftercare.
Browse our tips on how to plant, below.
Before you start – check your soil
Before choosing plants for your garden, it’s important to check what type of soil you have. Different plants suit different soils, and you may need to improve your soil before you start planting. First check the consistency of the soil – is it sticky and muddy (clay), or does it fall easily through your fingers (sandy)? Somewhere between the two is ideal – this type of soil is often referred to as friable or having a fine tilth. It means that young roots will spread easily.
If your soil is heavy clay, it will be hard to dig and you will need to add plenty of well rotted manure or compost to improve the structure. If your soil is sandy or chalky, you will also need to add organic matter to improve fertility. You should also check the pH of your soil. Most plants require a neutral to acid pH of around 6, but some require higher levels of acidity and these are often known as ericaceous plants. It’s hard to change the pH of your soil, but you can tweak it by adding acid composts, or you could create an acid raised bed or container. The most important thing to remember about soil is to choose plants that will suit the growing conditions in your plot – it’s easier than trying to change the soil.
Make a planting plan
If you’re lucky enough to have a new garden, or have created a new bed and have decided which plants you want, it’s a good idea to make a planting plan. You can cut out pictures of the plants you want from catalogues and magazines, and play around with how to set them out. When your plants have arrived, set them out and play around with the layout. Make sure you read the instructions and leave enough space around the plant for it to spread out when in full growth.
Planting potted plants
Dig a hole suitable for your chosen plant. With a potted plant, you can check this by placing the pot in the hole. It should fit comfortably, with around 2cm extra around the perimeter, while its depth should be no deeper than that of the pot itself. Most small shrubs are sold in plastic pots, which they have often outgrown. You might find that the shrub you’ve chosen has a very tight rootball. If this is the case, gently tease out the mat of roots and loosen the soil – don’t worry that you’re harming the plant, as new roots will grow.
Planting bare-root shrubs and trees
If you have a bare root plant, such as a rose, tree or shrub, ensure there’s plenty of room for the roots to spread comfortably. Look for the soil ‘tide mark’ at the base of the plant, which shows the depth it was previously planted. Use this as a guide to how deep to plant now. Fork the sides of your hole so the soil is easier for roots to penetrate. Once you’ve dug your hole to the correct depth and width, add some fish, blood and bone, micorrhizal fungi or well-rotted manure. If using a stake then push this in now, diagonally, hammering it in firmly. Place your bare-root plant in the hole so the roots are spread out and fill the hole with soil (tie in to stake if using one). Gently firm the soil around the planting area.
If planting bulbs in containers, add a few crocks at the bottom to help with drainage. Then add a layer of compost. You can layer bulbs, planting later-flowering varieties such as tulips at the bottom, and earlier flowering varieties, such as crocus, at the top. This ‘lasagne’ style of planting is a great way to save space. If planting bulbs in the ground, you can naturalise them in a lawn by digging up divots and popping the bulbs in to three times their own depth. Or you could plant a group around a tree, a little closer to the surface. Many bulbs will benefit from adding a handful of grit to the hole, as winter wet may cause them to rot.
Planting plug plants
Buying plug plants is a really easy way to get your garden started. These are small seedling plants, usually bought by mail order, and they tend to be available in early spring, often in two sizes, or stages of growth. Both sizes will need potting on into larger pots, so they can grow on to the next stage before being planted out into your borders or containers. The key to growing successfully from plug plants is to water the plugs before planting, and handle plants gently, by the top two leaves, pushing them out of the containers they arrive in. Fill up a small pot with compost and make a well in the crentre to drop in your plug. Then gently pat the soil around it. Some varieties may need potting on again to the next size up and will need to be ‘hardened off’ outside before planting out, after all risk of frost has passed.
Check the planting requirements for plants when you buy them. For example bearded irises need to be planted with the top of the rhizome just above the soil level in a sunny location. With roses, however, check that the point where the cultivar joins the rootstock is at soil level when planted.
Planting in containers
You can have lots of fun with containers, choosing plants for different seasonal looks and colour. The golden rule is to add a few broken bits of crockery to the bottom of the container – this helps with drainage. Mix up your compost with a little bit of topsoil to stop it drying out too quickly. Plants use up the nutrients in compost within about six weeks, so add a handful of slow release fertiliser, or feed regularly with a liquid feed or tomato feed. And plant your containers generously – you can always thin them out later.