Grit Blogs > Nature and Gardening at the Edge

The first year

Peony blossoms from a several year old plant  

Nurseries make life look easy. Buy this and plant it and your lawn and garden will look like the picture or display. Life is not so easy for young plants and sometimes at the end of the first year, we are disappointed. We ask, what happened? Sometimes we feel like giving up. Are our expectations too high? Are the plants, seeds or bulbs not of good quality? Did we not give enough care in some way?

Probably all of the above are often factors. Whether sowing grass seed, putting in tulip bulbs, or buying and planting a tree from the nursery, the new plants have a big ordeal ahead. What we can’t see or monitor is the root growth that goes on under ground. We have all heard that there is as much underground as above ground but mostly I have a hard time imaging it. If I think about the roots, I tend to think that they take care of themselves.

It appears that the first year most plants are putting down roots. Certainly both a long hot and sometimes dry growing season can stress new plants and slow down rooting. Sadly the winter kills off a lot of plants and the following spring is when we discover the loss. When I have to dig up dead plants or trees, I sometimes find that the root ball has hardly expanded beyond the original container. This probably puts some of the fault on me. Perhaps I didn’t break up the root ball and spread the roots. Perhaps I failed to water enough to support new root growth.

What can we realistically expect, if we give plants our best care in the first year of their life? Spring planted grass may be pretty well rooted down and have a nice color by fall. Generally it is not ready for use as a golf course or other heavy traffic purposes. You might take down the "keep off the grass" signs but find that it is still tender and can be uprooted easily. Autumn fertilizing and in many places winter watering will help it through the winter. In areas of heavy snow, grass can actually die out under the snow over winter. This is a little harder to detect and address. Shoveling all of the snow off your lawn is likely not feasible.

Trees that we buy in nurseries are usually significantly more than 1 year old. If you have seedlings in your yard or have grown trees from seed, you may have seen a tree of only a few inches tall after a year. Nurseries would find these hard to sell and likely face a lot of replacements because these really are pretty fragile. Regardless of the age and size that we buy, they all face a certain amount of transplant shock and need for rooting. Both grass and trees and some other perennials may need protection from deer, rabbits and other grazers that can kill off plants, particularly in the winter. Trees are one of the more expensive things to plant, so either have the nursery do it for you, or follow planting instructions and care instructions carefully. If you plant a fruit or nut tree, don’t expect anything for some time. In fact, some nursery people suggest removing and discarding any green fruit or nuts that may be on the tree when you buy it. Trees put significant energy, water and nutrients into producing fruit and this can take too much away from the rooting that will be needed for winter.

Likewise perennial flowers may not bloom profusely the first year. Each year can get better with proper care but the blooms may not appear the first year or be few and small. In many cases there are warranties on plants living one year. We can’t control the weather conditions, but we can plant correctly and give the very best care, including winter watering where needed, to ensure survival. Regardless of the summer sales, avoid planting in hot weather. Cooler fall weather with sufficient time for rooting before winter weather provides a better start for your plants.

nebraska dave
8/4/2012 12:00:25 PM

Minnie, all good advise for the first year care of freshly planted trees and plants. Even with all the right care some plants are just destined not to make it. This year all my gardening friends have had a terrible time growing bell peppers. After being planted they just kind of sat there looking all wilted. I kept my regiment of watering up and now in August they are starting to show signs of snapping out of their slump. It wasn't a bug or a disease but just a bad year for bell peppers. My personal opinion is that something was a foot with the seed that growers used to start the plants. Some of the peppers I started myself and they did the same thing. Farmers and gardeners are most times at the mercy of the seed companies. Have a great day planting first year plants.