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Hints on how to get better results when planting large areas of plants and turf, including establishment maintenance.

By Todd Layt

Large areas of green space are essential to our urban environment, with the contract landscaping of these areas often being very competitive. Techniques that can help landscapers install these green spaces more efficiently, more cost effectively, and more successfully are invaluable to any commercial landscape company, or Domestic Landscaper that contracts on acreage. Information is important, particularly on topics such as, preparation, more efficient planting techniques, plant and turf choice, establishment maintenance, and diagnoses of the plant and turf’s health.

Correct preparation can be the difference between success and failure, or the following problems; dead plants and turf, having to water 2 or 3 times as much, weed invasion problems, or toxicity. Involve a soil scientist and make sure the soil is acceptable to receive plants and turf. PH levels are important. If the levels are wrong, the result can be toxic to plants and turf, or more likely the plants can not process nutrients in the soil correctly, even with high rates of fertiliser. Another important factor is water penetration. This is immensely important with our current water shortages. Say for example you are faced with a very compacted heavy clay type soil, 10mm of water may only penetrate 1cm, with most running off and being wasted. Simply by following the guidance of a soil scientist, which maybe to incorporate organics, or Gypsum, a wetting agent or other additives, the soil could be improved so that the 10mm would penetrate 3cm to 5cm. This could reduce the watering schedule by a factor of 3, saving thousands of dollars in watering costs, along with saving countless plants from doom.

Mulch is another important factor. Fine grade composted mulch makes a great soil conditioner, reducing water requirements, and promoting healthier plants and turf. Fine grade mulch however should never be used as a ground cover mulch, as it can lead to excellent weed germination, hydrophobia of the surface layer, and promote diseases in the top layer, particularly Phytophthora as the crown of many plants becomes blocked. Chunky coarse grade mulch with zero fines is a much better choice as a ground cover mulch, as it allows more airflow, makes it very hard for weeds to germinate, lasts far longer, rarely becomes hydrophobic, and is a healthier option for the plants.

As recent as 8 years ago, planting hundreds of thousands of tubes would have been a major undertaking. With the introduction of high speed hand held drill planters by a company called Plant Planters, hundred of thousands of plants can be installed quickly. They have invented and sell many different types of drill bitts. They have bits for heavy compacted soils, sandy soils, soils with mulch on top, even bits that can drill through Jute matting to the soil below. To find out more about these labour and cost saving drills, and drill bits, visit Plant Planters – Ph 02 4776 1711. Some of their drill bits even loosen the soil for you. For example they have one called a blender auger that can churn a reasonable sized hole in general soils, and if additives are incorporated, the soil can be improved to a reasonable depth and width. This leaves the undisturbed areas as is, which makes it harder for weed seeds to germinate. Often Landscapers spread mulch unevenly, leaving pockets where the mulch is a ridiculous 250mm. These blender bits can then mix the mulch and the soil together around the hole, providing the plant with something to grow into. Obviously it is better to get the mulch a consistent 75mm or so in depth. They also have wipers that wipe the mulch away from the hole. If the soil is particularly hard and compacted they have Ball Breaker Bits (their actual name) which grind away at these hard soils, however Plant Planters recommend good horticultural practices by cultivating the soil first so these bits are not required. Over the years they have tried to make a drivable drill planting machine, and have succeeded, but every time they have tried it, the site has not suited. Problems such as mulch, uneven sites, harder ground, spacing etc have made the portable hand drill planter a faster more low cost better option

One method to reduce watering required on establishment is to use an expanded water crystal mix squirted into the holes of the plants. These water crystals are often mixed with slow release fertiliser, just prior to planting, and this mixture is called Planter Aid. Do not use anything other than slow release fertiliser, and only mix it in just prior to application, or it will dissolve into the water crystals, and make them lose cohesiveness prior to application.

How to Prepare Planter Aid

Mix up your water crystals well in advance (many brands available). That means mix up the crystals at the end of the day so they fully hydrate overnight. Don’t mix in fertiliser at this stage as it will dissolve into the crystals and make it slushy. Mix course crystal (2-3mm) at 1:100. That means 10ml or two level teaspoons of crystal powder per litre of water. Seeds and Plants Australia have for sale special applicators available that apply this quickly. Ph 02 6247 7180.

When planting plants it is very important not to bury the crown of the plant with mulch or soil, or to ringbark trees of shrubs. There are very few exceptions but in general plants can not handle their crown to be buried. The exceptions include, Little Jess, Breeze, and King Alfred, all Dianella caerulea varieties, but Cassa Blue, also a Dianella caerulea does not like it, so it is cultivar specific, not simply always all plants of a genus and species. Nafray and Purple lea, both Pennisetum alopecuroides and all Imperata cylindrica are some of the others that can handle a buried crown. Another all too often occurring mistake of mass planting, is to plant dry plants. Plants should not only be very moist in the potting mix before planting, there leaves should be moistened as well, particularly on hot days. So just before planting, give the plants a good drink. Planting into dry soil should also be avoided. The ground should have at least some moisture in it.

Obviously plant and turf choice can make a big difference to whether a project is a success or failure. This is generally done at the specification phase. No plant or turf will work in all situations or conditions in all regions, so it is very important to put the right plant in the right place. For example in Sydney and Brisbane because of a hotter more humid climate, it is important to know which plants can cope with either depressed areas, or excessive irrigation, and which plants can cope with raised dry areas. Plants such as Dianellas King Alfred, Little Jess can cope with both, whilst Lomandra hystrix Katie Belles and Tropic Cascade are better for the wetter areas, and Lomandra longifolia Katrinus Deluxe, Tanika, and Nyalla are better for the dryer areas. In Melbourne the Lomandra longifolia can cope with both situations. If the site is a slope, then some plants and turf better stabilise the soil. King Alfred, Dianella caerulea ‘John 316’ has the strongest ever recorded soil strengthening ability of any plant, whilst Empire turf is the best erosion control turf. Ensure you have a data sheet for each plant you use so that you know the plant or turf is being used in the correct situation. Ozbreed, for which I am the head plant breeder, has a data sheet for every plant for every region, visit Ozbreed Australia. Plant research is also very important to help identify where plants are best used. For example on the Ozbreed website you can find research showing which plants are best for grey water, salt laden wind areas, erosion, shade, drought, and which turf types need less mowing etc. Choosing low maintenance, easy to establish plants that are very drought tolerant is of utmost importance. This is why there is a trend towards more compact drought tolerant shrubs, ground covers and strappy leaf plants. For Example, Tanika and Katrinus both Lomandra longifolia plants, and Little Jess and Breeze, both Dianella caerulea are being planted by the millions by road departments around Australia, because they meet all these functions, and they are performing even after 7 years.

Establishment maintenance of large planted or turfed areas is really important. Lack of establishment watering is generally the big killer. It amazes me that all too often Landscapers will work hard to finish a project, do everything right, then forget the follow up watering. Maybe because at this stage the job is passed to less experienced people. Plants or turf can not dry out until they have adequate new roots established. It is as simple as that. People often ask how much water is needed to establish plants and turf. The real answer should be as much as is needed to keep the plants healthy till they are established. This is where the skills of a landscaper should be utilised. It should be up to skilled contractors to ensure the plants survive and prosper till established. Landscapers should consistently monitor plants and turf, and have to be able to judge what the plant needs. If it is drying out, it must be watered. If some plants are developing Phytophthora problems, the Landscaper should be able to diagnose this, and apply appropriate treatments. If there is insect damage to trees, or turf, again the Landscaper must be able to pick this up and treat it. Basically if something is not looking right there is a reason, so find out why; don’t just wait til the plants and turf die. Monitoring the health of plants and turf is the job of a professional landscaper, particularly when they are in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of plants and turf. Each large project should have a least one person that knows a lot about greenlife, and they have to be given time to walk around and check the health of plants. Sometimes turf will go through transport shock, which is almost always caused by not enough water. It will generally come back, however particularly in the warmer months, if the lawn is kept adequately moist for the first 10 days, transplant shock usually can be avoided.

Weeding is another major component of successful mass planting. Never let a novice out with a back pack or spot sprayer. Frequently I have seen red dye showing where round up has been sprayed covering the weeds and the plants as well. Wick wipers are a much safer way to spot weed. If a back pack is used, make sure it is not windy, use a stream, rather than a spray, or a shield to prevent drift. If the desirable plant is hit assume it will dye. Any grasses, such as Couch, Kikuyu, Summer grass, Rhodes grass etc, can be sprayed out of most non grass species with Fusilade. For example Lomandra, Dianella, Callistemon, Agapanthus, Dietes, etc will not be effected by a label rate of Fusilade, yet the grasses will die. It is usually easy to selectively spray out weeds from turf, particularly Couch and Empire Zoysia, although Couch is far more susceptible to weed invasion compared to Empire turf. Simply identify the weeds or take them to your local supplier such as NuTurf, or Globe, and they will help you find the correct spray. Do not let weeds get away, hit them early, making them much easier to kill. Many landscapers stop the weeds before they emerge, using pre-emergents. Ronstar will not damage a majority of plants and turf; check the label, then apply as per instructions. It will stop weed seeds from germinating. Pendimethalin is another pre-emergent that can be used on certain turf grasses, and stops annual grass weeds, although Ronstar is broader spectrum. Dimension is another option for Couch and Empire Zoysia.

Landscape contractors are expected to be professional and have knowledge to establish plants and turf. Often in the pressure, cost cutting, and the hustle and bustle of a project this aspect is forgotten. So the next time you undertake a mass planting project, or a large area of turf, remember you are dealing with a living thing, and it is your job to make sure it is alive and prospering at the time of project hand over. This will require knowledge, good technique, and a willingness to monitor plants and turf and diagnose any problems.

Murphy’s Law – “If it can happen…. it will!”

In researching this story, Warren Ganter Saunders from Seeds and Plants Australia offered to share with me ‘Planting Stuff Ups’ that he has heard over the years, with some happening to him, and many relayed to him by others. If you know of any more funny or serious planting disasters let us know.

Took out the wrong trays and planted the wrong species… whoops!
Nursery grew the wrong plants or seed collectors picked the wrong seed, now you are planting the wrong plant.
Didn’t check the plan and put plants in the wrong place.
Forgot to invoice the customer.
Didn’t get written changes to job so now customer not gonna pay.
Planting into dry, powdery or compacted soil.
Site too wet, now planting into water or ankle deep in mud.
Mulch fell into planting hole and plant dries out because contacting mulch not soil.
Not able to water in soon enough after planting or not a good waterer.
Didn’t check the soil to see if any water had even penetrated.
Hand watering with low pressure when sprinklers and high pressure water available.
Crew stops working because nobody told them what to do and too lazy to ask.
Not using the most efficient planting and irrigation equipment.
Ran out of petrol and or oil for the equipment or vehicles.
Having a car or truck accident!!!
Too much soil erosion or fast moving water has washed the plants away.
Didn’t tie the plants or load on properly and they fell off whilst driving to the job.
Didn’t calculate or measure planting density correctly or if at all.
Water crystal and fertiliser not mixed correctly.
Holes dug too deep or more likely too shallow.
Dead plants left lying around for customer to see… “Did we pay for those?”
Incorrect or insufficient oil used in two-stroke petrol mix.
Plants planted out dry (Not watered or soaked prior to planting).
Drilling yourself in the foot (or leg).
Drill catches a rag, a root or a piece of junk in the soil or mulch and jags ya!
Petrol spilt everywhere and or started a fire.
No follow up watering when required.
Critters pulling plants out of the ground, eg Rabbits, Roos, Ducks, Cockatoos and Wombats.
Didn’t record how many plants were taken out, brought back or planted… by who, how, when, where and why?
Boyz didn’t want to plant them all, so they dug a hole and buried some or chucked them in the bin.
Planters getting heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Forgot to take before and after photo’s of the job… customer doesn’t believe you did it!
Somebody sneaked onto the job and pinched stacks of plants when you weren’t there.
Customer and / or workers don’t care if the plants die.
Plants excessively pruned or sprayed with herbicide by other contractors.
Plants given follow up weeding or feeding and no regular monitoring or plant health.
Didn’t bring all the right gear and have to go back and pick up all the stuff that should have been brought.
Somebody thought the planted plants were weeds and they sprayed them.
Drill auger catches loose clothing or long hair.
Forgot to test the soil. pH of the soil was wrong, and the plants burnt and died.

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